What is a Language? - Introspection

Introspection Apr 30, 2021

A word after a word is power. - Margaret Atwood

In response to this stimulus, write a discursive text.


Language is, almost objectively, fundamental to society. But fundamentally, what is a language? Well, according to Lyautey's Law, "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy." By that count, the number of languages comes out to around 190. But we know for a fact that there's definitely more than that. For example, South Africa. They have one army, and one navy, but 11 official languages. Or India, with it's 1.1 billion people, 13 national official languages (accompanied by countless local ones), but still, 1 army, 1 navy.

What about English? 67 different countries with militaries speak English, so does English count as 67 different languages? Well clearly not. I can, fairly easily, understand something that a YouTuber or movie star says, despite them speaking a "different language" according to Lyautey's law. But English isn't even a consistent concept. While what most consider as "English" is clearly distinct from, say, Chinese Mandarin, what about Scots, or Singlish, or any of the countless varieties of dialects, local slang, and language features that seem to rear their heads every few weeks as they enter the mainstream through social media? African American slang is completely unintelligible to the posh society of Downton Abbey, and yet they're both supposedly the same language.

Still, the case can be made that American English and England English shouldn't be compared to one another, so let's stick with England for a bit. Instead of moving geographically, however, a temporal case can also be explored. Shakespeare, the bane of students across the globe, lived around 400 years ago in what is, objectively, England. He most definitely spoke English, and yet, entire passages of his texts are, to a modern reader, "an infinite deal of nothing".

A man may, if he were of a fearful heart,
stagger in this attempt; for here we have no temple
but the wood, no assembly but horn-beasts. But what
though? Courage! As horns are odious, they are
necessary. It is said, ‘many a man knows no end of
his goods:’ right; many a man has good horns, and
knows no end of them. Well, that is the dowry of
his wife; ‘tis none of his own getting. Horns?
Even so. Poor men alone? No, no; the noblest deer
hath them as huge as the rascal. Is the single man
therefore blessed? No: as a walled town is more
worthier than a village, so is the forehead of a
married man more honourable than the bare brow of a
bachelor; and by how much defence is better than no
skill, by so much is a horn more precious than to want.
As You Like It, Act 3 Scene 3

Despite being, objectively, English, a modern reader is unlikely to derive even a modicum of understanding from that passage. despite knowing the contexts of "horns" referring to cuckoldry, an idea considered hilarious in Victorian England,  that "good horns" refers to a man who is, for lack of tact, capable in bed, and despite knowing that the "bare brow" refers to a bachelor who has remained chaste, still no meaning can be extracted from this passage.

What is language? The experts, the linguists and the historians, refuse to answer this question with a number. Even the Ethnologue, the closest thing to an accepted list of languages, acknowledges that their number is not comprehensive, and that they have included entries which are contested in linguistic circles. Maybe we can consider the function of language to gain a rigorous definition?

Well, at the very least, linguists agree that the purpose of a language is to facilitate communication between people and groups. That means that, above all else, communication can be used to define language. Right?

Well, let's talk about Bo. Also known as Aka-Bo, this was a language spoken in parts of the North Andaman islands, off the coast of India. Since European contact in 1858, the number of speakers of Aka-Bo rapidly dwindled as a result of colonisation, a familiar story throughout most of the world. However, in 2010, the last speaker of the language passed away, aged 85. This person, named Boa Senior, spent 40 years (since the death of her mother) as the only speaker of Aka-Bo. This was a language, used as a form of communication by a tribe for thousands of years, now reduced to a single speaker, with no other languages similar enough to facilitate direct communication. In those 40 years, was Aka-Bo still a language? It didn't facilitate communication, since only Boa Senior could understand it. There was no one to communicate to.

Maybe it still was a language for those 40 years. Multilinguals are somewhat aware of the fact that they have a language in which most of their thoughts occur. For example, most operations in my brain run in French, with a little bit of Hindi or Australian English mixed in, which then gets translated out as I speak. Maybe, because Boa Senior thought in Aka-Bo, it still facilitated communication, so it still counted. But what about now? Boa Senior passed away 10 years ago, the last speaker of the language, the last person to understand, let alone think, in Aka-Bo. Is it still a language now? An extinct language, especially one that has no written form, can no longer be used to communicate, so is it still a language, or is it something... other?

Let's talk about Iceland for a bit. Or, more specifically, Icelandic. Icelandic is a European language, with over 300,000 native speakers. Icelandic has never had to contend with genocides on the scale of non-European invasions, never faced a significant threat to the survival of the language. Until the iPhone. If you're reading this on an phone, a computer, or any other digital device, take a second to go to settings, and try and change the language to Icelandic (or Íslenska, which is Icelandic for "Icelandic"). Oh wait, it doesn't exist! Despite being an EEA member, a European nation, a founding NATO member, a language with over 300,000 native speakers (EUROPEAN speakers, mind you. It's not even some colored-people language getting snubbed this time!), Icelandic is not available as a language choice on iPhones, MacOS, Windows, most Android devices, and countless other digital devices (Linux is, as always, the exception). A consequence of this is that Icelandic youth who have grown up in a technological era prefer to use English as their lingua franca (common language), simply because the world doesn't seem to like Icelandic. Is Icelandic still a language? Even older generations, forced to adapt to the digital revolution, have begun to abandon Icelandic at home, and numerous times, legislation has been proposed to make English a second official language in Iceland. Unlike Aka-Bo, this isn't an obscure, hidden away tribe of 5000 people suffering from colonialism. This is a European language, this is a European people, facing for the first time in modern history, a threat to the continuation of their language, if we can even call it a language. After all, we defined "language" as sounds used to facilitate communication, right?

So maybe that definition doesn't work either. Lyautey's law doesn't hold up, the Functional Theory of Language doesn't hold up, so how can we determine what a language is or isn't?

The simple answer is that we can't. All we can say for certain is that a language, at the end of the day, lies ambiguously between the Functional Theory and Lyautey's law, but where exactly that is can't really be decided by a 16 year old who has an internet blog in 2021.

The truth is that human social structures are complicated, and there is no social structure more human than language. Ironically, despite our penchant as a species for attempting to categorise the world into boxes, the parts that have been shaped purely in the Anthropocene are the parts which are the worst at staying in the boxes we give them. There is nothing more human than language, and humans are complex, which means that language is complex. It doesn't fit into the boxes because it's so human. And that's the best part.

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Pranav Sharma

I’m a year 12 student at St Marks Catholic College. I specialise in science and mathematics, as well as full-stack software/hardware development. I am currently employed as a Network Administrator.

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