As an English major, I’m required to take two linguistics courses. I took language acquisition last winter, and now I’m taking structure of language. Because language is a system, a linguistics class is essentially a math class that uses words instead of numbers.
In just a few short weeks, I’ve learned a lot about language and wanted to share just a few ideas:
Language is not writing.
Speaking or signing is much different from writing and serves a different function, which is something I wasn’t fully conscious of before I took this class. When we write something, we have to think about it, process it using our speech system and then write it. Even though I’m writing this post and telling you about what I’ve learned, I didn’t say any of the words out loud. And I edited this post and the words in it multiple times, which is something I can’t do with my speech. Not only does the “You can’t take back what you said” saying have a metaphorical meaning, but a literal one too.
Grammar is much more complex than what you learn about in grade school.
There are actually two kinds of grammar: the grammar you learn through using a language (descriptive) and the grammar you learn formally in a classroom (prescriptive). I’m much more aware of how important descriptive grammar is now, because usage is what allows our language to evolve and change over time.
There are also so many other aspects of language that affect grammar and how we speak. Thanks to this class, I now know what “voiced bilabial stop” or “high, front, tense and unrounded” means and what’s happening in my mouth when I make phonetic sounds. There’s a much bigger field of study beyond the prescriptive grammar you learn as a little kid, which has been really enlightening to explore.
Language is a fundamental aspect of being human.
It is so cool that we’ve developed ways for people who are blind or hearing-impaired to still be able to communicate with us and one another. The ability to voice a concern or share an idea seems so much more important and meaningful when you think about a life without it.
And the big one: meaning is constructed by language.
This is something I already knew (shoutout to the Modernism and Postmodernism crew), but lately I’ve really been thinking about the arbitrariness in our social structures. I pick up my linguistics textbook and call it a textbook because that’s what we’ve all collectively decided (consciously or unconsciously) decided to call it. If we all agreed on a name, we could just as easily call that textbook a sweater or a Barack Obama. And realizing that is how we’ve constructed our entire world will truly blow your mind.
Have you had any cool undergrad (or post-grad) adventures lately? Tell me in the comments.