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The Subject of Linguistics. Language and Other Communication Systems - Реферат

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The Subject of Linguistics. Language and Other Communication Systems

The nature of language

Widdowson H.G. Linguistics. – Oxford

University Press, 1996. – pp. 3-5.

Linguistics is the name given to the discipline which studies human language. Two questions come immediately to mind. Firstly, what is human language? How, in general terms, can it be characterized? Secondly, what does its study involve? What is it that defines linguistics as a discipline?

Clearly, the two questions cannot be kept completely separate. Whenever you decide to study anything, you have already to some degree defined it for your own indents and purposes. Nevertheless, there are a number of very general observations about the nature of language that can be made, and which will be the concern of this first chapter. These will then lead us into more specific issues in linguistics which will be taken up in subsequent chapters.

In the beginning...

According to the Bible: 'In the beginning was the Word'. According to the Talmud: 'God created the world by a Word, instantaneously, without toil or pains'. Whatever more mystical meaning these pieces of scripture might have, they both point to the primacy of language in the way human beings conceive of the world.

Language certainly figures centrally in our lives. We discover our identity as individuals and social beings when we acquire it during childhood. It serves as a means of cognition and communication: it enables us to think for ourselves and to cooperate with other people in our community. It provides for present needs and future plans, and at the same time carries with it the impression of things past.

Language seems to be a feature of our essential humanity which enables us to rise above the condition of mere brutish beings, real or imagined. Shakespeare's Caliban in The Tempest 'gabbles like a thing most brutish' until Prospero teaches him language. In the play he is referred to as a monster, but that is better than being an ogre, who, according to W. H. Auden, is quite incapable of speech:

The Ogre does what ogres can,

Deeds quite impossible for Man,

But one prize is beyond his reach,

The Ogre cannot master speech.

About a subjugated plain,

Among its desperate and slain,

The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,

And drivel gushes from his lips.

We might note in passing, incidentally, that it is speech that the ogre cannot master. Whether this necessarily implies that language is also beyond his reach is another matter, for language does not depend on speech as the only physical medium for its expression. Auden may not imply such a distinction in these lines, but it is one which, as we shall see presently, it is important to recognize.

It has been suggested that language is so uniquely human, distinguishes us so clearly from ogres and other animals, that our species might be more appropriately named homo loquens than homo sapiens. But although language is clearly essential to humankind and has served to extend control over other parts of creation, it is not easy to specify what exactly makes it distinctive. If, indeed, it is distinctive. After all, other species communicate after a fashion, for they could not otherwise mate, propagate, and cooperate in their colonies.

The design of language

Other species communicate after a fashion. The question is after what fashion? Birds signal to each other by singing, bees by singing, and these song and dance routines can be very elaborate. Are they language? One can argue that they are not in that they are indeed routines, restricted repertoires which are produced as a more or less automatic response, and so reactive to particular states of affairs. In this respect they lack the essential flexibility of human language which enables us to be proactive, to create new meanings and shape our own reality unconstrained by the immediate context. As Bertrand Russell once observed: 'No matter how eloquently - a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor but honest'. What are the features then (the so-called design features) which provide for such flexibility, and which therefore might be said to be distinctive of human language?

One of them is arbitrariness: the forms of linguistic signs bear no natural resemblance to their meaning. The link between them is a matter of convention, and conventions differ radically across languages. Thus, the English word 'dog' happens to denote a particular four-footed domesticated creature, the same creature which is denoted in French by the completely different form chien. Neither form looks like a dog, or sounds like one. If it did, then dogs in France would be unrecognizable to English speakers, and vice versa. It is true that some linguistic forms do seem to have a natural basis, that is to say, they are in some degree onomatopoeic (they sound like the thing they describe). The word form 'bark' for instance, does seem, to English speakers at least, to sound like a dog. But it remains a conventionalized link all the same. The corresponding form in French (aboyer) is quite different. In German, the word is bellen: different again. And it is anyway hard to see what natural connection there might be between the English word for the noise a dog makes (no matter how eloquently) and the outer casing of the trunk of a tree.

We should notice, however, that although the link between form and meaning is arbitrary in this respect, that is not to say that there is no relationship between them at all. Words are arbitrary in form, but they are not random in their use. On the contrary, it is precisely because linguistic forms do not resemble what they signify that they can be used to encode what is significant by convention in different communities. So the fact that there is no natural connection between the form of words and what they mean makes it possible for different communities to use language to divide up reality in ways that suit them.

What Linguistics Is About

Sobel S.P. The Cognitive Sciences:

An Interdisciplinary Approach. –

London; Toronto: Mayfield Publishing

Company, 2001. - pp. 144-155.

We acquired Rex, some sort of terrier, from a person who had trained him well. My father would say "Rex, beg!" And Rex would get up on his hind paws and hold up his front ones in a begging gesture. But then, after praising him and encouraging him to come down from that position, my father would say "Rex, eat soup!" And Rex would beg. If my father instead said "Rex, lie down!" Rex would again beg. No matter what words my father substituted in his command, Rex would respond obligingly—by begging.

Jennifer was another story. At 2 she was interested in the flowers outside her house. The colorful tulips never failed to draw her attention as her mother exclaimed each time they passed them, "Oh, look at the pretty tulips!" One day, at the end of tulip season, there was only one blossom left. "Look, Mommy," said Jennifer, "one lip!"

Both Rex and Jennifer were behaving in ways that amused the people around them, and the behavior in both cases involved language. But Rex's indicated that his response did not depend on the actual sentence he heard; rather, it was a learned response, apparently to a particular tone of voice. He did not beg when my father said, in an affectionate tone, "Good dog, Rex," nor when someone summoned him by calling his name. In themselves, neither the words nor their particular arrangement seemed to convey anything to him.

Jennifer, on the other hand, was clearly sensitive to the words themselves; furthermore, as early as age 2 she was able to do something with them that Rex would never approach—something very complex indeed. She had recognized the "tu" in "tulip;" it was a sequence of sounds she had heard before, in other contexts, having a meaning she understood quite well. Now she interpreted this sequence as meaning what it meant all the other times she had heard it; then she invested the other half of the word (that is, the "lip" that her mother knew to be simply part of the flower name) with a meaning of its own. This done, she went on to create a new sentence, one she had not heard before, using her new word. All of this Jennifer did in a split second, without having been explicitly taught to and without being aware of the marvelously complicated feat it represented.