Sunday 13 May 2012

Reading Book: 1.What is language?

Language is with us wherever we are. Language runs through almost every part of our life. For that reason it is hard to put ourselves outside of it in order to say what it is. One way to talk about it is to describe it as 'words'. That seems obvious enough. Looking back over what I've written here, we can all see the words. They are marked out one from the other by a space on the page and sometimes with a full stop and capital letter.In that previous sentence, they are: 'They' followed by 'are', followed by 'marked', followed by 'out' and so on. Then again, when we think of dictionaries, we can see that the language there is divided up into words. A dictionary is  where we go for meanings and definitions, and we might think of dictionaries as the core of the language. Quite often when we are not in our country of origin, we walk about with a dictionary to help us understand the language, or so we think.  There is also a popular sense that clever people are people who use big words or words which the rest of us don't understand. Again, if you go into many classrooms, you can see that in order to help the children write, on the wall there are good words or 'wow' words.  In some modern teaching-to-read schemes, the starting point is looking at letters and sounds and the second staging post is words. The first test for how children are getting on with this, coming into UK schools in June 2012 is a list of 40 words which the children are going to be asked to 'sound out', in what is called a 'phonics screening test'.

So, all in all, it rather looks as if the basic unit of language is a word and if we're going to describe language, we might as well say it's words.

I don't think so.

If we are to grasp what we get language to do and how get it to do things,  we need to think of language in a slightly different way. We have to think of it as 'wording'. (This way of thinking comes from the linguist, M.A.K.Halliday.) Wording is  a word we use, say, when we talk about the 'wording' on the side of a cereal packet or the wording of a song: 'Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away...' or 'Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...'  Wording suggests not one word or even a list of words but words in a string or sequence that someone has put together. Exactly! That's what language is: strings or sequences of words that someone has put together to make meanings. Words are always in some kind of sequence, which means that they are always linked or stuck together reaching forwards and backwards to the words that came before and the words that come after. Even lists like the ones that children will have to sound out in the phonics screening test, words in dictionaries, lists of animals or stars or shopping lists have the glue of the reason for the list holding them together along with links to other lists or links to other books, other situations in which language is being used. Thinking of language as words, I suggest, may not be a very useful way to help children read  and write but we'll come to that later! Obviously, words exist, we can talk about single words, define them, change them, play with them but what I'm suggesting here is that language is more than this, more than words buzzing about randomly like molecules in hot liquids. To grasp what language is we have to grasp the idea of words stuck together.

So, let's go back to that word 'sequence'. How are these strings or sequences made? Every language has its own way of making these. One of the odd things about learning a language other than the one we picked up at home as we grew up is that we soon start to see that languages are put together in very different ways. Here's an example: in English one of the ways we can say that we are going to do something in the future is to use the word 'will'. I might write: 'I think I will get some new shoes tomorrow.' If I want to write something like that in French, I find that I haven't got that word 'will' or indeed any separate word to do that job with. The rough equivalent of it will be an 'ending', something that goes on the end of a 'root'. I will say, 'je ferai'. In one language it's a word, in the other it's the 'ending' 'rai'.

You will often hear this process referred to as 'rules'. I'm going to avoid that, because it suggests to me something inaccurate about how we have made and changed language. 'Rules' suggests to me that someone or some group laid down regulations or instructions as to how we should speak and write. In actual fact, the process was and is quite different. Language evolves and changes because thousands of people in the groups and communities they find themselves in, change it. They change it in order to say and write the things they need to say and write. As the habits and structures of these groups and communities change, as the relations between people and groups change, people find that they need new ways to say things - not just new words, but new sequences, new patterns, new principles.

Let's take the example of how we ask questions in modern English. Here are some questions we might ask: 1a  'Are you going out tonight?' 2a 'Do you like coffee?' 3a 'Is it Wednesday or Thursday?' Now if these were statements they would be something like: 1b 'You are going out tonight', 2b'You like coffee', and 3b 'It is Wednesday or Thursday'.

The difference between 1a and 1b is that the words 'are' and 'you' and 'going' are one time written as 'Are you going' and the other as 'you are going'.  When it's written as 'You are going',  it's a 'statement', when it's written as 'Are you going...?'  it's a question. 'You are' and 'are you' can flip (or 'invert') but the word 'going' stays in the same place.

