Linguistics and Sociolinguistics

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1 Linguistics and sociolinguistics

It is difficult to see adequately the functions of language, because it is so deeply rooted in the whole of human behaviour that it may be suspected that there is little in the functional side of our conscious behaviour in which language does not play its part. Sapir (1933)

Language is a complicated business. In everyday talk, we use the word ‘language’ in many different ways. It isn’t clear how ‘language’ should be defined or what the person on the street thinks it actually is! We talk about how miraculously a child’s ‘language’ is developing but how they make charming ‘grammar mistakes’, like me maden that instead of ‘I made that’. Here, language is an ability that is blossoming in the child. But the word is used in a myriad of different ways. For example, people have strong views about how beautiful or how hideous the ‘language’ is of some region or country or age group; how it sounds to the ear. People say ‘I just adore Italian or an Irish accent.’ They grimace or smile at teenager talk on television. Here ‘language’ is being judged aesthetically. By contrast, we remark that you can’t really appreciate a culture without knowing the ‘language’, as when we learn French or Japanese for that reason. Then pupils struggle with rules for tenses like the passé composé and imparfait or have to memorize genders and irregular verb conjugations, matters of grammar which seem a million miles from cuisine, film, high tech or Zen Buddhism. ‘Language’ here equates with grammar. 1

Language and society

Then, people relate the word ‘language’ to the expression of thoughts. They often say that they ‘can’t find the words’ for their thoughts or express feelings. Or they are ‘hunting for the right words’. Alternatively, we say that language is a means of communication. Politicians often use as an excuse the fact that their message ‘just isn’t getting across’ because the media distorts what they say. In negotiations or relationships, when communication fails, we say, ‘they just don’t speak the same language’. In another sense, ‘language’ refers to a school subject. It makes sense to say that ‘little Mary is behind in her English’, although you’d never know it when you hear her chatting with her friends. ‘Language’ is being viewed as a set of skills acquired in school. We are taught to write Standard English and spell correctly. At the same time, we use the term ‘language’ analogically, as a metaphor. We talk of such things as ‘body language’, or the ‘languages’ of music, painting or dance. It is fairly clear that these various ordinary uses of the word refer to different aspects of language, and take different perspectives on the sort of thing language is. Or, alternatively, we have simply grouped together under the heading of ‘language’ a range of diverse phenomena which are only partially related to each other. In order to clarify our thoughts about language, let’s look at some of the ways language is viewed by linguists. We can then give a precise statement of the specifically sociolinguistic view of language, and contrast it to other views of language assumed in linguistics proper. The primary aim of all linguistic scholarship is to determine the properties of natural language, the features it has which distinguish it from any possible artificial language. This means that linguistics will be universalistic in its basic aims. It will examine individual natural languages in the course of constructing a theory of universal grammar that explains why the whole set of natural languages are the way they are. Natural languages, English, French and so on, are in fact the data for this theory of natural language. Artificial languages are of interest too since they can exhibit certain properties any language has, but they also have features that can sharply distinguish them from any naturally evolved language.

Linguistics and sociolinguistics

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We will look at some artificial languages to illustrate...
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