And now we explore all the functions that language fulfills. Our lives would be so empty without it! Language is constantly helping us communicate, understand the world around us, and even ourselves. It can be used for creation, or for destruction. A few words can become powerful actions. And last but not least, language offers a window towards what is invisible in the miracle of life. Are you still thinking that we owe language to gradual and random mutations? Think again!
Hello, and welcome to language with Chu. Let’s continue on with what language is. I recommend that you watch at least part six of this series, if not all of it, so that you have a pretty good idea of what we’re talking about.
But now, on this part, we’re going to focus on what the functions of language are. What does language do for us? Well, there are many, many functions. You can you can do as we did in the previous one, if you want. Pause the video and try to come up with your own ideas of what language does, and then tell me if you got more or less than I did.
First of all, we have a communicative function. For linguists, sometimes communication is the most important function of language. For others, not so much. Rather, it’s more like an expression of our thoughts. Both camps, again, are right in a way, but I think they also miss a lot of details. But if we only focus on communication, we could say, well, language serves to express ideas, concepts, feelings, thoughts… anything you want to can express via language. And if you didn’t have language, well, good luck expressing some things! If I wanted to tell you that yesterday I tripped and fell, and my knee was aching, I could probably try to imitate the action, sort of, and you might get it. But imagine if I was telling you without language that I’m reading this interesting book about gravity, and blah, blah, blah. Good luck with that, right?
So language fulfills a big, big function in terms of expressing our thoughts, our feelings, or any concept, really. And how do we do that? Well, we do that with symbols. Again, there are different schools of thought. Sometimes linguists prefer to talk about a “language of thought”, which works with different grammar rules, if you wish. And different symbols too. And then we have language as it is externalized/ expressed via your own mother tongue or other languages.
But now, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just focus on the symbols that we use for language. And those can be of all kinds. The sounds, like I described in the Sounds and Meaning videos. It can be morphemes: “possible”/”impossible”. The “im” in “impossible” means “not”, “not possible”. You know those things without even thinking about them.
Then comes each word. You have to know the symbol for each concept, each word. So you know “yesterday”, “bottle”, “tree”, “cigarette”, or anything.
Then you know groups of words. You know that “behind the sofa” is three words, and it’s not the same as “in front of the sofa”, while for a foreigner, for example, that might be all a blur and they don’t know where one word starts, and the other one finishes, right? For each of the languages we master, we know how to decode and encode groups of words.
Then we have groups of clauses, that is, many sentences within sentences, and full sentences. So, for example, if I tell you, “The man who worked at the flower shop loved the lady who worked at the bakery”, or whatever, those two chunks of sentences… the “who worked at the bakery”… are closest, and you know how to group them. And you know how to understand immediately a sentence. Or “The teacher standing next to the pupil smiled”. Who smiled, the teacher or the pupil? You immediately know that is the teacher, right? Even though “smiled” is right next to “pupil”. So all those things are automatic for you.
And then we have this idea that for each symbol, you have a form (whether it’s the letters in the way it’s spelled or the sounds in the way it’s pronounced), and you have a meaning (what it really means, kind of like a dictionary definition). But as we’ll see in a minute, meaning is not so simple. It’s a lot more complex than that. And the sign, the symbols, may not be as arbitrary and conventional as it’s often thought. Usually it’s believed that somebody (our ancestors, the people who created our own language) decided, “Okay this is a paper. You know this is called paper end of story”. Everybody starts calling it “paper”.
Well, if you watched the Sounds and Meaning videos, you know that it… I think it can’t be that simple, because there are too many similarities across languages, even in languages that are never supposed to be related. That speaks of something else, that speaks of some kind of glue that binds certain groups of languages with others, and that it’s not as easy as to say, “Well, this is the mother of this language”. I’m going to make another series on the chronology of some of the languages and how supposedly they evolved. Say, romance languages from Latin. And you’ll see that it’s not so clear-cut. I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s a lot more, I would say “spiritual”, in a sense. It’s not so tangible, it’s not so easy to determine as to say it’s just conventional, somebody decided and everybody agreed, okay?
So next: the interactive or social aspects and functions of language. Many things in language are actions. They’re called “acts of speech”. So, if I tell you, “Pass me the salt!”, it really is an order. If I were a minister and I were to tell you, “I pronounce you husband and wife”, think of the implications of that, just that little sentence. If I ask you, “Do you know the time?” Obviously, I’m not asking you if you know the time, but I’m asking you for something. And if you’re a smart ass, you could say, “Yes I do, and not answer my question, but you know what I mean. So all those are acts of speech.
