Sunday 14 February 2021

Where does language come from? Where does my language come from?

 The short answer to that question is that no one knows. What the text books say is that it 'evolved' as humans evolved. Let's park that for the moment then and twist the question round: where did (or does) my language come from?

Part of the answer to that question is that it came from everybody. If you look at the words and phrases and sentences that I've just written here, one way to look at them is to say that they all have a history. There is a whole field of study that can tell us how each of these words as evolved since versions of them first appeared in writing. Same goes for the punctuation, the spelling and also ideas about writing in sentences, paragraphs and writing in this 'genre' of non-fiction, a kind of 'essay' about a subject - which is what I'm doing right now. These all have histories, so they are in a way answers to the question, 'where did my language come from? If you like the idea that words have histories, the quickest and easiest way to find out about this part of the story is to get a local library ticket, then go to the internet, find your local area's libraries section, navigate to where they offer 'online research' or some such, then go to 'Oxford' guides (or some such) and you'll find the 'Oxford English Dictionary'. You put in your library card number and you now have free access to one of the most remarkable 'books' in the world: a history of words in English - with examples. Each word is an essay in itself!

It won't tell you where the other ideas are that I mentioned: sentences, paragraphs, the genre of the 'essay'. Those stories are harder to find. 

But there's another route to answering that question, 'where does my language come from?' Research your own history. 

Think of yourself as a baby. You arrive in the world. You have no language. In the womb, you heard sounds (assuming you have your hearing apparatus). The moment you arrive though, you are surrounded with language, people are talking, singing, humming making noises for you and at you. There's also talk about you. This is all in a context: touch, taste, sight, hearing a whole landscape of sounds. In other words (!), language is connected to what people are doing - for you, with you, about you. All the words, phrases, sentences are part of eg looking after you, feeding you, hugging you, helping you go to sleep, keeping you dry and clean and so on. Language is not some kind of isolated channel separate from life. It is in and amongst life, helping life happen, helping explore the world, helping us do things, think things. It can't really be extracted from these contexts eve though there is a whole school of 'grammar' that tries to do just that! 

The scenario I've just painted is to set up a project. Think of yourself for a moment as being the centre of the universe. Put a small version of yourself in the middle of a page - this could be picture of you, or a diagram or even just a circle with  your name in it, or just the word 'me', if you like. Now draw lines out and way  from 'you'. These lines connect with the people in your life - whoever they are - who you think might have influenced the way you speak, sing, or write. I'm going to guess that these lines will connect with such people or places as your parents,  your grandparents, school, TV, internet, cinema, shops..and other places that are special to  you: perhaps a very important holiday (I would do that one!).

So your lines go out to all these different people, but now we need examples of language. In a box next to or under each of these people and places, put in an example of the language that you use that come from or 'derives from' these people and places. It may be a word, or a phrase, a sentence, or a line from a song. 

Now a problem: the more you think about this, you may find you start thinking of more and more examples. What to do: first of all stick with the best and most interesting examples for this first page of the language map. Perhaps one example for each person or place.

When you've filled it in, you will have a kind of graphic list poem that tells the story of the influences on the way you speak ad write. Maybe you have between about 10 or 20 examples there. Treasure these!

But now, you can take it on further. You could create a page for each of the people and places you chose. Over the next few weeks, you could fill in more and more examples of words, phrases and sentences for each person or place. You will now have lists for each one. Again, a kind of poem about each person or place derived from what those people say or what they wrote or what was written in the place that you think affected you. 

You will now have your own language map (that was the first page) and your own language book (that was the pages for each person and place). 

What is this? There are two words for this: idiolect and sociolect. Your idiolect is what you think is personal to you about the way you speak. Your sociolect is where and how you fit in with a group or groups. In my case, I say some things that are very much down to the things that my brother, mum and dad spoke, like the way my dad used to say, 'The  noise!' if he wanted us to be quiet. But there are also, for example, words and phrases that came from a language my mother and father spoke, Yiddish. That's part of a shared language of millions of people. Same goes for English as well, of course, but my accent belongs to a particular region and social class of person. You can see that idiolect and sociolect overlap. You can see this working its way through your language map and language book. 

Anyway, that's the theory. The real fun of this bit of exploration is doing it. You start to discover all sorts of things about yourself, your parents, your siblings, where you come from and of course plenty about language and languages. 

You can also explore further back: stories about the history of languages, the origin of proverbs, phrases, slang that people use in your family. There are books on the history of such things. 

The other area you can get into is names. After all, how we name things is a crucial part of language. There is a way of thinking that says in a way, all language is a kind of naming. This essay is about naming how we find out about the language(s) we use. All the words i this essay are in a way, names. Or is that a wrong 'model' to describe language? 

Anyway, the subject of names, I'll leave to the next post, but just flagging up here, if you want to include names in this language map and language book, why not?!