Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What is language and how can we define it?

The question, ‘What is language and how can we describe it?’, has no universally agreed upon answer. Different conceptions of the nature of language arise in different contexts and in response to a variety of historical, social, political, scientific, and pedagogical needs. This essay will examine some of the ways of thinking about language that have been influential in the past fifty years. As a starting point, Chomsky’s view of language will be considered. In the first instance, this will be done by examining his focus on determining the precise rules of a transformational grammar by relying on the intuitions of idealised native speakers as to grammatical well-formedness. Chomsky’s claim that humans are born with an innate linguistic ability that constitutes a Universal Grammar will also be examined, along with the corresponding search for language universals. In the final part of the essay, the examination of language as a means of expressing identity and creativity will necessitate moving from cognitive theories of language to sociolinguistic conceptions that examine the impacts of community, context, and power relationships on language in use.

During the past 50 years, the work of Noam Chomsky has been indisputably influential in its conceptualisation of language as “a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements” (Chomsky, 1957, as cited in Lyons, 1981, p.7). As Lyons (1981, p.7) comments, this definition varied markedly from previous definitions of language in its silence about both the communicative function and the symbolic properties of language; it instead focused on the essential structure of language in a way that was mathematically precise.

In Syntactic Structures (1957), Chomsky established the notion of ‘generative grammar’ that uses explicit ‘generative’ formal description and ‘rewrite rules’ to describe the structure of language. As Cook and Newson (1996, p.2) explain, ‘kernel sentences’ were shown to undergo transformations so as to produce different forms, such as the negative, interrogative etc. In a later work, Chomsky continued examining how identical surface forms could express different meanings, for example (cited in Finch, 2000, p.121):
John is eager to please.
John is easy to please.
Chomsky’s solution was that underlying both sentences was a different ‘deep structure’, “an abstract level of structural organisation in which all the elements determining structural interpretation are represented” (Yule, 2006, p.88). This abstract deep structure is subject to a series of rules or ‘transformations’ that ‘generate’ the surface structure.

Chomsky’s generative grammar frameworks have changed markedly over the years, but his view of the fundamental aim in the linguistic analysis of a language has remained, as Matthews (2001, p.98) paraphrases it:

‘to separate the grammatical sequences’…‘from the ungrammatical sequences’….‘The grammar’ of a language ‘will thus…be a device that generates all of the grammatical sequences of [the language] and none of the ungrammatical ones’.

Chomsky’s now famous sentence, Colourless green ideas sleep furiously (cited in Trask, p.294), exemplifies Chomsky’s view of linguistic competence as knowledge of syntactic rules independent of semantic meaning.

Unsurprisingly, many argue that this definition is deficient. Derewianka (2001, p.255) reports Halliday’s (1977) criticism of Chomsky for his “violent polemic” by which he sought to make the views of “language ‘as resource’” and “language ‘as rule’” “unnecessarily incompatible”. Halliday’s view of language as a social semiotic requires asking functional questions regarding what people do with language. This necessitates looking at real examples of language in use in a variety of settings. This can be contrasted with Chomsky’s explicit rejection of speakers’ spontaneous usage, their ‘performance’ (subsequently E-language), as the proper data for linguistic analysis. Instead, Chomsky proposed to rely on the intuitions as to grammatical well-formedness provided by the idealized capacity or ‘competence’ (subsequently I-language) of “an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech community, who knows its language perfectly...” (Chomsky, 1965, as cited in Salkie, 2000, p.109).

Many linguists have questioned the usefulness of invoking such seemingly fictional entities as an ideal speaker-listener, homogenous speech community, and perfect knowledge of a language. Derewianka (2001, p.254) cites Lewis (1993) as referring to Chomsky’s competence as an “‘idealisation’ untarnished by the messiness of real language use”, the existence of which can only be asserted and not empirically investigated. For Chomsky, however, this is entirely the point, as messy real language use would only obscure the revelation of the ‘universal grammar’ that is “the inherited genetic endowment that makes it possible for us to speak and learn human languages” (Gliedman & Chomsky, 1983). For Chomsky, the empiricist view of the brain as a “tabula rasa” (Chomsky, 1977) and its corollary that language learning occurs through habit formation is untenable in view of ‘the poverty of the stimulus’, namely that the experiences available to children are inadequate in quantity and quality to account for their rapid acquisition of language. As children are capable of acquiring any human language to which they have adequate exposure, that which is of interest to Chomsky is, as Crystal (1987, p.84) explains, to “determine what the universal properties of language are, and to establish a ‘universal grammar’ that would account for the range of linguistic variation that is humanly possible.”

As Brighton, Kirby, and Smith (2005, p.11) point out, universal grammar is used then not only to define the initial state of the language-learning child, but also to refer to the set of features that all languages have in common. The latter definition underlies the study of language universals. As Crystal (1987, p.85) indicates, a distinction can be drawn between universalist and typological approaches to their study. According to Crystal, universalists, such as Chomsky, prefer to rely on in-depth studies of single languages, especially in the field of grammar, in the hope of being able to make succinct and absolute statements about the abstract, underlying properties of language. Their aim is to deepen our understanding of the constraints on human language and to examine the extent of human intellectual capacity.

Language universals may be classified as formal or substantive. Formal universals describe “the general design features of languages” (Finch, 2000, p.127) such as, for instance, the fact that grammatical transformations of sentences are always structure dependent and never linear. Substantive universals are “statements about the linguistic objects which can or cannot be present in languages and about their behaviour” (Trask, 1999, p.328) As Trask (1999, p.328) points out, there are very few absolute substantive universals; some examples are that every known language has nouns and verbs, and that every language has vowels. Most universals are therefore ‘relative’ and expressed in terms of their statistical probability; linguistic features that are statistically dominant are termed ‘unmarked’ whereas those that occur rarely are ‘marked’. For example, voiceless alveolar stops such as (t) are considered unmarked, whereas interdental (th) is marked. As Pica (2005, p.270), writes this concept of markedness has practical applications in the FL classroom since marked features in a language are acquired later than those that are unmarked, and therefore qualify for focused instruction.

