Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The mystery of language

I love languages.  My first language I studied was French.  I started in middle school and carried it into high school and never lost the knack for it.  

I know some of you are ready to check out at this point - most people, especially Americans are not too enamored with studying languages.  I like studying languages - mostly because I have an obsessive mind that tends to circle back on things rather than let them go.  It is perfect for language acquisition because you keep thinking about it when other people have moved onto more interesting topics.

Here's a quick hint - when speaking French, try this:  make your mouth like a little "o" - about the size of a bottle cap.  Now try speaking through this small hole.  If you do it right no matter what you say will sound French-like.

I got into Spanish in college.  After having learned French, Spanish was easier than starting from scratch.  I can also use Spanish a lot more than French.  Not only are there more Spanish speaking people, but more Spanish speaking people are okay if you murder their language.  Some French speaking people can't stand when you get verb forms wrong.  Most Spanish speaking people are fine as lone as they get the gist of what you are saying.

Here is another quick hint:  when speaking Spanish, smile.  In fact you can't speak Spanish without smiling.  That is, if you are speaking Spanish correctly, you can't do it with a frown.  Teeth bared, mouth wide - that is the way to speak Spanish.

It is funny that every language has its own little quirkiness.  For instance, you cannot speak German with a huge smile.  You actually need to have a little bit of an angry face.  Norwegian - related to German is similar.  A friend of mine from Norway, Bard, was trying to teach me some Norwegian.  In the course of my repeated failures to pronounce things correctly, Bard looked at me sternly and said that I need to frown to pronounce the word correctly.  His justification was that "Norway has 6 months of darkness - they are all depressed, so we speak with frowns."

It is interesting how diverse language is. The English language is one of 6,000 languages and dialects out there.  Interesting enough, 1% of English is from actual English (words like but, and, the, before, also) while 99% of all English is borrowed from other languages (words like video, romance, pleasure).  But check this out - of that 1% that is purely English we use those words 99% of the time.

Language is so intriguing for a variety of reasons (as if those weren't enough).  Like, where does language come from? From the evolutionary standpoint, I get that language enables primitive man to manipulate his environment more efficiently - but how does something behaviorally work its way into the gene code?

Or how do all these disparate elements - like mastery of the glottal, pulmonary and labial muscles that are associated with speaking work in concert with each other out of chance?  This ignores the language center of the brain - how can all these areas that give rise to language be influenced from an evolutionary standpoint?

Now consider that the history of language shows a stepwise progression in intricacy the further back in time we go.  You would think the opposite to be true.  Shouldn't language show increasing amounts of complexity as it works from something primitive?  The truth is that language is continually de-volving.  Language was more intricate in the past than it is now.  Latin is more structured than English currently and other languages that predate Latin show incredible amounts of ornate complexity.  Given that language is only about 100,000 years old, how does it pop on the scene with such complexity from the apparent random and chaotic world of the evolutionary timetable?

Hmmmmmm.  Perhaps this is the mystery of language.

Or perhaps this is part of a meta-language that is spoken of by the faithful . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment