Language

Whilst browsing through websites for some information, I found the following question which was: “Will aliens have similar mathematics and natural science in this universe if they exist? One answer given was “Not just similar, but identical. Their bit of universe will likely be exactly like ours, and if they explore it, they will arrive to the same description of it as we do. If they are able to come here, their physics are likely to be more advanced than ours, but everything we have in common will be identical. They may or may not use a different base in mathematics than we do. We commonly use base 10, but the principles of mathematics is actually independent of the base, and we can as easily do the same mathematics with base 2 (computers already do that), 16 (people often use that as a compromise when talking to computers) or 20 (ancient Mayans, for instance). It’s all down to what axioms they decide to use, and if they want their mathematics to be useful to describe physics, they have to use the same axioms as well.” There are also a few folk here on Earth with crazy ideas and one person asked if there is a risk that hostile aliens could find the location of Earth and invade. Of course, the question really is how big is the risk – because of course it will never be demonstrably zero. It is impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, even when it’s as intangible as a risk. Therefore, it only makes sense to look at the factors that decrease the risk – at what makes it unlikely that hostile aliens could find the location of Earth and invade. The following is a reply given by a scientist. “First, consider interstellar separation. Our current knowledge of physics implies that nothing can travel faster than light and anything which does approach that speed suffers massively from the effects of time dilation. So either the aliens will take tens of thousands of years to travel from star to star, or time dilation makes it a one-way trip because if they return to their home planet, it will be tens of thousands of years older than when they left. The distance they must cover is mind-bogglingly huge, and the trip is expensive, dangerous, and long – unless they’ve cracked the light-speed barrier, which is very unlikely. Next, the likelihood of Earth being a useful target is low because there are few planets that are even similar to, let alone the same as, another. The aliens would have to find the Earth to be the most viable source of something valuable to them, even though their planet is vastly different from Earth. Their needs, through evolution, will match what exists on their own planet rather than here. Volatiles (hydrogen, methane, etc.) are easier to gather from gas giants and moons, metals are easier to mine from asteroids and comets. Of course, even if there are aliens that find our planet useful, they could be on the other side of the galaxy rather than anywhere near Sol. It’s likely they’ll never find us in the galactic forest or through all the clutter of gas, other systems, and so on. But for what purpose would they be hostile? There is as much if not more chance they would be indifferent, or helpful. Why travel across interstellar distances just to pick a fight? Following on from that, with great intelligence comes great insight and inquisitiveness and the effort towards scientific advancement. These things tend to replace or least greatly diminish the initial basic instincts of fear, suspicion and violent tendencies. Finally, these aliens need to exist in the same time period we do. The universe and our galaxy have great age – a long past covering billions of years, and an equally long future. We have existed for a mere eye-blink of time. The aliens probably wouldn’t arrive until long after we leave, if we ever learn the secret of getting around from star to star like they do. Either that, or they arrived before we existed and moved on. With all those factors counting against invasion, it seems there’s a very low risk”. I also recall an episode of ’Star Trek – The Next Generation’ which involved languages. In it, Deanna Troi, the ship’s counsellor, picked up what to you and I would be a drinking cup. But she pointed out to the captain, Jean-Luc Picard, that were he to show this item to someone from a different galaxy, they might perceive the cup in quite a different manner. For example, they might see it as a treasured item, to be revered, something originally owned or used by a great ruler. Or it might be symbolic, an item shown one to another to demonstrate overcoming an enemy and in that way creating a friendship between nations. Then again, it might be an item for two leaders to drink from, thus sharing an agreement. Different countries on Earth use language as it is a structured system of communication used by us humans. Languages can be based on speech and gesture, it can be spoken, by sign or written. The structure of language is its grammar and the components are its vocabulary. Many of our languages, including the most widely-spoken ones, have writing systems that enable sounds or signs to be recorded for future use. Our language is unique among the known systems of animal communication in that it is not dependent on a single mode of transmission (sight, sound, etc.), it is highly variable between cultures and across time, it also affords a much wider range of expression than other systems. Human languages have the properties of productivity and displacement, they also rely on social convention and learning. Estimates of the number of human languages in the world vary between 5,000 and 7,000, though precise estimates depend on an arbitrary distinction being established between languages and dialects. Natural languages are spoken, signed or both. However, any language can be encoded into secondary media using auditory, visual, or tactile stimuli, for example writing, whistling, signing, signalling or braille.

The English word ‘language’ derives ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European tongue through Latin and Old French. The word is sometimes used to refer to codes, ciphers and other kinds of artificially-constructed communication systems such as ways used for computer programming. Over the years there have been attempts to define what language is and one definition sees language primarily as the mental faculty that allows humans to undertake linguistic behaviour, to learn languages and to produce and understand utterances. This definition stresses the universality of language to all humans, and it emphasises the biological basis for the human capacity for language as a unique development of the human brain. But another definition sees language as a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules in combination to communicate meaning. This definition stresses that human languages can be described as closed, structural systems consisting of rules that relate particular signs directly to particular meanings.

A conversation in American Sign Language.

