Saturday, January 3, 2015

More musings on language

Languages are collections of words, along with rules for combining them, that enable us to describe the world (in the broadest sense) to each other, and assist us in manipulating it.  If we took all the languages combined, we'd perhaps have hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of words.  The "and" and "or" gathers certain words and rules together, and separates them from other words and rules, thus forming separate languages.  OK, we know this is not how language is formed in empirical reality.  But the "and" and the "or" do play an important role both in the historical formation of language and its use. 

To the extent that geographical separation and human migration play a role in language, the "and" and "or" are present.   Groups of people gather together (the and) and, through migration, separate from other groups (the or), and different groups develop their own words and rules for combining them.  While the development of language may have an accidental or arbitrary quality, differences in language may aid the cohesiveness of (the and of) different groups, providing them with a sense of identity (the or), and also providing a means of protection.  If a member of a different group cannot understand your language, he or she cannot hurt you.  By requiring that person to learn your language, you co-opt him, set the terms for the relationship, forcing him or her to join the group on your terms.

Turning to the rules of different languages, or their grammar(s), we may say that the "or" is operative.  For the rules are largely restrictions on how words are to be combined.  Words may not be combined in certain ways.  Arguably, the "and" is also operative, as the rules may enable words to combined in certain ways, but I would argue that the "or" predominates.  These rules also help distinguish the speakers of a language from outsiders who have not mastered it, who often find themselves the object of ridicule for their inability to follow, or their lack of knowledge of, such rules.     

Moving somewhat deeper into the actual functioning of language, we can say that the "and" maps words to objects in the world.   In addition, a word itself functions as the "and", connecting objects to the user.  Or the "and" uses words and language to connect people to the world. The "or" is largely responsible for the diversity of words, for different words having different meanings and being connected to different objects.