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Appendix 2:

Some Thoughts About Language

Introduction
Words
Grammar
Speech and Writing
Alternative Symbols


Introduction

(There was a small amount about language in the chapter called Communicating Using Words. I will repeat most of it here, and also expand on it.)

I will start by including some of what I said about meaning in the first chapter, because the purpose of language is to transfer meaning. It is therefore essential to remember that, while always present within an individual mind, meaning is never fully transferable. This does not mean that language should be discarded. It simply means that the imperfect transfer of meaning, a limitation inherent in all communication, inevitably applies to language and everything it is used for.

The meaning attributed to any message by the receiver can never be exactly the same as the meaning intended by the sender, because they are different people, with different sense organs and different cognitive function. There are also many other factors which influence the degree to which the receiver's meaning differs from the sender's meaning.

In the case of a word or phrase, the surrounding words or phrases usually provide useful clues. Language features (such as formal, informal and idiomatic language) and sentence structure (sometimes called syntactical grammar) also provide extra information. In the case of speech, factors such as timing, stress and intonation are very significant.

The overall structure and organisation of the communication (sometimes called textual grammar) must also be considered, as should the individual characteristics of the sender and the receiver. Any concurrent messages, especially non-verbal ones, will exert an influence, as will the pre-existing knowledge possessed by each person, and the relationship between them.

The method by which a message is delivered, and the form in which it arrives, will inevitably have an impact on the receiver, too. The purpose of the communication, and the audience to which it is directed, are also very relevant. The overall situation in which the communication occurs, and the local and more distant events surrounding it, also play their part.

These various things which influence the meaning attributed to an instance of communication are often referred to as the context of that communication. However, context is not always applied in such a broad way. Sometimes it is used to refer to particular aspects of the influences surrounding a message.

Having said that, language is an important method of communicating, though certainly not the only method. A language is simply a system whereby agreed sounds or other symbols are used for the purpose of exchanging information. Many languages have evolved gradually as humans interact, but there are others which have been designed deliberately.

The term natural language is applied to any language that has evolved spontaneously within a community. An example is the English language, which I am doing my best to write these notes in. This natural, spontaneous evolution distinguishes the natural languages from the artificial languages. The latter include computer programming languages, as well as languages which have been deliberately designed and constructed for human use, such as Esperanto.[1]

Communication by means of a language can obviously only work if the sender and the receiver have a language in common, at least to some degree, and use it. This common language requirement is not negotiable. After all, the representation and transfer of information discussed in Appendix 1 would be useless if the representation meant nothing to the receiver upon its arrival.

Whether natural or artificial, any language is a type of code, which relies on agreed rules for its functionality. Essentially, these rules determine the meanings of the elements of the language, and also the ways in which those elements are used. However, the "rules" in a natural language are rather fluid!

The most basic elements of a natural language are its words, and the rather fluid rules governing the usage of the words are generally called its grammar.[2] The context[3] in which words are used also provides vital information about their meaning. That is a nice simple way of looking at language, but in fact everything about language is hotly debated, and the debates are often far from simple.

Firstly, it must be remembered that the meanings ascribed to words change constantly, and there are many deliberate changes instituted by subcultures, for example. Secondly, grammar is no longer thought of simply as a set of rules governing structure and usage. Rather, it has come to be seen as a way to describe what can be observed as recurring language patterns, and the way those patterns function, in different cultures and subcultures.

Despite the rather uncooperative tendencies of words and grammar, and the variable dimensions of context, information encoded as a natural language can be exchanged in practice by one person listening while another person is speaking, or by one person reading what another person has written. Each of the four activities mentioned, listening, speaking, reading and writing, depends on vocabulary, grammar and context.

Words

To satisfy the common language requirement referred to above, those who wish to communicate using a language must know the meanings of a sufficient number of words for the purposes of the topic involved. Each word in a language has one (or often more than one) defined and agreed meaning.[4] Because of this, that word can be used for that meaning. Then, later, that meaning can be derived from that word.

Significantly, a word does not look, sound or feel like the thing it represents (though there are a few instances in which the sound of a word is at least compatible with its meaning). However, because the word's meaning is already known to both sender and receiver, this does not matter. Whenever a word is used, it represents the thing(s) that it is known to represent.

When a word has more than one meaning, or when the meaning itself is not very precise, the use of that word might cause a variable degree of ambiguity. However, as mentioned above, the context usually clarifies the meaning. In natural languages, the importance of context is enormous, because a word or phrase very often has more than one possible meaning.

Despite the possibility of having more than one meaning, a word is often more precise than other methods of representation, such as gestures or pictures. Further, because one word can represent quite a lot of meaning, the use of words can save time, increasing the efficiency of communication.

Yet another advantage is that, if it is subjected to deliberate processing in any reversible way, the meaning of each word will be preserved after that change has been reversed – which is often extremely convenient. The use of words therefore brings with it the benefits of precision, efficiency and convenience – though none of these qualities is invariable.