Throughout history, humans have speculated about the origins of language but interestingly theories about the origin of language differ in regard to their basic assumptions about what language actually is. Some theories are based on the idea that language is so complex that one cannot imagine it simply appearing from nothing in its final form, but that it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among our pre-human ancestors. The opposite viewpoint is that language is such a unique human trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans and that it must therefore have appeared suddenly in the transition from pre-hominids to early man. Because language emerged in the early prehistory of man, before the existence of any written records, its early development has left no historical traces, and it is believed that no comparable processes can be observed today. Theories which stress continuity of language often look at animals to see if, for example, primates display any traits that can be seen as analogous to what pre-human language must have been like and to this end, early human fossils have been inspected for traces of physical adaptation to language use or pre-linguistic forms of symbolic behaviour. Among the signs in human fossils that may suggest linguistic abilities are the size of the brain relative to body mass, the presence of a larynx which is capable of advanced sound production as well as the nature of tools and other manufactured artefacts. The formal study of language is often considered to have started in India with Pānini, a 5th century BC scholar of grammar who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit. However, Sumerian scribes already studied the differences between Sumerian and Akkadian grammar around 1900 BC. Subsequent grammatical traditions developed in all of the ancient cultures that adopted writing. In the 17th century AD, the French developed the idea that the grammars of all languages were a reflection of the universal basics of thought, and therefore that grammar was universal. Spoken language relies on the human physical ability to produce sound, a longitudinal wave propagated through the air at a frequency capable of vibrating the ear drum. This ability depends on the physiology of the human speech organs. These organs consist of the lungs, the voice box (larynx) and the upper vocal tract – the throat, the mouth, and the nose. By controlling the different parts of the speech apparatus, the airstream can be manipulated to produce different speech sounds. Some of these speech sounds, both vowels and consonants, involve release of air flow through the nasal cavity. Other sounds are defined by the way the tongue moves within the mouth such as the l-sounds, called laterals as the air flows along both sides of the tongue, and the r-sounds. By using these speech organs, humans can produce hundreds of distinct sounds. Some appear very often in the world’s languages, whilst others are more common in particular language families, areas, or even specific to a single language.

An ancient Tamil inscription at Thanjavur.

But languages express meaning by relating a sign form to a meaning, or its content. Sign forms must be something that can be perceived, for example, in sounds, images, or gestures, and then related to a specific meaning by social convention. Because the basic relation of meaning for most linguistic signs is based on social convention, linguistic signs can be considered arbitrary, in the sense that the convention is established socially and historically, rather than by means of a natural relation between a specific sign form and its meaning. As a result, languages must have a vocabulary of signs related to specific meaning. The English sign “dog” denotes, for example, a member of the species ‘Canis Familiaris’. Depending on its type, language structure can be based on systems of sounds (speech), gestures (sign languages), or graphic or tactile symbols (writing). All spoken languages use segments such as consonants or vowels, many use sound in other ways to convey meaning, like stress, pitch and duration of tone whilst writing systems represent language using visual symbols, which may or may not correspond directly to the sounds of spoken language. Because all languages have a very large number of words, no purely logographic scripts are known to exist, although the best-known examples of a logographic writing system are Chinese and Japanese. Written language represents the way spoken sounds and words follow one after another by arranging symbols (letters, numbers, etc) according to a pattern that follows a certain direction. The direction used in a writing system is entirely arbitrary and established by convention. Some writing systems use the horizontal axis (left to right as the Latin script, or right to left as the Arabic script), whilst others such as traditional Chinese writing use the vertical dimension (from top to bottom). A few writing systems use opposite directions for alternating lines, and others, such as the ancient Maya script, can be written in either direction and rely on graphic cues to show the reader the direction of reading. In order to represent the sounds of the world’s languages in writing, linguists have developed the International Phonetic Alphabet which is designed to represent all of the discrete sounds that are known to contribute to meaning in human languages.

The Basic Structure of an English Sentence.

It is not realistically possible in this blog post for me to go into such things as grammar, parts of speech, word classes and syntax, especially as languages differ so widely in how much they rely on processes of word formation. For example, an English sentence can be analysed in terms of grammatical functions, like “The cat” is the subject of the phrase, “on the mat” is a locative phrase, and “sat” is the core of the predicate. Another way in which languages convey meaning is through the order of words within a sentence. The grammatical rules, or syntax, determine why a sentence in English such as “I love you” is meaningful, but “love you I” is not. Syntactical rules determine how word order and sentence structure is constrained, and how those constraints contribute to meaning. For example, in English, the two sentences “the slaves were cursing the master” and “the master was cursing the slaves” mean different things, because the role of the grammatical subject is encoded by the noun being in front of the verb, and the role of object is encoded by the noun appearing after the verb. What can make other languages difficult to learn is because the above rules may be different through other languages! I will not go into detail over these things or aspects like the ‘accusative case’ and the ’nominative case’ which are far beyond me! Suffice to say it has been found that whilst we have the ability to learn any language, we do so if we grow up in an environment in which that language exists and is used by others. Language is therefore dependent on communities of speakers, most usually where children learn language from their elders and peers and they themselves transmit language to their own children.

Owing to the way in which language is transmitted between generations and within communities, language perpetually changes, diversifying into new languages or converging due to contact with others. The process is similar to the process of evolution, but languages differ from biological organisms in that they readily incorporate elements from other languages through the process of diffusion, as speakers of different languages come into contact. Humans also frequently speak more than one language, often acquiring their first language or languages as children, then learning new languages as they grow up. Because of the increased language contact in our globalising world, many small languages are becoming endangered as their speakers shift to other languages that then afford the possibility to participate in larger and more influential speech communities. For a while, the Welsh language feared to be was dying out but happily more and more people are speaking it, as well as it being taught. Some years ago I learned a few words of Welsh and was amazed to find how similar some words in that language were to other languages, for example French. I have also had a look at Old English, but as my research proved, despite Old English being the direct ancestor of modern English, it is almost unintelligible to contemporary English speakers.

The first page of the poem Beowulf, written in Old English in the early medieval period (800–1100 AD).

To finish this week, I have included a point which actually relates to the main text above, but which I feel is quite humorous and it is this.
Many languages have grammatical conventions that signal the social position of the speaker in relation to others, like saying “your honour” when addressing a judge. But in one Australian language, a married man must use a special set of words to refer to everyday items when speaking in the presence of his mother-in-law…

Click: Return to top of page or Index page

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: