Language is everything

As a linguistics student, a new member of LSAS, an editor, and a wannabe writer, I’ve come to appreciate just how pervasive, how everywhere it is. We at The Medium deal primarily in it. We sit through lectures delivered exclusively in it. We read books, watch movies, listen to song lyrics, and talk to our friends in language. We even think in it, most of the time. Hell, I’m using it right now!

So shouldn’t we know more about it?

True, most of us know everything there is to know about our mother tongue—whatever the rules of grammar are, however complicated, however random and irregular, get this: we know ’em all by heart. And we use them reliably, instantly, and automatically (as long as we get enough sleep, which, okay, is not likely at UTM). In fact, if you speak a language, which you do, think about this: many grown, intelligent people spend years and thousands of dollars taking courses and seeing professionals and poring over textbooks just to know something that you are one of the world’s experts in. You can be proud, brutha. You got it.

But it’s time to bring it to light. There are some really cool things going on there, just beneath the surface. Things you never thought about, consciously. But which you’ll find cool. I promise.

“But it’s all so technical and science-y. There’s so many rules I could (not?) care less about.”

“Why would I want to know if my glottis is vibrating? That’s perverted.”

“I’ll say stuff the want I way!”

Actually, no you won’t. Everything hinges on whether what you say rings true or not, or else your friends just give you a funny look. And the glottis, velum, and uvula are all perfectly normal and healthy organs, especially considering that (surprisingly) none of them is sexual. It’s true that it can get a bit technical. And we all know that’s not fun, that’s class. But like I said, the key is… you’ve already got a PhD in speaking your first language. And like any geek, you’re gonna find it fun to talk about.

I dunno, maybe you’re a bit sceptical after all my talking. But just give it a try. (Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “This language guy just used the word ‘dunno’. What a poser.” Actually, the word is older than this country—it’s been around since 1842.) Listen to what you say and wonder why you say it. Wonder where you learned an expression, or why it perfectly fits what you mean, or what it’ll mean tomorrow. Better still, wonder what words people use on you because they see that it works—advertisers, public speakers, lovers, they all know how to push your buttons. How?

Language is something you and your clever little brain do most of the time, every day. Take a moment to consider how miraculously strange any little snippet of it is. You have my recommendation, for what it’s worth.

– Luke Sawczak


  1. Stating that everyone is already an expert who “has already got a PhD in speaking [their] first language” and knows “everything there is to know about it” does absolutely nothing to advance your cause, whatever that may be. If you were truly as attentive and appreciative of language as you claim to be, you would not make such exaggerated claims. The sad truth is that most people are actually pretty poor when it comes to the nuances inherent to language, whether their first or otherwise. That is not to say that people are not clever, but rather that language is remarkably complex. Writing a piece comprised of platitudes undermines that complexity.

  2. Quite the contrary! As you learn more about English’s grammar rules, you’ll see how vastly complex is the understanding of even someone whose grasp is not “perfect”. Contrary to what high school grammar books tell you, grammar consists of far more than proper sentence construction of the sort you and I have — and most people have an amazingly firm hold on the part of the iceberg under the water. Moreover, they do this even as children!

    Phonologically, for example, extremely few mistakes are ever made about which allophones to employ, even though the rules for their distribution are quite complex (and not always merely automatic, but do require intentional switching, as can be seen by the fact that the same phones are phonemic in other languages). Ask me for some examples if you like!

    Morphologically, we successfully make gender (and, perhaps less regularly, number) agree even at great distance across complex syntactic structures. We attach the right tenses to things just about all the time, and even when we don’t manage to do it “correctly” we still tend to make the same errors consistently, which is still evidence of a complex, rule-based system people have (it just doesn’t happen to agree with what the books say). Again, ask me for examples if you’re interested.

    Semantics is probably the worst field, but I would argue that it’s not part of grammar. Still, there is a great tendency to agree on the “rightness” of a word for a thing, implying that people’s concepts have developed — and this is quite astonishing — quite reliably and accurately in mapping certain semes to certain psychological constructions. At the level of phrases it tends to break down a bit.

    It might be tempting to say that we drop the ball syntactically, but it would be interesting to note that where we make mistakes appears to have more to do with length and keeping track of what’s been pre-planned vs. what’s being spoken on the fly than it does with the complexity of the structure. The famously cited example is c-commanding, which requires an implicit knowledge of what level two different words have such that one c-commands the other (a relation that allows the use of reflexive pronouns), and which is not so straightforward as it might seem.

    Perhaps pragmatics is where we shine most. For almost every speaker who’s been exposed to enough social interaction and conversation, our mastery (or certainly, if not our production, our comprehension) of what is “called for” or not in the rules of conversation is amazing. These rules have been tabulated under some systems, and they’re not very simple.

    As always, you can ask me for any examples you like, but the point comes down to: we know far more than we know we do, and we most of the time we execute it perfectly!

    Enjoy more language articles, Darren :)

  3. All that said, it’s true that we do make mistakes from time to time, so I will concede that everyone has a Master’s, not a PhD ;)

    (Also note that it says nothing about writing, in which most people have only a [forged] college certificate… hence I have a job!)

  4. Sorry for the delayed response.

    Thank you, the reply to my comment is thought provoking and engaging. It manages to “bring to light” everything that was promised but not delivered in the article. There will be no need for the abundant examples I do not doubt you can readily supply. I had no illusions about your knowledge of the subject matter.

    What I found strange was an opinion piece with no supporting evidence. I read and continue to read: You (the reader) are an expert in language. That language is complex. Most of that complexity is beneath the surface. Go find out about it.

    Good points, yes. But, I may be wrong, it seems like it could be unpacked a little bit more. Granted, the sentence about the historical rise of ‘dunno’ was an interesting factoid.

    If you were talking about grammar in a way other than the everyday “laymen” (i.e. the vast majority of people who are not linguistic students [the audience]) meaning, wouldn’t it have made sense to explain that? (or is this just unnecessary semantics?)

    I agree that semantics is not part of grammar, but it is essential to coherent writing, especially when an audience is present.

    Enjoy writing more language articles, Luke

  5. That’s quite a fair response, and in fact the difficulty you note is one I will be exploring in a mini-column, if the appropriate Editor lets it through: Can we reconcile our minimal conscious knowledge of our language with the vast unconscious part? My plan is to show and explain a few interesting language tidbits, some that I hope to make ring true and some that will just be fascinating trivia, and see how it goes over. My theory (and what I intended to argue in this piece) is that our language acquisition and use are telling as to how interesting we will find even the obscure parts of language, if properly presented. If I’m lucky, you’ll find it in the next issue.

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