What Is Language?
    An Overview of Current Debates

    Rosetta Stone
    Almost all humans use language continually, but many linguistic phenomena remain enigmatic and controversial. Is it a good thing that there are so many languages? Should we be concerned about languages dying?

    1.1 Never before have we known as much about language as we do today. Although hundreds of languages have yet to be described in detail, most of humankind’s languages have already been documented. In terms of their relationships of descent, they have been more or less plausibly grouped into language families, their structural properties cross-compared with these genealogical connections, and virtually every nook and cranny of the historical and current forms of what are known as ‘civilisational languages’ has been illuminated. How children acquire their mother tongues has been well researched. The processes of the brain during speech are being recorded using ncreaseingly sophisticated methods. Paleoanthropological findings and evolutionary-biological and neurological insights have even allowed us to delve deeper into the study of the origin of language. Naturally, there is still an endless amount of work to be done in each of these areas. However, it is undoubtedly true to say that our knowledge of language has multiplied since the advent of professional linguistics.

    Nevertheless, the more we know about language, the more difficult it appears to be to answer the simple question as to what language actually is. This is so not only because our extensive knowledge makes the whole field vast and complicated, but also because a more accurate knowledge calls old certainties into question. What used to be self-evident is all of a sudden hotly debated, e.g. whether language is communicative, whether language is phonetic, cultural, or natural; i.e. whether it is an ‘organ’ or an ‘instinct’. And what about the relationship between thinking and speaking? And is it a good or a bad thing that there are so many different languages? All of these debates breathe new life into the question of the relationships between language and literature, i.e. to the ‘higher’ written discourses in a language culture that is itself undergoing dramatic change. The following brief, introductory answer to the question as to what language is is therefore an attempt to leave many questions unanswered, or a plea for answering these questions with ‘both’ instead of ‘this’ or ‘that’. Individual language questions shall be dealt with in greater detail in the remaining chapters of the book.

    1.2.1 It would appear that hardly anyone would call into question the statement that language is the specifically human production of articulated sounds that humans make when they want to impart something – a thought, a feeling, a ‘content’ – to other human beings, who in turn hear these sounds with their ears and then ‘understand’ what was imparted to them (and are in turn motivated to produce such sounds themselves). And yet that is exactly what is happening at present. Of course no one is questioning the existence of such observable phonetic, communicative behaviour. What is being said, however, is that communication is at best a secondary function of language and that it is not necessarily something particularly human; after all, every animal, and even life itself, communicates. Moreover, the fact that language is phonetic is also more of a contingent property; it can also occur just as well in other media such as sign language. One must, so the argument goes, differentiate clearly between ‘outer language’ or speech and ‘inner language’ or language, both of which are, incidentally, separate aspects of human evolution. This being the case, language, the subject we are dealing with here, lies deeper; one could say that it lies beneath the observable processes, that it is something intellectual, a cognitive system: ‘language’ is a genetically transmitted human ability to combine intellectual units in the brain in a way that no other living creature can. The basics of this combination technique, a universal grammar, is inherent in every human being and only this core can, when combined with a mental dictionary, be ‘language’ in the true sense of the word. The central argument for the isolation of an inherent inner language is that a child’s acquisition of language cannot be explained by the incomplete and chaotic linguistic input it receives from its communicative environment, but instead only by the acceptance of inherent grammatical principles.

    It is indeed possible that this inherent cognitive core is what makes language human, i.e. that which separates us from our primate relatives (if this is indeed the case, the previously assumed biological preconditions for the development of language – such as walking upright, the increase in brain volume, the lateralisation of the two halves of the brain, the descent of the larynx etc. – would only be of secondary importance). However, this astute hypothesis is anything but certain. All efforts to isolate an ‘organ of language’ that is reduced to this cognitive core from general intelligence, or even to find a ‘language gene’ for this organ, have thus far turned out to be mistakes or intentional deceptions. However, even if this were possible, there are still a number of studies – especially in the field of language acquisition – that combine speech as a cognitive technique with communication and voice and hearing, i.e. specifically not separating language from speech. Even embryos in the womb hear the language of their mothers; they virtually ‘bathe’ in its sounds and rhythms. From the very first hour of their existence, humans are addressed by the speech of their environment, to which they respond from the very beginning. Interestingly, the German words Ansprache (address) and Antwort (response, answer) contain the elements Sprache (speech) and Wort (word) respectively. As illustrated by the language of the deaf community, word and response can also be visual; the existence of palpable signs is, however, essential for the acquisition – or if ‘acquisition’ be the wrong word, the ‘development’ – of language. After all, it is only through interaction with the people who are raising them that children acquire the language or languages of their environment according to a biologically determined schedule. The ‘work of the mind’, as Wil­helm von Humboldt described language, is always done in relation to another, to the person hearing you. It would, therefore, seem reasonable when speaking about language to stay closer to day-to-day language use, which adds the ‘outer’ language to that which we understand to be ‘language’, namely thinking and communication. In other words, the answer in this case is ‘both’.

