Blogging my Book: Interlude for a post on Language

Language, the idea of language, rather, plays a role in my book, somewhat, as well as my theological understanding of the world. Recently, and I have yet to read it, a book was published which suggests that language is not universal, not biological, but rather cultural. NPR has a story up about it:

There’s no language gene.

There’s no innate language organ or module in the human brain dedicated to the production of grammatical language.

There are no meaningful human universals when it comes to how people construct sentences to communicate with each other. Across the languages of the world (estimated to number 6,000-8,000), nouns, verbs, and objects are arranged in sentences in different ways as people express their thoughts. The powerful force behind this variability is culture.

In the article is a reference to a study done which is equally important:

Talk of linguistic universals has given cognitive scientists the impression that languages are all built to a common pattern. In fact, there are vanishingly few universals of language in the direct sense that all languages exhibit them. Instead, diversity can be found at almost every level of linguistic organization. This fundamentally changes the object of enquiry from a cognitive science perspective. This target article summarizes decades of cross-linguistic work by typologists and descriptive linguists, showing just how few and unprofound the universal characteristics of language are, once we honestly confront the diversity offered to us by the world’s 6,000 to 8,000 languages. After surveying the various uses of “universal,” we illustrate the ways languages vary radically in sound, meaning, and syntactic organization, and then we examine in more detail the core grammatical machinery of recursion, constituency, and grammatical relations. Although there are significant recurrent patterns in organization, these are better explained as stable engineering solutions satisfying multiple design constraints, reflecting both cultural-historical factors and the constraints of human cognition.

Linguistic diversity then becomes the crucial datum for cognitive science: we are the only species with a communication system that is fundamentally variable at all levels. Recognizing the true extent of structural diversity in human language opens up exciting new research directions for cognitive scientists, offering thousands of different natural experiments given by different languages, with new opportunities for dialogue with biological paradigms concerned with change and diversity, and confronting us with the extraordinary plasticity of the highest human skills.

I think that the more literate we become as a society, and the more focused on technical writing, we are losing our ability to actualy hear the language of what is being said.

I think that language is a cultural concept, but culture is driven by human biology. Anyway, good study.

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

8 thoughts on “Blogging my Book: Interlude for a post on Language”

  1. Having a degree in Linguistics, I would have to disagree with this, yet this debate has been going on for over 100 years. Every couple of years there’s always an opposing theory to the previous theory and vice-versa.

  2. I have no opinion on the language gene. But i do believe in language universals. There aren’t many, mind you. We can start with the fact in all languages, mother begins with the letter m. Except the Caucasian language Georgian, which begins the letter d. Can’t explain that one. But the Caucasian languages are very manly languages ;)

    1. It seems, even from a brief Google search, that the theory of mother is wrong, but prevalent only in Euro-India languages, which is not surprising. Semitic languages, such as Arabic are different as are languages from Native Americans.

      Considering the sharing of the Phoenician language in both directions – Greece and the Hebrew tribes, and from there to other places – it is no question that certain micro-universals will be present, especially the closer you get to the source of the languages; however there are no macro universals identified in languages.

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