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Presentation over General linguistics
What is langaue?
whatever else people may do when they come together – whether they play, fight, make love, or make automobiles-they talk. We live in a world of words. We talk to our friends, our associates, our wives and husbands, our lovers, our teachers, our parents and in-laws. We talk to bus-drivers and total strangers. We talk face to face and over the telephone. And everyone responds with more talk. Television and radio further swell this torrent of words. As a result, hardly a moment of our waking lives is free from words, and even in our dreams we talk and are talked to. We also talk when there is no one to answer. Some of us talk aloud in our sleep. We talk to our pets and sometimes to ourselves. And we are the only animals that do this, that talk.
The possession of language, more than any other attribute, distinguishes humans from other animals. To understand our humanity one must understand the language that makes us human. According to the philosophy expressed in the myths and religions of many peoples, it is language that is the source of human life and power. To some people of Africa, a newborn child is a kuntu, a ‘thing,” not yet a muntu, a “person.” Only by the act of learning language does the child become a human being. Thus according to this tradition, we all become “human” because we all know at least one language. But what does it mean to “know” a language?
When you know a language, you can speak and be understood by others who know that language. This means you have the capacity to produce sounds that signify certain meanings and to understand or interpret the sounds produced by others. We are referring here to normal-hearing individuals. Deaf persons produce and understand sign languages just as hearing persons produce and understand spoken languages.
Everyone knows a language. Why write an entire book on what appears to be so simple a phenomenon? After all, five-year-old children are almost as proficient at speaking and understanding as are their parents. Yet the ability to carry out the simplest conversation requires profound knowledge that speakers are unaware of. This is as true of speakers of Japanese as of English speakers, of Eskimos as of Navajos. The fact that we may know something unconsciously is not unique to language. A speaker of English can produce a sentence with two relative clauses like.
My goddaughter who lives in Sweden is named Disa, which was the name of a Viking queen.
without knowing what a relative clause is. This is parallel to knowing how to walk without understanding or being able to explain the neurophysiological control mechanisms that permit one to do so.
What, then, do you know if you know English or Quechua or French or Mohawk or Arabic?
Probably without being aware of it, you know the sounds that are part of your language as well as those that are not. This knowledge is often revealed by the way speakers of one language pronounce words from another language. If you speak only English, for example, you may (and usually do) substitute an English sound for a non-English sound when pronouncing
foreign” words. How many of you pronounce the name Bach with a final k sound? This is not the German pronunciation. The sound represented by the letters ch in German is not an English sound. If you pronounce it as the Germans do, you are using a sound outside of the English sound system. Have you noticed that French people speaking English often pronounce words like this and that as if they were spelled zis and zat? This is because the English sound represented by the initial letters th is not part of the French sound system, and the French mispronunciation reveals the speakers’ unconscious knowledge of this fact.
Knowledge of the sound patterns of a language also includes knowing which sounds may start a word, end a word, and follow each other. The name of a former president of Ghana was Nkrumah. Ghanaians pronounce this name with an initial sound identical to the sound ending the English word sing (for most Americans). But most speakers of English would mispronounce it (by Ghanaian standards) by inserting a short vowel before or after the n sound. Similarly, Ngaio Marsh, the Australian mystery story writer’s first name, is usually mispronounced in this way. There is a good reason for these errors.” No word in English begins with the ng sound. Children who learn English discover this fact about our language, just as Ghanaian and Australian aboriginal children learn that words in their language may begin with the ng sound.
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