Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website












Introduction to Language and Linguistics

  • Language:

    • A symbolic system of communication

    • A symbolic, rule-driven system of conventional signs employed for purposes of communication, self-expression, representation, thinking and manipulation of concepts, definition of the world and reality, storage and transmission of knowledge, establishing and maintaining of social relations, creating and participating in group identities, incorporating new members into an existing group, marking boundaries with or excluding other individuals or groups, and the creative and recreative transformation of the world.

    Language and Reality:

    • Language structures and informs the way in which speakers of that language understand the world (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf). People's sense of reality is embedded and embodied in the language which they speak. Rather than describing the objective, external world, language creates a subjective perception of it which is specific to that language and shared by its speakers.

    Innate Language Capacity in Humans:

    • Linguistic ability is located in the brain and is a function of the complex interaction of different neuronal networks, some of them resident in specific areas of the brain (Broca's area, Wernicki's area, basal ganglia)

      • Damage to certain areas of the left hemisphere of the brain can lead to the inability to articulate or comprehend speech (apahasia)
      • Damage to right-hemisphere of brain can lead to inability to comprehend emotional aspects of speech (aprosodia)
      • Damage to the basal ganglia of the brain can also result in severe impairment of linguistic abilities, even the complete loss of language

    • Universal Grammar: all humans have a certain built-in language competence, a common grammatical/structuring capacity existing as a deep mental structure that gives rise to all the different grammars of the different languages of the world (evidence for this theory is furnished by comparative observation of different languages and of the ways in which children learn language) (Noam Chomsky)

    Universal language features:

    • All languages are systematic, ie, they have a grammar; they operate according to identifiable rules and feature orderly classification, sequencing, and structuring of their elements

    • All languages use sounds to convey meaning (sign language, gestural languages, written language and artificial languages such as computer code can be considered derivations from the original sound-based form of language common to all humans)

    • Certain sound qualities convey similar meaning in all languages:

      • low pitch associated with large physical size, dominance, intimidation, hostility, authority
      • high-pitch associated with submission, respect, obedience, friendliness (humans tend to use high pitch when addressing babies and in courtship)
      • Bouba and Kiki: what do they look like?

    • The symbols employed in language are however largely conventional & arbitrary: i.e. there is nothing natural, eternal, essential, pure/impure, beautiful/ugly, accurate/inaccurate, or appropriate/inappropriate about the specific sounds that a language uses as its words:

      • evidence from variation of onomatopoeias (echoic words) in different languages (English dog bark: arf, arf; Spanish: guau, guau; German: wau, wau; Japanese: wung, wung)

    • Idioms: all languages have a tendency to create expressions with meanings which cannot be predicted from the meanings of their constituent parts, e.g. "turn on"; metaphors and other rhetorical figures are similar manifestations of an ongoing tendency toward the re-symbolization of the symbols of language

    • Creativity and productivity : using a fixed number of rules and elements, speakers of the language can produce a virtually unlimited number of statements. Poetry, fiction, lying, mis-representation, and even non-sensical statements are manifestations of the creative independence of language and its ability to create worlds and realities of its own.

    • Redundancy: language expressions tend to feature a certain degree of overspecification of certain meanings so as to ensure the accurate delivery of the message ("I did it myself"; "I am"). Redundancy is then a certain inefficiency with a practical purpose.

    • Markedness: every language delimits itself from other languages and establishes itself as different and unique by means of various features including its vocabulary, phonemes, the specifics of its grammar, etc; a tendency toward uniqueness is therefore, if somewhat curiously, a universal feature of languages. The more a language deviates against the "norm" of the average tendencies in other languages, the more "marked" it is.

    • All languages change over time


    • The study and characterization of the rules (grammar) and systems (phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, semantics, and graphics) that constitute a language and govern the relationships between its signifiying elements. Some varieties of linguistics:

      • Structural Linguistics: describes the systems and rules of language and how it operates (Ferdinand de Saussure)

      • Historical Linguistics: describes how language changes and evolves over time, often identifying, by comparative methods, the common origins and relationships between different languages (William Jones, Jacob Grimm, Aron Dolgopolsky, Joseph Greenberg, Merritt Ruhlen)

      • Transformational/Generative Linguistics: considers how the features and grammar of a given language may be related to and issue from the deep, underlying features of Universal Grammar (Noam Chomsky)

      • Poststructuralist Linguistics: emphasizes the self-containment and self-referentiality of language and its utterances, with special attention to the interplay of signifiers and the illusion of meaning they create against a background of inescapable tautology where words, ultimately, refer only to other words (Jacques Derrida)

    Systems of Language:

    • Phonology: the study of the sounds of a language

      • phones and phonemes

        • phone: a vocal sound

        • phoneme: a minimal sound unit recognized as a distinct value by the speakers of a language (e.g. [p], [b], [a]); the smallest sound that can distinguish one word from another (e.g.[f]at/[v]at, stri[f]e, stri[v]e)

        • allophones are variants of a phoneme which the speakers of the language don't perceive as different from that phoneme (e.g. compare the different sounds of the "t" in "cat," "satin," "cater"-- they sound very different but, to speakers of American English, they are all just t's!)