The typological approach to language universals makes cross-linguistic comparisons about observable aspects of structure, such as word order, and parts of speech. ‘Implication universals’ are expressed as “if a language has property P, then it must also have property Q” (Trask, 1999, p.329). As an example, Odlin (1989, p.44) cites Greenberg’s research showing that word-order patterns are often predictable from basic word order. Therefore an SVO language (such as English) will tend to have prepositions, whereas an SOV language (such as Japanese) will usually have postpositions. Again, such knowledge may be helpful for second language teachers in targeting possible transference errors of their students.

However, the search for language universals as conceived of by Chomsky is again a search to uncover the abstract underlying properties of human language without reference to context or culture. If we are to examine claims such as that of Trask (1998, p.143) that “providing each speaker with an individual and group identity is one of the most important functions of language” it is obvious that a conception of language as the innate knowledge of syntactic rules will offer very little enlightenment. Instead we can turn to sociolinguistics, defined by Trask (1998, p.282), as “the study of variation in language, or more precisely of variation within speech communities” in order to consider how such matters as geography, history, politics, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age and gender, impact on, and are impacted by, the language usage of groups and individuals.

The complex interplay of these factors can begin to be appreciated in the reasons for the blurred distinction between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’. As Davies (2002, p.52) writes, “in linguistic terms a dialect shares intelligibility with another dialect while a language does not...”. However, the need for further distinction, usually on geopolitical grounds, arises because this linguistic distinction is demonstrably insufficient. There are mutually intelligible ‘languages’ such as Norwegian and Danish, and mutually unintelligible ‘dialects’ such as Mandarin and Cantonese. Therefore, as Davies (2002) points out, languages and dialects may also be distinguished from each other in terms of power.

Similarly, within a language, and/or a country, there is often an idealised standard dialect, prescriptive of such linguistic features as grammar, word choice, and pronunciation, that serves as the model for use in government, schools, the media, and other social institutions. Although from a linguistic point of view, “(n)o dialect…is more expressive, more logical, more complex, or more regular than any other” (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, Collins, & Amberber, 2005, p.410), the ability to use the ‘prestige dialect’ of a society is associated with greater access to education and work opportunities. This leads, as Trask (1998 p.147) notes, to some people emphasising the importance of teaching prestige forms to speakers of non-prestige forms in order to empower them (see for example Feez, 1995), while others argue that non-standard and standard forms be recognised as equal.

Speakers of non-standard forms may themselves resist the use of the standard dialect, awarding ‘covert prestige’ at a more local level to their otherwise stigmatized dialect. For example, Australian Standard English may be perceived by Aboriginal communities as ‘flash language’ and exclude its speakers (Burchill, 2004, p.6). The shared community dialect then acts as a shibboleth uniting its speakers around their unique characteristics, while also as Lippi-Green (1997) points out, lending itself to the perpetuation of linguistic stereotypes by the socially powerful. Individual community members may then be forced to choose between the benefits of assimilation with the social mainstream and loss of solidarity with their cultural group.

In looking at the formation of individual identity through language, Landay (2004, p.111)cites Bakhtin’s argument that that discourses in which we engage come into dialogic relationship with one another as we transmit and interpret the words of others, repeating, reporting and commenting on them.

In choosing the utterances we want to appropriate and precisely what meaning we want to attribute to them, we choose the stance we want to take…”The ideological becoming of a human being ... is the process of selectively assimilating the words of others”(1981, p. 341 cited in Landay, 2004, p.111 ).

The paradox then is that the development of our personal idiolect is necessarily contingent on our interaction with others.

Unquestionably, personal idiolect undergoes stylistic changes according to audience and context. Native speakers usually have no trouble switching between an abbreviated, slang-filled informal style to chat with their friends, and a more formal style to talk to an employer. In the Australian context, people also vary their accent in accordance with social circumstances (Fromkin et al, 2005, p.406). Speakers may also adopt different registers and jargon to suit the subject matter or setting. Campbell (2004, p.125) cites the work of Giles (1977) on the way speakers may choose to adopt a speech style that either reduces their social distance from a group (convergence), or emphasises social distance (divergence). For instance, a lawyer may use the register and jargon of the law to talk with another lawyer, not only as shorthand for shared concepts, but also to emphasise their shared professional status; these same linguistic features may also be used to impress or intimidate someone without a legal background. Linguistic variation can therefore serve as a resource for us “to construct ourselves as social beings, to signal who we are and who we are not and cannot be” (Lippi-Green, 1997, p.63).

In reviewing the ambit of this essay, the view of ‘language as resource’ by which we create identity, is very distant from the conception of ‘language as rule’ by which we can create infinite grammatical sentences. The fact that these two conceptions seem to stand in juxtaposition does not mean that we need to find absolute truth in one or the other. Instead, it is preferable to appreciate their insights while being mindful of the limits of their application. Hence, we can appreciate Chomsky’s definition of language for its precision in the conception and description of syntactic features, and its provision of a framework for looking at the capacity and constraints of the human mind on language development. The abstractions and idealisations of his theories do not mean they should be disregarded; rather it is that we need to look beyond them when examining such matters as the variations in actual language use according to context, function, and the expression of group and individual identity. In conclusion, it may be argued that the complex and multidimensional conceptions of language make it unlikely that there will ever be a single theoretical framework for viewing all its aspects simultaneously.

Reference List

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