Why I Love Language and Languages
Basic to human communication, words and language captivate me. I grew up knowing English and Spanish, and took Latin in high school. After taking a linguistics course (both challenging and fascinating) in my B.A. classes for Anthropology, I decided it was worth learning more, and my later studies focused on descriptive and applied linguistics.
When I say I studied linguistics, some have asked me how many languages I know, as if they expect me to be a polyglot. Not so, by any means. At school we practiced pronouncing words from a wide range of languages. We analyzed the phonology (sound systems) and structure of dozens of them, as well, including a number of indigenous languages and others from all around the world. I have studied a little French, and spent a summer learning Koiné Greek.
In southern Mexico for a few months, I learned some basics of the Tzeltal language, of the Mayan family, and loved its glottalized sounds (such as those similar to p, t, and k), a bit difficult to learn. These consonants sound somewhat explosive, producing a sort of popping noise. I once even read a story in Tzeltal to a family, and they understood it! Decades later, I barely remember a few words and phrases, and a little song.
The world’s languages have a considerable variety of sounds, and confusing similar sounds (especially when our own language doesn’t include them) can make a major difference in meaning. In descriptive phonetics, one learns how sounds are produced and how to write transcriptions with technical symbols. In Canada, I once met a Laotian refugee family that our church was helping to get established. It was fun for me to learn a few words from their language, and try to pronounce their names correctly. The woman’s name sounded, to many English speakers, like “phew!” and made them laugh. She seemed delighted when, with my phonetics training, I was able to pronounce it correctly.
Making an effort to learn people’s languages shows you care and value them; it crosses barriers.
Tonal languages add another dimension to their phonology (sound system), where the tone in which a word is pronounced being essential to the meaning. Perhaps most famous in this aspect is Chinese, but in Mexico there are a number of tonal languages, including Mixtec. My father-in-law, a native speaker, got a kick out of saying a list of similar words that had totally different meanings, depending on their tone, nasalization, and the presence of sounds known as glottal stops. (To understand what that means, listen to the sound at the beginning and in the middle of “uh-oh”).
Words and Word Structure
Later on, the organization where I worked asked me to check out the progress made by another linguist on a dictionary in one of the variants of Náhuatl, sometimes known as Aztec. There was a great deal still to be done, but I spent some time adding words and definitions; however, a number of complications came up and the dictionary was never published. All the same, I grew to appreciate some of the complexities of the language; the way it adds on countless prefixes and suffixes is hard to master and creates some surprisingly long words.
By the way, Mexican Spanish has a great deal of loan words from Náhuatl, but even English has adopted several. For example, there’s tomato, avocado, chocolate, chile, taco, and coyote. Usually several changes have occurred, as in coyote coming from “coyotl”.
Especially intriguing was the variety of onomatopoeic words in Náhuatl. In English, this type of words would include those like “pop”, “crash”, and “cock-a-doodle-do”, which imitate an actual sound. When I’d try to write a definition for some of those terms, it would be hard to find an English or Spanish equivalent. One word, for example, meant approximately “a sound like a horse galloping across a wooden bridge”. The way each language has unique words with very specific meanings is another of the facets that delight me.
Grammar and Syntax
Another feature of each language is its unique structure and rules (both syntax and grammar), whether or not a linguist has analyzed them. In Mexico, however, one often hears people refer erroneously to the indigenous languages as “dialects”, considering them somehow inferior, merely oral languages “without a grammar”. A speaker of the complex Otomí tongue was once told his language “didn’t have a grammar”; he ran to get the recently-published, voluminous book on the grammar of his language, proudly showing it off.
Before I sign off, let me touch briefly on sociolinguistics, which deals with how language and society are intertwined. The way we speak depends on the context, from informal to formal, which is more important in some languages than in others. One Náhuatl group has a specific, ultra-formal way of speaking that is only used in ceremonies among godparents and godchildren! Then there are ways of expressing ourselves such as slang and jargon, spoken solely by those belonging to an in-group.
Bilinguals and multilinguals may use the languages they speak differently. Sociolinguists study this, as well. In Haiti, for instance, Creole is almost exclusively spoken at home and with friends, whereas French is reserved for formal contexts such as school, church, and government. (If you want the fancy word for that, it’s called diglossia.) In many countries, speakers of indigenous languages do not tend to use them for reading or writing, just orally, and schools tend to focus on the national language.
Although I’ve only flown over the surface of some aspects of language, it’s a very complex subject, but one which offers much to learn.
Just as each human group can be identified by its particular culture, its language is an essential part of its identity. Each of the world’s tongues has value, as do those who speak them!