      • about 100-150 human sounds (see International Phonetic Alphabet)(only 35-45 used in English)

    • Morphology: the study of significant language units (morphemes) and their combination to form words; the specification and classification of the character and functionality of such words and word components
      • morpheme: the smallest meaningful unit of a language (e.g. "un-like-ly" is a word containing three morphemes and it is a morpheme itself)
        • free and bound morphemes (e.g. "the" is a free morpheme, "un-" is a bound morpheme
        • affixes: morphemes which are appended to the beginning (prefixes) or ending (suffixes) of a word to signify grammatical and other functions
        • root: the basis or main part of a word to which affixes can be added
        • stem: a root or a root plus another morpheme to which affixes can be added
      • inflection: variation/transformation in the form of a word to signify different grammatical functions or changes in meaning -- inflections can take the form of added affixes (dog, dogs) or changes in internal parts of a word (sing, sang, sung). Some terms associated with inflections:
        • declension: inflection of nouns, adjectives and pronouns to denote grammatical cases of a word such as subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor, source, location, direction, etc. (dog, dog's; I, me, my; she, her). In languages like English, some of these meanings can also be denoted syntactically by word order featuring prepositions and other function words (dog, of the dog)
        • comparison: inflection of adjectives to denote the degree of a quality (great, greater, greatest)
        • conjugation: inflection of verbs (am, are, is, were) to denote tense, mood, subject
        • number: inflection of a noun, adjective, pronoun or verb to denote singular, plural or other quantity (dog, dogs)
        • gender: inflection of a noun, adjective, or pronoun to signify association of the specified object with a grammatical, cultural, and/or biological group (poet, poetess; he, she; blond, blonde)
        • person: inflection of a pronoun or verb specifying the relative identity of the subject/agent (I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they; am, is, are)
      • word compounding and derivation: creation of new words by combining existing ones and/or by addition of affixes (life + style > lifestyle; green +-ly > greenly )
      • lexicon is the total inventory of the morphemes of a language
      • lexical categories (parts of speech): classification of words as nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, function words (prepositions, articles, conjunctions, pronouns, auxiliaries)
      • languages can be classified according to the structure of their morpheme combinations as follows:
        • Isolating: words are invariable single morphemes and not combined with other morphemes; grammar indicated by word order and function words (e.g. Chinese, Vietnamese)
        • Analytic: words can be composed of one or more morphemes but grammatical information is largely signaled by word order (syntax) and function words (prepositions, articles, auxiliaries, conjunctions)(e.g. Modern English)
        • Synthetic: characterized by the use of inflections within a word (by affixes and/or changes to the word) to signify grammatical and other meanings (e.g. classical Greek and Latin)
        • Polysynthetic: morphemes strung together into long "words" which are equivalent to our sentences and phrases but can be inflected (e.g. Nahuatl, Algonquian languages, Eskimo)
        • Agglutinative: long "words" (effectively phrases and sentences) formed by combining/aggregating fixed morphemes (e.g. Swahili, Turkish)
    • Syntax: the study of word order and the sequencing of words in phrases, clauses, and sentences. Syntax is concerned with categories such as subject, object, verb, parts of speech, and the order in which they can appear in a statement to convey specific meanings.
    • Morphosyntax: the different structures of languages make it evident that morphology and syntax cannot always be separated and in fact constitute a common system -- this is also evident by the fact that the function of a word can be denoted by morphological inflection (e.g. dog, dog's) or by word order (dog, of the dog)
    • Semantics: the study of meaning in language
    • Graphics: the writing system of a language
    • Paralanguage: extra-linguistic signals and information contributing to meaning and supporting the functioning of the other systems of the language. Paralanguage includes signals such as tone of voice, pitch, tempo/speed, rhythm, pauses, volume, sighs, coughs, gestures, body motions, setting, cultural context, etc.)

      • Prosody: study of the stress, accent, pitch, and rhythm patterns of a language

        • pitch difference: "he's here" vs "he's here?"
        • stress/accent difference: "rébel" vs "rebél"
        • pause: "he died happily" vs "he died, happily"

      • Kinesics: body-motion, gestures accompanying language and contributing to meaning

        • proxemics (useof space, proximity between speakers)

      • Pragmatics: language users' shared knowledge, attitudes, beliefs,presuppositions, physical surroundings, context/situation of an utterance

      • Deictics: a form of both pragmatics and kinesics interested in the use of words like this/that, here/there and accompanying physical gestures (pointing with a finger) which could mean entirely different things when used in different physical or other settings. Pointing toward an object with a finger and uttering a sound may have constituted the first act of naming and the association of a sound and a physical gesture with an object of the material world.

    Language Change:

    • change as fundamental aspect of language
    • systematic or sporadic
    • principle of least effort: tendency to economy, efficiency
    • analogy: tendency to imitation, regularity
    • imperfect learning
    • external pressures: social, economic, political factors; foreign influence
    • slower changes in graphics/writing than in sounds of spoken language

    References and Websites of Interest:



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last updated: 09/17/2008


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