Grammar

For all their precision, efficiency and convenience, and despite the invaluable assistance provided by the context in which they are used, words still require some further help to do their job effectively. That help comes in the form of the grammar mentioned above, which, though no longer seen simply as a set of rules, nevertheless provides information which is essential to achieving particular meanings in particular contexts.

Without such help, words might not be understood in the same way by the sender and the receiver – at worst, the appropriate collection of words could still result in a meaningless "word salad". Grammar influences the order in which words appear, and also dictates small but important changes in their form, which add vital temporal or relational information.

In the case of most natural languages, the gradual and haphazard evolution of grammar has resulted in many exceptions to its own rules! This makes it very difficult to master the grammar of a new language as an adult – though young children often absorb it without too much difficulty.

When grammar includes as many irregularities as it does in English, it becomes quite difficult to describe. Indeed, there are currently a number of approaches to English grammar. When I was at school, the favoured approach was to ignore the formal application of grammar almost completely – which may explain a few things about this book. However, that approach is not usually very helpful to those learning a second language.

Speech and Writing

The knowledge of words and grammar allows the creation of properly organised groups of words which, together with the context, can provide very useful information to the receiver. However, this requires a suitable method by which to transfer parcels of language from sender to receiver.

As is often the case when exchanging information, this may require a change in form. Here, the encoding which is a central feature of language is a great advantage, as it makes recoding into a suitable form relatively easy. Perhaps the most useful example is the recoding of audible speech into visible writing.

Originally, the individual words in natural languages like English were recognised by the way they sounded. However, fairly simple rules can be devised, which allow words to be represented as written or printed text. That allows them to be recognised by the way they look. They can then be received via the visual input, instead of by the auditory input.

One way of doing this is to construct the words from a relatively small number of symbols, each of which represents one sound (or occasionally two or more possible sounds). Various special symbols, especially numbers, can then be added. The alphanumeric characters from which the text you are reading is constructed provide an example of this approach.

The spelling and pronunciation of words must be agreed, so that the words can be written or spoken in ways that will be recognised by the receiver. Major exceptions to these rules may prevent a word from being understood, or alternatively may cause it to be misunderstood. Minor variations such as spelling errors and regional accents, or greater variations such as are found in dialects, will be tolerated to a degree which depends on the skills of the receiver. Native speakers can usually adjust for considerable variations in spelling or pronunciation.

For those who learn a language in early childhood, many of the things discussed above are learned almost automatically – though reading and writing require specific learning efforts. For those who are learning a new language as an adult, the learning of all the prerequisites requires considerable effort. Similarities, if any, between the new language and a language already known, naturally lessen the difficulty of the process.

Alternative Symbols

The various sign languages used by people whose hearing is impaired are examples of another way of recoding speech to allow it to enter via the visual input. Alternatively, if vision is impaired, alphanumeric characters can be made palpable, usually in the form of the braille symbols which were mentioned under Inputs, so that words can be recognised by the way they feel.

In some languages, pictograms (or pictographs) are used instead of alphanumeric characters. Pictograms are graphic representations which to some extent evoke the thing represented,[5] so a new or modified character is needed for every word. This results in a very large number of characters, which takes a great deal of time and effort to learn. On the other hand, these languages can be very efficient, as a single character can represent a whole word, or a whole idea.

A message consisting of words may thus be received by any of the three main inputs: visual, auditory or tactile. Writing, printing, pictograms and sign language can be seen; spoken words or words reproduced via loudspeakers or headphones can be heard; and braille symbols can be felt.

Alphanumeric text, braille, sign language and pictographic symbols can all be considered as types of writing, in that they represent words by using symbols which are different from the original sounds of those words. Further, the various automated representations of text, such as typing, text displayed on a screen, and printing, are (almost) equivalent to handwriting, as they use the same characters (allowing for slight morphological differences) in the same ways.


(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[1] Esperanto is an artificial language constructed as far as possible from words common to all the European languages.

[2] Linguists expand this simple description considerably, using words like lexicology, morphology, phonetics, semantics and syntax among others. (Artificial languages also have rules analogous to vocabulary and grammar, but they are usually given other names, such as "commands" and "syntax".)

[3] The context, as previously discussed, includes the surrounding words, the way the words are delivered, any concurrent messages, and the overall circumstances. This in fact adds up to a very large part of language, including such things as word placement, timing, stress, intonation, other non-verbal factors, pre-existing knowledge, the relationship between sender and receiver and the situation in which the communication occurs.

[4] As previously discussed, this simplistic statement does not apply to the overall process of communicating using words. During that process, many factors influence the meaning ultimately understood by the receiver.

[5] Because of this characteristic, pictograms include a non-verbal element, giving them some of the advantages of pictures, as well as those of words.

 

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