English Language

Not-so-strange ideas behind linguistics

A student once asked me to put linguistics in context. That was not such an easy thing to do but I looked up something and this a little of what I came up with.

1. Our world is finite but we have infinite creativity

In school, we were taught;

  • Everything is made up of atoms.
  • The nature of the individual atom does not determine its “final” form.
  • Atoms are linked together via covalent and ionic links.

This was a theory then. Today, some say that everything is made up of strings. Don’t understand what the strings are made of. I’m still trying to make a car out of my shoestrings.

1.1. Everything we use to make something is the same things as the things we are trying to make.

So we take smaller things and combine them to make bigger things.

The same method is used to build everything else in the world.

  • All creatures are made of cells that are different from one another but are all derived from the same stem cells.
  • All languages are made up of words which are, in turn, made up of combinations of a limited set of sounds that human being can make.
  • All meaning is made up if smaller units of meanings: this applies for most schools of cognitive semantics.
  • All dishes or food is made up of elements that are also edible items.

While the things we use to make up things are finite, the things we can create from them is infinitely variable. For example: how many languages have existed since the beginning of mankind? How many words has there been? Out of these words, how many sentences have mankind made?

2. The meaning of the things we compose is determined by the meaning of its part and its structure

Everything we make is essentially a concoction of some sort. We identify each element we put into our concoctions has a meaning of its own: chillies are hot, salt is salty, sugar is sweet, cyanide is a poison, screws hold things together, nouns name things, and so on and so forth.

Sometimes the things we make take up the meaning of the element we put into it. For example: sambal is hot because we put chillies in it and “who are you?” is a question because he have the ‘who’ in the interrogative position.

Sometimes the individual meanings do not define the meaning of its elements. For example: a car is not bouncy because it has rubber tyres. “This is a sentence” achieves its meaning from the combination of its constituents or – as we call it in linguistics – its structure. You can tell a roti and a noodle apart by their form and structure although they are made of the same thing: wheat.

3. We understand things other people say and do because we recognize predictable patterns in them.

I am sure you have found yourself listening to people talking in a language you do not understand. You may eavesdrop but because you do not speak the language, you do not understand what they say. What we call language is essentially a system of patterns in the construction of the constituents of sentences. In the former, we do not recognise these patterns and thus do not understand the language.

So when we say we understand a language, what we actually mean is we recognise the patterns of sounds or words in the utterance or text.

3.1. The patterns are predictable but the uttered meaning is not.

Part of the understanding or recognizing the patterns is being able to predict what will come next in the utterance or text.

When someone says, “Do you know ….” You already know that this is a question. Sometimes we even jump the gun and fail to wait for the rest of the sentence. Consequently, we have miscommunication. However, playing with other people’s prediction results in such things as humour, insightful words, motivational words, and getting beaten up for saying the wrong things.


Image source By Gavina S [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D from Wikimedia

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