Friday, January 04, 2008

On the Romance of Language

I watched a video today called "Silent Children, New Language," and it was interesting. It dealt with the emergence of a new sign language among deaf children in Nicaragua, and there are some very specific things that I found particularly notable and worth examining in the short space allowed here.

The first statement made in the film which I should like to examine is this one: "These children have created a language out of nothing." I wish to further inform this statement with another one from the film: "The ideal linguistic experiment to see whether we have an inborn capacity for language would be to take five children and put them on an island and have them live together in isolation." Now, much is made of the fact that these Nicaraguan children are totally isolated, that they have 'created a language out of nothing,' but this is not entirely the case. These children are not without raw material for their language, nor is it created in total isolation. These children are not alone on an island, but acting and living as best they can within the context of the Nicaraguan culture. We must be careful about the kinds of things we claim as fact supported by evidence. Broad, sweeping, blanket statements are dangerous tools. If we are not careful, we shall find that, in our zeal to find support for our theories, we have editorialized the evidence into a shape which its geometry will not support.

The next statement I should like to examine is more a matter of philosophy than strict linguistics, but is interesting nonetheless. It is a quote of Judy Kegl, and given in reference to her attempt to discover what exactly the signs she was studying meant. "The signs have to come from somewhere." On one level, this is an obvious statement. Everything that is not self-existent must find its source in something else. The same is true of a new language. Considered on another level, however, this is a fantastic statement of faith, and gives us real insight into Doctor Kegl's philosophy of language, and where she stands on the 'inborn language' VS 'social construct language' debate.

Another interesting quote follows along the same lines: "It is not surprising," we are told, by many experts and repeatedly, "to learn that we have an instinctual ability to create language." Furthermore, "It is no more fantastic than the ability of foetal cells to divide and grow from a single cell into a human being." If there were ever in all the history of the world a greater lie about language, I have not heard it. "It is not surprising?" What strange, deluded creature could make such a statement? It is surprising. More accurately, it is fantastic, just as the ability of foetal cells to divide and grow from a single cell into a human being is fantastic. Language is a Romance, and all linguists are Romantics, for only Romantics mistake the sublime for the everyday. It is said that the Hatter is mad because he must measure the human head. So too is the linguist, for he must measure what is meant by such statements.


Hematite said...

If you're interested in how languages are created, I highly recommend Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. It is very approachable. He talks about how pidgins and creoles are created where no common language exists, and I think about American Sign Language too but that may be a different book.

Paul Wise said...

I'll take a look. Thanks very much!