Sorry for not jumping on this Wednesday night, but there were other things I needed to get done.

So the disappointing thing learned is that it is much easier for a person to learn a new language if they learned one alongside or in addition to their native language as a child. Of course we are just NOW discovering this piece of information so for my generation it’s a bit of a annoyance. I’m not going to say it’s too late as I know many have learned new languages who are older than me and no one has said it is impossible to learn a new language, just that it’s a bit harder. I took French in high school (living in Washington State it was more likely I’d need it more than say Spanish which living now in New Mexico I could do with a little of it.) So I plan to encourage my youngest to add a language to his curriculum (if they’d allow it) since he’s only 12.

Obviously language is a big deal. It brings us together and can be the the thing that divides us. It’s hard to know when exactly spoken language came about, but we do know that humans are the only ones with the ability to clearly vocalize words because of our darling voice box (aka the larynx), although all  amphibians, reptiles, and mammals (including humans) have larynges (plural for larynx) and it is involved in breathing, sound production, and protecting the trachea against food aspiration. Although there have been some small success in having a chimp speak as we do, but it was quite whispery and had a limited human vocabulary.

Remember the ‘Song of the Jabberwocky’ from Alice in Wonderland mentioned in ‘But There are no Such Things as Words?‘ That bit of free knowledge pointed out that sentences contain not words, but lexemes and morphemes. Lexemes are not so interesting because they are simple symbols: sound-meaning pairs. Morphemes are more interesting because they refer to the grammatical categories which define language and their meaning varies with context: “John was painting [verb] a painting [noun] while painting [participle] his room.”

Then there of course was Washoe and Koko; a chimp and a gorilla who was taught American Sign Language (ASL) and they were able to communicate as well as a human being, even creating new signs for things they did not have a sign for. Not just random signs, but things that made sense. Example; Koko called a ring “finger bracelet” and watermelon “drink fruit” Washoe called a radish “Cry hurt food” which if you think about a radish, she’s spot on. Washoe had a son to which she was allowed to keep with her and was seen trying to teach ASL and Koko tried to teach her kitten Allball ASL as well. Although there is A LOT of arguing of the whole chimps and gorilla’s knowing what they are signing. And with any Wiki article the things can be taken with a grain of salt since I have heard so many different stories.

I have heard that if a child doesn’t learn to talk by a certain age (which from what I have read varies between 10-13) then they will lose the ability to learn language at all. There has been a couple of documented cases of this, one that springs to mind is of the young girl who was strapped to her bed for most of her life by her father and her siblings and mother were not allowed to talk to her or have any interaction with her. Her siblings grew up “fine and normal” (because having a sibling tied up in the other room is completely normal) and had a good vocabulary. She however had very few words if any and when she was rescued (I think at age 13) and they tried to teach her language she never learned. She was not physically or mentally disabled in anyway, so there is no known reason why this poor thing was strapped to her bed most of her life. I remember reading about studies where infants aren’t given any affection or attention for most of their young lives and they died and not from starvation of food or water either.

I have also heard/read that English is the hardest language to learn as a second language. And looking upon the English language as a whole I can see where they are coming from. Their, there, to, too, two. That stuff can be hard for even native speakers to keep straight. I swear I am still learning English even though it is my first and main language. I speak in Angelese so I am told at times. I have a nice little habit of creating my own words (that make sense like funner). I have trouble pronouncing a few of those more obscure words that like to trip up my tongue and I don’t have a speech impairment that I’ve been diagnosed with. I am dyslexic with numbers and have problems with spelling and have a tendency to say a word like I spell it, which isn’t always how it is actually supposed to be spoken. So if natives have problems with their own language imagine how outsiders feel!

I touched briefly on Phonology and Morphemes above (phonology (lexemes) being speech sounds that are present or absent in a language; morphemes being words and their meaningful parts (cat or cats) but there are also Morphology ( forms in which sounds combine to form morphemes), Lexicon (dictionary of a particular language, all it’s morphemes and their meanings) Syntax (arrangement and order of words into sentences [adjective proceeds or follows the noun it modifies]) as well as those lovely Phoneme (sound contrast that makes a difference like claw vs craw) phonetics (study of speech sound in general) and phonemics (study of only specific speech sounds) which is what descriptive linguistics pay attention to with the languages of the world.

Probably not going to do much in the way of Linguistic Anthropology myself, but I do like the idea of knowing another language well. It makes discussing important things like your real thoughts on a car or other large purchase while you’re standing there with your spouse a lot easier, especially if you do not wish to show enthusiasm or be rude. Of course knowing a different language that you’re the only one in the house who knows it can be fun as well. I can talk to myself or make snide comments that I don’t want anyone to understand and still look sane. Mostly.

Story time! Once upon a time a Harvard English professor decided to see just how well his Freshmen class knew regular English so on the first day of class he gave them a test. The next day he revealed that only 30% of the class scored a 95% or better, the other 70% failed the test. So then he decided to give the class a test of Texting (Jargon) English and he discovered that 95% of his Freshman class passed that test. Moral of the story is that even though you got into Harvard you can still fail at the fundamentals.

The above also shows how English changes throughout time. Think of Shakespeare; his English is Middle English and I know quite a few people who struggle with understanding what he’s trying to tell his audiences.  “This above all: to thine own self be true.” (Hamlet – Act 1, Scene 2). Translation: Be true to yourself. Sort of an easy one. One of my favorites: “It’s not enough to speak, but to speak true.” (Midsummer Night’s Dream – Act 5, Scene 1). Translation: Do not talk just to talk. It is more important that when you do speak to tell the truth. How about “Et tu, Brute?” (Julius Caesar – Act 3, Scene 1). Translation: Use this quote when someone has betrayed you, just as Julius Caesar said to his ‘friend’ Brutus who played a role in Caesar’s assassination. There is a nice little list over at Your Dictionary of some of the most common words Shakespeare uses if you are interested.

There is also Old English and then our Modern English. Words change their meanings and go from formal to informal and back again so it’s no wonder English is daunting to learn! Even us natives don’t know all the ins and outs of our own language. At least I don’t know a lot of the ins and outs, just a few nicks and crannies.

But if everyone knows the rules in English, why don’t they use them? Why do men tend to use “working class speech” to sound masculine? Why is it women tend to be careful about sounding ‘educated’ and how often do you hear straight guys use words like “sweet”, “cute” or “divine”? Some words are female vocabulary and some seem to be male vocabulary. Is that part of culture as well?

Until next time, if your vehicle breaks down in Africa, don’t stick out your thumb for a ride. You will more in likely get the crap kicked out of you than any help getting into town. (In Africa, the American thumb out for hitch-hiking means “I impregnated your whore of a mother”. Got to love those linguistic differences!)

Categories: Anthropology, Linguistic | Leave a comment

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