Writing in Calibri font 12 makes you feel you are writing something worthwhile, and you can write to a certain length. It could be because I started writing in this font after I submitted my dissertation. I was constantly under pressure to write and I could not. Now there is no such pressure on me but there is a different kind of urge to write something. I need to write down about the insufferable obscenities of being in a lazy relationship with life. You don’t ever own to yourself that you are procrastinating, yet you are. There be any number of excuses thrown about to justify the single obvious fact, that is you are lazy and irresponsible to find the words that best reflect your line of thought.

This time the urge to write comes from the feeling that I have things to say, and I believe I have the words to articulate them too, but somehow can’t bring both words and ideas to the same surface. The underlying puzzle of linguistics or the study of Language is the connection between these two – idea/thought and words/language.

The two conflicting philosophical stands in linguistics have to do with which of these holds the upper hand, thought or language. The linguists Edward Sapir and Whorf hypothesized that thoughts are defined and delimited by language. You can form and express ideas in the way your language permits. Every language is embedded in the culture it is spoken in. No two languages are the same, just as no two words are the same. It is not just an issue of translation, but an issue of indefinite deferring or misunderstanding one another. Doesn’t this make language useless and communication ineffective?

When it is said that thoughts are defined or governed by language, one does not mean that the speaker of a particular language cannot conceive ideas for which there is no word in her language. An oft discussed example is that of color terms. For example, Malayalam does not have equivalent words for all the colors in vibgyor. It has only four terms namely, neela (blue) , pacha (green), manja (yellow), chemappu (red). That does not imply that native speakers of Malayalam cannot distinguish the other colors or they would call indigo as blue or orange as red. They may use a description of the colors in terms of their shade.

Noam Chomsky, the linguist who (one could say single handedly) brought about a paradigmatic change in the way language is analyzed, refutes the arguments of Sapir and Whorf. The generative linguists argue that language as a system is innate in every human being and the capacity to learn language is specific and exclusive to human beings. All languages have similar structure. They follow the same principles and are different only so far as the different parametric values chosen by the individual languages. This is the concept of universal grammar (UG). In this context, all natural languages are equally capable of conveying our thoughts. It is not the incapacity of a particular language if it does not have a single equivalent term for an idea that is expressed by a single word in another language.

Given all this, one has to admit that the way one conceives an idea expressed in a particular language is not the same when it is expressed in another language. For example, the apparel made of some kind of textile can be ‘dress’ in English, and uduppu in Malayalam. But the speakers of these languages know that these words themselves can have a number of variant meanings depending on the context used. Moreover, these words are not exact translations of each other. Given such uncertainty and vagueness, what is conveyed through language?  After all communication does happen through language in everyday life, right? What gets conveyed is the invariant core of the words. The same idea can be expressed in a single word in a language, but in a phrase or sentence in another language. That all these means are possible is part of the beauty of language.

If this is so, why do we learn about languages? I don’t mean why we learn languages. Can we effectively learn anything at all about the workings of language? What we can learn is the underlying structure of languages which must be invariantly the same or else we wouldn’t have been able to learn different languages at an early age itself, even without much exposure to the said languages. This underlying system is what Chomsky refers to as the universal grammar. This is already programmed in the brains of every newborn baby so that she acquires the language which is spoken in her immediate speech community.

Being a linguist in the generative framework, I feel it my duty to explain my passion as well as my field of study in a way that an outsider can understand it. Elif Batuman in her novel ‘The Idiots’ talks about how linguists try to imagine the way a Martian would look at our languages. Batuman talks about thoughts and language and how language manipulates the way we think. I will write more about Batuman’s novel in the next issue.

1 Comment
  1. Babu Raj 12 months ago

    Good reading…

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