17 Things Everyone Should Know About Language But Doesn’t Even Know to Ask

Languages are not a simple matter of grammar. Any language policy must consider what is known about language from the fields of pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and cognitive linguistics. Here I collected, 17 key findings about language from across many fields of linguistic inquiry. These are descriptive things we know with some certainty about how language works.

Who should know these things? Everyone would be a nice thing but in the absence of that, I’d settle for some of these: Teachers and especially language teachers. Journalists. Language policy experts. And (and here we’re just praying for a miracle) grammar mavens.

Not knowing these things does cause harm. People discriminate against one another based on the way they speak, assuming that there is only one right way to speak. People feel bad about themselves and waste money on stupid language self-help books. People launch into ill-conceived campaigns for language improvement and in extreme cases destroy cultures and communities all in the name of misconceptions, about language.

Grammar and linguistics are unaccountably hard for most people at the theoretical level. But all of the things below are perfectly within grasp of anyone willing to let go of the admonitions of their third-grade English teacher.

The list:

1. Every sentence communicates much more than just its basic content (propositional meaning). We also communicate our desires and beliefs (e.g. “It’s cold here” may communicate, “Close the window” and “John denied that he cheats on his taxes” communicates that somebody accused John of cheating on his taxes. Similarly choosing a particular form of speech, like slang or jargon, communicates belonging to a particular group or community.

2. The understanding of any utterance is always dependent on a complex network of knowledge about language, about the world, as well as about the context of the utterance. “China denied involvement.” requires the understanding of the context in which countries operate, as well as metonymy (whole stands for parts), as well as the grammar and vocabulary. Consider the knowledge we need to possess to interpret “In 1939, the world exploded.” vs. “In Star Wars, a world exploded.” Limiting ourselves to what we find in dictionaries, we can never have a full sense of a what any word ‘means’. Dictionaries are not language, just special texts written in the language.

3. Purely literal language is very rare. Most language use is to some degree figurative. “Between 3 and 4pm.”, “Out of sight”, “In deep trouble”, “An argument flared up”, “Deliver a service”, “You are my rock”, “Access for all” are all figurative to different degrees. Metaphors are ubiquitous and they are not just some appendage to the ‘literal’ or ‘good’ way of speaking.

4. We all speak more than one variety of our language: formal/informal, school/friends/family, written/spoken, etc. Each of these varieties has its own code. For instance, “she wanted to learn and so took a course” vs. “her desire to learn resulted in her taking a course” demonstrates a common difference between spoken and written English where written English often builds complex nouns phrases instead of simple clauses. In this, written and spoken English grammars are almost as different as those of two different languages.

5. We constantly switch between different codes (sometimes even within a single utterance). Think about what is going on in a sentence like “Then Joe spoke unto Karen.” It would take a page to describe all the layers of humor and culture embedded in that simple switch between codes.

6. The “standard” or “correct” English is just one of the many dialects, not English itself. It is not something other dialects diverge from, it is their linguistic equal. Its privileged position is only due to long-standing political processes. It is not better or worse, just associated with ‘higher prestige’ contexts.

7. The difference between a language and a dialect is just as much political as linguistic. An old joke in linguistics goes: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” There is no standard measure or universal definition of how to determine where one language or dialect stops and another begins. For example, Serbian and Croatian are less different than US and UK English but for political reasons, they are treated differently. On the other hand, the many “dialects” of Chinese are completely different languages with no way of their speakers to understand each other. And there are many examples in between.

8. Language prescription and requirements of language purity (incl. simple language) are as much political statements as linguistic or cognitive ones. All language use is related to power relationships. Language purists often just parrot half-remembered rules from school and personal peeves. Speaking a language represents a commitment to a shared set of patterns but this is constantly changing.

9. All languages are full of redundancy, polysemy and homonymy. It is the context and our knowledge of what is to be expected that makes it easy to figure out the right meaning. Speakers always use context, expectation and all kinds of inference to figure out the intended meaning.

10. Language speakers have many tools to figure out what a statement is about other than just listening or reading carefully. In a dialogue, people use something called ‘conversation repair’, they raise their eye-brows, ask ‘Sorry’, etc. With written texts, they use reference materials, highlight, bookmark, look things up in an index, etc. All of these strategies are a part of their language competence.

12. There is no straightforward relationship between grammatical features and language obfuscation or lack of clarity (e.g. It is just as easy to hide things using active as passive voice or any Subject-Verb-Object sentence as Object-Subject-Verb).

12. It is difficult to call any one feature of a language universally simple (for instance, SVO word order or no morphology) because many other languages use what we call complex as the default without any increase in difficulty for the native speakers (e.g. use of verb prefixes/particles in English and German). There are some languages that have simpler morphologies than others but it has no impact on their expressive ability.

13. Language is not really organized into sentences but into texts. Texts have internal organization to hang together formally (John likes coffee. He likes it a lot.) and semantically (As I said about John. He likes coffee.) Texts also relate to external contexts (cross reference) and their situations. This relationship is both implicit and explicit in the text. The shorter the text, the more context it needs for interpretation. For instance, if all we see is “He likes it.” written on a piece of paper, we do not have enough context to interpret the meaning.

14. Language is not used uniformly. Some parts of language are used more frequently than others. But this is not enough to understand frequency. Some parts of language are used more frequently together than others. The frequent coocurrence of some words with other words is called “collocation”. This means that when we say “bread and …”, we can predict that the next word will be “butter”. You can check this with a linguistic tool like a corpus, or even by using Google’s predictions in the search. Some words are so strongly collocated with other words that their meaning is “tinged” by those other words (this is called semantic prosody). For example, “set in” has a slightly negative connotation because of its collocation with “rot”. So if you describe someone’s relationship as in ‘then love set in’, you’re likely not all that positive about that development.

15. All language is idiomatic to some degree. You cannot determine the meaning of all sentences just by understanding the meanings of all their component parts and the rules for putting them together. And vice versa, you cannot just take all the words and rules in a language, apply them and get meaningful sentences. Consider “I will not put the picture up with John.” and “I will not put up the picture with John.” and “I will not put up John.” and “I will not put up with John.”

16. Bilingualism is the norm in language knowledge, not the exception. About half the world’s population regularly speaks more than one language but everybody is “bi-lingual” in the sense that they deal with multiple codes in their language. They may seem like very close but for a child without much familial academic background, entering school and learning to read may feel very much like a foreign language and they often need the same sort of support learners of second languages need.

17. Simplified languages develop their own complexities if used by a real community through a process known as creolization. (This process is well described for pidgins but not as well for artificial languages.) This has implications for movements such as simple language campaigns. They ignore the fact that simple is relative to the needs of a speech community and not a universal measure.


(Previously also appeared on Tumblr. Slightly edited here.)

Post script: Will linguists agree with this list? That depends on what kind of linguistics they do. Many mathematical and computational linguists are not all that concerned with the subtleties of language or its use in social contexts. General linguists would probably agree in principle with most of these things but would add different qualifications.

But I’d say that in general, this list is less controversial than something seemingly more innocuous than what the definition of “word” is.