    1.2.2 ‘Communication’ is, however, now an extremely general term for the various language-related actions performed by humans. We not only impart facts (‘the sun is shining’), we also challenge, promise, greet, baptise, relate, play, create poetry etc. Although animals communicate, we are a long way from having plumbed the depths of the differences between human and animal communicative behaviour. While animals certainly do challenge other animals, warn them, and impart information to them, do they actually make promises to other animals? Do they baptise other animals and name them ‘Emma’? Do they tell stories and create works of art with the signs they give? Above all, regardless of any fraternal feelings we might harbour for other living creatures, it is important to highlight the profound difference that exists, namely that human communicative behaviour is intentional, it is an action in the strictest sense of the word (although the existence of intentional actions was, of course, called into question in the discussion about freedom of will, a debate that has died down somewhat in recent times). This is why we have the freedom to communicate or not; our communicative actions can intentionally be insincere and we have to bear responsibility for our communicative actions: a promise is actionable, a false allegation can result in considerable penalties, an insult can lead to a court case. The exclusive view of the inherent universal grammar obviously overlooks a fundamentally human aspect of language.

    1.3 Those who consider language to be a cognitive communicative technique executed using articulated sounds will qualify this statement by saying that humans employ this technique in very different ways. Its occurrence in many different phonetic forms is (still) one of the most conspicuous and confusing experiences of language. This is not a reference to the natural difference in voices, i.e. to the fact that every individual sounds different and that the same words sound different when spoken by men and women, by young people and elderly people. What is meant here is the difference in the words themselves, their cultural diversity. Humans produce different sequences of sounds, not because of natural differences, but because they belong to different communities and learned to speak in these communities. ‘Language’ exists in the plural, i.e. in the plurality of different historical languages.

    Moreover, many people who ascertain this difference in sound also say that people who speak differently, think differently too. It is often very difficult to get a precise answer to the question as to how this other ‘thinking’ becomes apparent. One often hears opinions such as that the French are expressing something quintessentially French when they use the word esprit. Another example that is often given is the Eskimos, who have so very many words for the range of phenomena all of which we refer to using the one word snow. While these much-cited examples certainly need to be examined in greater detail, they do give us a hint of what is meant, namely: the theory of particular ‘thinking’ settling like sediment in a language promotes the view that different languages intellectually (semantically) shape the world differently.

    1.3.1 The discovery that ‘thought’ differs from language to language is one of the major discoveries of the modern age. The father of modern science, the English philosopher Francis Bacon, noted with an intentionally fierce criticism that words contain ‘thoughts’ (albeit bad words, namely popular and unscientific words), and that thoughts ‘adhere’ to words, as Herder later put it. A short time later, John Locke saw that words in different languages were associated with different ‘ideas’, even in those cases where they appear to designate the same things, like the English words foot and hour and the Latin words pes and hora.Locke too did not find this very conducive to science and enlightenment. However, his most important commentator, Leibniz, saw in the various semantics of languages a ‘marvellous variety of operations of the human mind’ and called for a description of all languages in the world. This encouragement marked the birth of modern linguistics.

    However, linguistics sought to find the ‘marvellous variety of the operations of the human mind’ not only in the vocabulary of the languages, but also in their grammar, for which the same can be said. Humans shape the operations of the mind differently depending on the language they speak. A French speaker who has to use two different tenses when relating a story does not ‘think’ in the same way as a German speaker who uses only one, the simple past tense. Those telling a story in French differentiate between what happens in the foreground and the background. Descriptions of the setting are related in the imparfait, the actual plot is related in the passé simple.

    No one praised this mental difference between languages more than Wilhelm von Humboldt, who considered it an illustration of the richness of humankind’s mental capacity:

    ‘Several languages are not several designations for a single thing; they are several different perspectives on that one thing […]. The multiplicity of languages directly increases for us the richness of the world and the multiplicity of that which we see in it; it also increases for us the scope of human existence and new ways of thinking and perceiving stand before us in certain and real characters.’ (VII: 602).

    1.3.2 However, advocates of the inherent universal cognitive combinative mechanism protest against this discovery, which has since found its way into our everyday knowledge about language. The semantic differences between languages are not, they say, differences in thought. To which one generally responds in surprise: ‘Well, what is it if not a difference in ‘thought’ when a French person highlights the foreground and the background of a story where a German does not, or when an English person differentiates between the meat in the frying pan (pork) and the live animal on the farm (pig) where a German does not?’ Of course, (cultural) differences such as these are insignificant when researching universal biological cognitive structures. Moreover, the universalistic protest is a justified warning against unduly emphasising these differences and abusing them to come up with all kinds of ideological assumptions (e.g. about the ‘mentality’ of the people who speak certain languages). Famous and infamous at the same time.

    1.3.4 Like the French revolutionaries, Western Europe largely thought – as the Western world still does – that the diversity of languages is a punishment, as told in the Biblical myth of Babel. In order to punish the presumption of the people, who communicated with each other using ‘one and the same language’, God came down from Heaven and confounded the common language that the people had brought with them from Paradise. The intention was that the diversity of languages would make universal communication between all people impossible. The lifting of this Old Testament punishment, the establishment of linguistic unity – even if it is only on the territory of a single state – would, therefore, mean the restoration of paradise.