The difference between 2a and 2b is rather odd because another word has turned up - the word 'do'! 'Do you like...' but 'You like...' Someone or some people at some time or another seem to have experimented with 'do' to use it to help them make certain kinds of questions. It didn't seem possible to have 'Like you...' to ask the question about what 'You like...' I needed 'do'.

The difference between 3a and 3b is a bit like 1a and 1b except that it's an even simpler change between: 'Is it..' and 'It is...'. An 'inversion' .

What seems to be going on here is that when we use words like 'are' and 'is' we can 'invert' them, but when we use words like 'like' we can't. We have to bring in another sequence: 'do you..'. We don't say 'Like you coffee?' And yet, it was along these lines that English-speakers a few hundred years did ask questions: 'Eateth he at noon..?' which, using modern words would be: 'Eats he at noon?' Nowadays, we might say, 'Does he eat at noon?' (or 'midday').

So, this 'do' (and 'does' and 'did') was at one time never in questions and then it started to be used more and more. And yet, we still use inversions in some circumstances as we can see from ''Are you going out tonight?' and 'Is it Wednesday or Thursday?'

The important point I'm making here is that we're not talking here about old words like 'larder' fading out and new words like 'app' coming in. We're talking about the sequences of words we use to make meanings - in this case, that vital matter of how we ask questions. No one wrote a rule or regulation about it. Human beings like you and me tried it out, liked the sound of it and created a fashion for it, and it has stuck - for over six hundred years! It seems to have been first tried out in the 14th century.

All this is 'grammar' - a way of describing how we string words together to make the meanings we want to make and what is clear from what I've written here is that I've singled out 'grammar' as one key feature of language, if not the most important one. Put another way, people making sounds, signs and symbols  without grammar are not making language. The moment sounds and signs have meaning there is a grammar, some kind of string of sounds or 'sequence' as I keep calling it, which we humans have invented in order to make meanings. And grammar was and is in our hands. We make it, we shape it, we change it. We don't do this randomly or without reason. We can't just grab hold of  sounds and signs and invent a new grammar and hope that communities of people will understand it. We have to work with what's there,  using it or adapting it within the limits of what the people around us find they want or like. Importantly, different groups of users of our language speak and write using different sequences. For example, you can hear people say, 'Do you have any money I can borrow?' or 'Have you got any money I can borrow?' or 'You got any money I can borrow?' and so on.

This tells us first that many of our ways of speaking and writing are 'variants'. In other words, we have several (not an unlimited number of) different ways of saying what are very similar things. It also tells us that at any given moment, people using one variant will meet up with people using another variant. What sometimes happens then is that somehow or another more people come to speak one way rather than another. It might be that you go to America and start to take up using American ways of speaking. The 'Do you have any money...' way sounds a bit American to my ears but then we hear a huge amount of American-style speech in the UK and it's possible that the 'Do you have' way of speaking is becoming a sequence that is becoming more common here. We influence each other's way of speaking and writing. What I've described here is an essential and permanent part of language - we keep changing it and one of the most important ways we do this is through people using variants (and different languages altogether) come into contact with each other and speak and write to each other.

What this adds up to is that when we speak of language, we're not talking of something fixed, we're not talking of it as something with only one acceptable shape, we're not talking of it being governed by what I understand by the word 'rules'. Language is in the hands of its users (us) and we produce variants and change. As I've said, these are not unlimited variants or unlimited changes where people can say or write anything and hope that people around us will find these understandable, acceptable or useful. Rather it is that every group or community we are in or want to be part of has established acceptable, understandable and useful sequences of language. As individuals or groups, as we move around from work to home, from a leisure practice like sport to a religious practice, from being with a loved one to being in charge of someone, and, importantly, as we move between speech and writing, our use of language changes. We use different variants. We each have different standards of acceptability depending on which group we are with. Users of a non-standard way of speaking English like 'Geordie' or 'Glaswegian' or 'Cockney' , in, let's say, a work situation, are using just as rigorous and pernicketty standards of acceptability for that situation as, say, a broadcaster using what is called 'Standard English'. The key question for each of these language-using situations is 'acceptable for whom?'

In the next section I want to look at how we might want to think about speaking and writing. How are they similar and how are they different? What is 'Standard English'? What is 'dialect'? What is 'accent'?

I hope in other sections to return to 'grammar' and consider what it is, how it can be taught, at what age and with what purpose. I want to look later at how we read, what we read, and then move on to how we write and what we write.