Then you have something that I think is quite important in language. I’ve mentioned it in the past as well, and it’s that language, as much as it allows us to express our conscious feelings and thoughts, it also allows for more sneaky feelings and thoughts, and it can be turned into a weapon for creation or for destruction. Simple words like “pandemic”, for example. The definition has changed a lot in the last two years depending on who you ask, what “science you follow” and… I don’t want to get political or anything, to not be banned from Youtube, but I hope you get my meaning.
Other words like such could be “white male”, “dissident”, “war on terror”… It all depends on who’s telling them, and who’s using them for creating policies that could either improve the situation in a country or destroy it, improve the situation in society or destroy it, create more division or not. So I think that’s an important function of language that usually gets exploited. But not always. Sometimes it’s used for good reasons too, kind of like when you give yourself good affirmations and you accomplish something after the fact.
Then we have that language fulfills a role within culturally understood activities, with mutually understood goals. What I mean by that is that, for example, say you meet with a bunch of friends and it’s agreed that you’re gossiping, that you’re not really telling the truth about somebody, or really have solid proof about what you’re saying. Everybody understands that, and that stays within the context of that conversation. Or say you go to a shop to buy a pair of boots. If the shop assistant suddenly brings you a bundle of bananas, you know that there’s something wrong, right? It doesn’t belong to that kind of situation. So language has to keep… when you’re using language, you keep in mind all those kinds of goals and activities and rules.
A then, finally, you get a lot of information from language with cues from your environment. So, an example would be, again, that one about the bananas instead of shoes. Or when you get cues about how the other person is feeling, and you change the way you’re talking, because you’re getting those cues from his or her language and from the environment as a whole. So language uses… it filters a lot of information that you constantly are bombarded with.
And finally, this is a little bit less, let’s say, “official or mainstream”, but I think language is a big, big tool to make sense of our world, from when we’re children till much later too. The words we have are an integral part of who we are, of our growth, our internal world. It would be nice to have, say for example, telepathy. I wouldn’t have to guess your thoughts, and you wouldn’t have to guess mine. But would we learn as much? When you’re trying to express a strong emotion, and you don’t have the words for it, and you search and search, and dig, and finally go, like, “Yesss! Eureka! I know how I feel. I can tell you”.
All those things have to do with finding words, with using language, and I think they’re a part of our ability to grow as human beings. They’re also part of our… without language, we wouldn’t be able to listen, and learn to listen to others, which is very, very important to grow something in us, to grow more empathy, to be able to develop deep relationships, etc.
Then there’s also a lot of language that has to do with our growth, or our internal world, in terms of that inner dialogue that we have, sometimes. You know, for example, you’re trying to achieve something and you go, like. “Oh no, I’m stupid. I’ll never achieve this”. Or, “Like my mom used to say, I’m gonna be useless at this”, or whatever you’re thinking that you carry from childhood. And all those things use language. You’re talking to yourself most of the day, actually, more than you talk to others.
So they’re all part of our internal world and, like I said before, it’s also (in terms of our how we cope with reality) it can also be said to be an engine for creation or destruction depending on what we tell ourselves, what we conquer in ourselves, etc.
And this one a debated one: language is reflective of our perception, it has to do with thought and the question of “how much does our culture influence our language, and vice versa?” How much does our language influence our thoughts. That’s another topic for another series of videos, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff to tell you about it that you probably don’t know.
But basically, all of this has to do with thought, whether it’s a language of thought (like some linguists believe) or if thought is something separate. We use thought a lot when we use language, and language a lot when we use thought. The only difference is that when you speak it or write, it adds some kind of linearity to it. You could think in many terms, think of many things at once, but you can’t vocalize many things at once.
And then, again, debatable, is the idea that language forges habits of mind. It forces us to think about some things and not others. For example, if in English I tell you, “I spent the night at my neighbor’s house”, you don’t know if my neighbor is a man or a woman, if I’m trying to tell you something without saying something, or whatever. While in Spanish, I would be forced to tell you immediately whether my neighbor is a girl-friend or a male friend, see? Because Spanish is a gendered language, and “neighbor” is either masculine or feminine. So I would HAVE to add that information and all those little things. That’s just a small example, but all those little things may forge something in our minds that makes us view the world in slightly different ways. Sometimes not so slightly different, actually.
But that’s a topic for another video, and I would like to hear from you on the comments if you thought of any other functions that language has, and if you agree with any of this or disagree. And which one you think may be the most important one if there’s any. But I hope that now with this video and the previous one, and all the previous ones, you’re seeing how complex it is, how a simple definition of “language is just a means of communication” doesn’t really begin to describe what language is.
And I hope you see that it’s also very difficult to determine what we’re born with, and what we learn as we develop, as we grow. So I’ll leave it here and see you on the next part. Leave me your comments and please subscribe to my channel, and click on like and all the things you do on Youtube and share farm wide if you find this interesting. Bye!