Language (n.): a system or object of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols for the purpose of communication.
I’ve yet to find a dictionary that nails the definition, so that was my attempt—an adaptation from what’s found in the American Heritage Dictionary.
Language can be seen anywhere, and not just in human culture. All of organic life communicates with its world. Even bacteria communicate with each other. The more intelligence, the more room for those “arbitrary” signals. And, ultimately, language adaptation is the very thing that separates humans from the animals. The birds may require the learning of calls, but those calls are relative.
As humans we automatically find ways to associate objects with signals, and over time build sophisticated systems to go by with relative ease, in writing, sign language, and arts in general—even in dance. Some species, of course, communicate with body motion; the bee, for example, communicates directions in motions. But the will to learn and grow language on a dynamic level is only found in the most sophisticated species, namely homo sapiens—us.
Only we and our close relatives have inherent capacities of function to build such systems of communication. Parts of the brain are devoted to language production and translation (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area). We are masters of direct language, while animals for the most part learn the natural way—in relation to action and example. Many animal species can be taught the names of objects, but the sophistication of our spoken language is too thick and, say, trivial to the primary drives of instinct.
Imagination and Research
From bacteria to schools of fish in mass, boundaries and functional order beckon communication. But imagination takes it a step further. Imagination has a different set of boundaries altogether, and it all begins with the brain.
You see, the brain needs stimulation in order to be one with life; without stimulation, the brain atrophies; without adaptation, the chances of survival dwindle. The brain needs to change and prepare. And as it so happens the brain will automatically go into the primal process of dreaming during sleep. It is in dreaming that we experience thoughts and sensations of imagined hypothetical realities, more naturally than if we were consciously formulating and calculating. It is in the exercise of the imagination that we are able to advance on ideas, and utilize our minds for the communication of more than just what we experience in every day life.
The imagination also plays a key role in perception. An experiment conducted by MIT confirms that small children can be tricked into thinking objects can ‘magically’ disappear, whereas apes were never fooled. But what can be used to potentially manipulate people is just part of the learning experience in high-functioning communication.
Imagination or not, the potential for any system of language is always limited by the group that uses it and the capacities of the individual. And with that fact evolution is required for static change, which includes change with language, in man or animal.
Plenty of animal languages have been deconstructed. Dolphins establish certain click and whistle sequences to identify each other, and wolves/dogs in particular send packed information in barks—all-in-one words of status reports. Dogs signal their current position, specific calls to attention, even scars and grievances. Research and technology has led to small electronic translators. (One device may aid you in finding out why Fido peed in your shoes.)
Lost in Translation
When those language areas of the brain fail (or have difficulty with standards), it shows. Dyslexia, for example, is due to a diversion of wiring concerning the brain area devoted to converting symbols into sound. There’s no intelligence issue at hand—just some confusion; when it comes to image orientation, ‘p’ looks like an inverted ‘b,’ which looks like an inverted ‘d,’ etc. But a “weakness” in one area can be a strength in another if it turns out someone with dyslexia can read and draw maps better than the average person. Nevertheless, there are workarounds to language disabilities, as the brain is ever capable of adapting; for example, stand-up comedian and dyslexic Jay Leno, (now former) host of The Tonight Show depends on context to read cue cards.
The capacity to learn is not without the relative capacity to change what is learned. At the least, personal and social use of a language may alter its use on a regional scale. These variations are what is known as a dialect. Spanish in Spain is different than Spanish in Mexico, and French in France is different than French in Canada. With loss of intended meaning and use—and ambiguity in general—disagreements have led to “usage panels,” where even votes are taken in the development of dictionaries.
Context is crucial in translation, particularly as some languages feature characters that have several different meanings. The word ‘stale’ for example, translated into Chinese is seven characters long (two of those characters are parentheses); its suī character (尿), by itself means ‘urine.’
Symbolic accents can also be important. Take the Spanish word ‘años.’ With the tilde over the ‘n,’ it means ‘years’ in English. A different word altogether forms without the tilde. What translates into “Jamie is five years old” is just one accent away from “Jamie is five anus.”
Dead, Dying and the Subjective
Ultimately, ‘dead’ or dying languages die on account of their biases, with words that are built on incorrect established knowledge, such as a person’s sight being the result of rays coming out of a person’s eyes, hitting a target—not the photonic light that scatters and eventually hits our eyes. (There is, however, the fact that sight of something actually slightly alters that something, but I’ll spare you the quantum physics lesson here.)
All results are subjective, really. Completely-straight lines don’t exist. Even with the applied subjects of logic (i.e., mathematics), there’s Garbage-In-Garbage-Out; any real-life information being entered/taken in has a certain…uncertainty. Despite our strengths in use and any will to find the right words, no crafted language is ever solid or pure, hence the word ‘arbitrary’ in the definition above.
Having proper grammar can not only make reading easier/faster, but it can also be absolutely necessary. For example: the comma is used to break up expressions; a fragmented sentence like “Jeff Ate and Mary Didn’t” can make it seem like there is a character named “Mary Didn’t.” Here, the comma is needed before the ‘and’ to separate two actions. (And the use of capitalization for emphasis is another thing.)
Not to call the grammar police on the audience, but “[t]he actual purpose of good grammar and correct spelling is clarity, not showing off one’s education.”—ConanTheGrammarian, 2011.10.12.
Good grammar and spelling, however, will not necessarily fix bad content.
(Note: this post updated December 13, 2015 for clarity.)
- Wikipedia (#5 site in the world): orthographic depth.
- NOVA (WGBH): The Ape That Teaches (2008.01.01).
- Lost In Translation, the 2003 film that stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.
- Eric Wagner.org: Top 5 Signs of Bad Online Content Writing.