Previously on our blog, we’ve covered what “language” is, but one could argue that more important is the question of what language is not. This is because it’s almost impossible to define a language and some even say that there isn’t such a thing, that what we call languages are just glorified dialects. And so, when it’s not possible to explain the essence of the concept, we can simply start by rooting out what it isn’t. By a process of elimination, we can get a step closer to the truth, even if the whole picture eludes us.
So, today we’re going to take a closer look at what a language is NOT.
Language is not writing
In today’s world, it’s sometimes easy to confuse language with writing. A lot of (if not most) of your interactions come in the written form – texting with friends, writing emails at work, looking at advertisements pasted on the side of the road, reading the news. Coming from a western society, it’s easy to forget that written language is an exception, rather than a rule. And even if a language does have a writing system, it doesn’t mean that it gets used. Throughout history, most people have been illiterate – a trend that has only started to shift in the last decades.
If you have ever recorded people having an actual conversation, you’ll see that people don’t speak in sentences and paragraphs, as we’re used to seeing on the page. Even the most well-educated and literate people punctuate their utterances with plenty of fillers (or discourse markers, if you want to use the technical term), use speech chunks instead of sentences, and string thoughts together without much heed to grammar. Written language does it’s best to mimic this way of communication but if text was written as it is spoken, you would find it near illegible.
Language is not proper grammar
The fact that language is not orthography also has a lot to do with writing. Essentially, before the invention of the printing press and the standardisation of languages, grammar wasn’t really a thing people were worried about. It’s harder to police “proper usage” in spoken language as it is but it becomes downright impossible once you eliminate the official standard.
So, while ESL students today are taught not to split infinitives and to avoid the double negative, these are very clearly top-down grammar rules which are flouted with pride by many native speakers. It’s only because the dialect of English spoken in the south of England managed to become the basis of the standard version that these rules even exist. And you would be surprised how much the grammars of English can differ based on where and by whom it’s spoken.
Language is not thought
Another thing that’s easy to forget is that language doesn’t equal thought. For most of us, thoughts pop into our heads expressed in the form of language. So it becomes easy to equate one with the other. However, there are plenty of nonlinguistic thoughts bouncing around in our heads as well. It’s just that they’re not as neatly expressed – mostly because we also communicate our ideas with language.
You can also witness how language and thought should be kept separate when you look at patients with aphasia. This happens sometimes after a stroke or other brain injury and impairs language comprehension, production, or both. But even when people with global aphasia (the more severe cases) lose almost all of their ability to communicate via language, they’re still able to think just fine, including doing calculations, processing music, and managing their environments.
Conclusion – Language is separate from writing, orthography, and thought
When thinking about the essence of language, it’s necessary to first eliminate some things it is not. Language is essentially a complex system of communication between people that should not be reduced to the mere representation of it you find on the page. Nor should you think that some arbitrary rules about “correct spelling” have anything to do with it. Since so many of our thought processes seem to function through this medium, it is perhaps the hardest to keep in mind that language does not equal thought. But once you rid yourself of the ideas that what we speak is the same as what we write, how we write it, or what we think, you’ll get a step closer to the truth of the matter.