    This myth, which is so deeply rooted in our culture and which articulates humankind’s desire for one universally comprehensible language, makes life difficult for those such as King Stephen I of Hungary who welcome linguistic diversity. As already mentioned above, Leibniz was one of them. In contrast to the enlightened (and traditionally Christian) lament about the diversity of languages, he advocated an acceptance of this diversity, which he considered evidence of the richness of the human mind. Babel as a joy and opportunity!

    So what is it then? A blessing or a scourge? A joy or a punishment? Well, both, in fact. The variety of languages is a richness of thought, a cultural richness of humankind, and a communicative obstacle. In other words, the answer in this case is ‘both’.

    1.3.5 Leibniz also shows how this contradiction can be eliminated. Despite his delight in Babylonian diversity, Leibniz was also enthusiastic about Paradise. For certain purposes – e.g. for science and international interaction – he considered a universal language not only conceivable, but also desirable. In terms of the past too, Leibniz was also interested in Paradise. Like the historical linguists who went in search of the proto-language (and the proto-world) and like the paleoanthropologists who tell us that we are all descended from a single population of homo sapiens in Africa, Leibniz assumed that language had once been uniform and that all languages in the world are descended from a single language, namely from a lingua adamica. In other words, he was deeply convinced that despite historical diversity, language and intellect are ultimately the same in all people. Here too, therefore, the answer is ‘both’. The third Biblical linguistic myth, Pentecost, couches this ‘both’ aspect in a lovely story. At Pentecost, the Babylonian diversity of languages is not abolished, nor is Paradise restored; instead, the obstacle that is the multiplicity of languages is overcome by speaking other languages (which was, admittedly, relatively easy for the apostles with the assistance of the Holy Spirit). The message here is that humankind does not need ‘one and the same language’ to be of one and the same spirit. The single, universal (holy) spirit reveals itself in all particular voices and minds of the peoples. Pentecost teaches us that both belong together: the unity and the diversity of human languages.

    1.3.6 At present, however, the pendulum is definitely swinging towards unity, both academically and politically, perhaps also because in both respects Babylonian projects relating to diversity have come to an end. Having described the differences between the languages, linguists are asking themselves whether this well-nigh tropical opulence is not based on some common factor. Moreover, language-related national particularism has become a politically problematic concept from which transnational or universal perspectives promise us salvation. For this reason, linguistic universalism, which plays down differences and emphasises unity, is exceptionally suited to linguistic and cultural globalisation. It also facilitates what is currently the intense interest in the question of the origin of language, which is always, in terms of structure, a question about Paradise.

    1.4 The diversity of languages, i.e. Babel – whether it be a joy or a punishment – has, of course, not yet been overcome. According to general estimates, there are still 6,000 languages in existence. However, when mentioning this figure it is important to point out that it is often very difficult to say where one language ends and where another begins, and what should be considered a ‘language’ and what a ‘dialect’, i.e. a version of a language. However high the figure is, it is foreseeable that many of these languages will disappear in the near future. The organisation of the modern world is such that small groups are increasingly being completely absorbed into political alliances, in the course of which they give up their languages. This extinction of languages has been compared with the decline in biodiversity. It is a fact that the richness of the human intellect that was so dear to Leibniz and later to Wilhelm von Humboldt is diminishing. With every language that falls silent, a cathedral of human thought collapses; a potential way of thinking the world disappears. As with the construction of a dam, where the waters flood an old village, a precious temple, or an old Roman city, so too major languages drown smaller linguistic communities in their depths. But can one seriously advise Breton farmers not to switch over to the French language, to bring their children up as Breton-speakers? Obviously the Bretons held that which they stood to gain by the loss of their language in greater esteem than that which they stood to lose by it.

    By switching over to French, they gained by becoming part of a prestigious civilisational language and by being given the chance to climb the social ladder and belong to a larger nation. Conversely, of course, they lost a piece of their heritage: their history, their stories, their songs, and their alternative way of ‘thinking’, which was given to them by their language – this very oldspeak (i.e. oldthink)was what the revolutionary unifiers of 1789 hoped would disappear. However, the ‘major’ languages are not being spared by this dynamic either. They too are being swept away – in some cases to a great extent already have been – by the enormous global linguistic flood. Like islands, they protrude from the great global sea. But can we seriously refuse to take part in global communication? Obviously not. Nevertheless, by moving out into the open, into the great wide world, by moving into Paradise, we are losing – like the Breton farmers – our immediate heritage, and ultimately the opportunity to think, and live, ‘differently’.

    That said, this is Paradise we are talking about; there, no one needs to think or live differently any more. Alternatives are superfluous. End of the ‘both’ scenario. Before we get there, though, this book would like to leave some of the ‘both’ options open for just a little while longer.
    Jürgen Trabant
    is Professor of Romance Linguistics at the Free University of Berlin. This essay is taken from his book Was ist Sprache? [What Is Language?], published by C.H Beck Verlag, Munich 2008. The extract is printed with the kind permission of the publishers.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

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