Look After Your Mind

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Language is something that many of us take completely for granted. Yet it is a most astonishing ability that only humans possess to the level of sophistication that we are familiar with.

The word itself comes from the Latin lingua, meaning tongue. Although language forms the backdrop to our day-to-day lives, it is a phenomenon shrouded in mystery and wonder.

The English language contains 26 letters, 44 phonemes and around 600,000 words (Merriam-Webster online dictionary 2022). Phonemes are the smallest units of sound – the ‘mouth move’ needed to form a letter.

Although estimates vary, it’s generally agreed that language is ‘plastic’. Insofar as words drop out of use, new words appear and many words change their meanings over time. A quick online search will bring up plenty of examples.

Despite the limited number of letters and sounds associated with English, like many languages it possesses ‘infinite generativity’. In other words, a limitless number of sentences can be created out of it.

Origins

Although there are various theories about how language in humans originated, none of them has been proven beyond doubt. Some thinkers believe that words developed out of our ancient ancestors imitating the sounds they heard in nature. This is called the ‘bow-wow theory.’

Another idea, called the’ yo-he-ho theory’, says that language evolved through the grunts and gutterals produced by heavy physical labour.

Some thinkers link the appearance of language with the rapid expansion of the human brain between around 700,000 and two million years ago.

Learning

Another mystery is how children actually learn language. Many think it’s by imitating the language of others. However, when you listen to people talking, what they say is often full of ums and ahs. Talking includes pauses, incomplete sentences, laughs and other miscellaneous non-word sounds and so on. Yet most children learn to speak according to complex rules of grammar and syntax – the system and structure of language in general.

The American linguist Noam Chomsky put forward the idea that the ability to learn language has a genetic component. That we are born with the rules for speaking language hard wired into our brains. He called this idea ‘Universal Grammar’. This notion is controversial, although it is generally agreed that the richer the language environment, the more effectively babies and toddlers will learn language.

Pondering all of this, perhaps like me you’ll feel at least a little amazed when swapping “Good-mornings” with someone along the High Street!


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Steve Bowkett