Wikijunior:Languages/Introduction

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Just what is a language?[edit]

A language is an organised, ordered way of speaking and listening. Reading and writing are a way of representing language in a permanent format, but many languages have no written form. Language is one form of communication. It can be spoken, visual, or signed. We can say that language is a code of symbols used to communicate.

What is not a language?[edit]

There are some things that work like language. For example, when you see a red traffic light, it is just the same as if somebody said to you "You should not cross the street now". The traffic signs work in the same way: drivers know when they have to turn left or right or to go slower. So they are a kind of communication system. Can we speak about "Traffic signs language"? Not really. Traffic signs work very well for some signals, but you can not say "I've eaten pizza today" by using traffic signs. The number of thoughts that you can express with them is limited. This is not the case for real languages. Using English, or Russian, or Japanese, you can express a wide variety of different thoughts. You can also express brand new thoughts, create brand new sentences, and still be understood by your listeners.

Who came up with the languages?[edit]

People didn't just decide one day to start speaking. Languages developed over time. In fact, the English spoken only six hundred years ago would be almost unrecognizable to us today!

(Definition)

language development — the steady growth and change of a language; languages took over a thousand years to get to what we speak today.

Anthropologists (experts on humanity) have many different theories about how human language developed. Some animals have a wide range of calls which they make instinctively when they see food, potential threats, rivals or mates. It is possible that human language began as a refinement of these instinctive calls. It is also possible that early humans made sounds that imitated things that they heard in the natural world around them.

(Definition)

anthropology — the study of humans.

Studies of the fossils of early humans suggest that the shape of the vocal tract — the part of the throat where sounds are made — may have changed about 70,000 years ago in such a way as to enable early humans to make a much wider range of sounds. By the same time, humans had developed brains which were as large as modern humans. These developments would have allowed humans to think complex thoughts and communicate them. Archaeologists note that signs of early human culture such as cave paintings and burial rituals appeared very quickly, suggesting that complex language and culture emerged together over a short period of time. There is no way of knowing exactly what early human language was like as it emerged long before written records.

(Definition)

archaeology — the study of the past by looking for the remains and historical things left by the people who lived long ago.

What is grammar? Why is it important?[edit]

Grammar is a set of rules on how you should use words so that everybody will understand what you really mean. If words are bricks, then grammar is a manual that explains how to make a house with them.

When you think about a language, you'll probably think about its words in the first place. It is logical: you hear words, you can "feel" them, while you don't feel grammar directly. But grammar is at least as important as the words are. You cannot have a language with words only but no grammar. Not convinced yet? Try the following example:

You have the following words: I, mom, my, love. Having only these words but no grammar, you can make a lot of combinations of them, like "I my mom love" or "My love I mom", but nobody will understand what you really mean. If you want everybody to understand exactly what you mean, you have to make the next sentence: "I love my mom". Thus the words have to stand in exact sequence.

Another example from English might be "Susan helped Tony." We can easily see how word order is important if we rearrange it to say "Tony helped Susan." This expresses a quite different idea, but uses the same words. So word order is important in English grammar.

This is not true of every language, though. Russian, for example, has a free word order. Changing the order of the words does not change the meaning of the sentence. How is this possible? Russian relies on markers on the words to show which word is the subject and which is the object.

There are two ways grammar can work: by putting words in a certain sequence, and by changing words. The above examples use only word order. Here's an example that involves changing the words. If you wanted to say that your dad feels about you the same way you just said (in the earlier example) that you feel about him, you couldn't say that just by rearranging the words to "My dad love I" — but by changing "love" to "loves", and "I" to "me", you get a perfectly good sentence that means what you want: "My dad loves me".

Why not just use one language?[edit]

It may seem obvious to just create one language for everybody to use. Luckily, several linguists felt the same way. They made up what we call constructed languages. But, languages are a big part of a people's culture and identity and most of them have long interesting histories. People aren't willing to give them up. It is also very hard to become fluent in a language. It may seem natural to you to speak English, but it is actually very hard for many adults to learn.

(Definition)

linguist — someone who studies languages.

(Definition)

constructed language — a language made up scientifically.

(Definition)

fluency — being able to speak a language without any trouble.

Many linguists believe that there was originally only one language. However, when people are isolated from each other for thousands of years, the language that they speak evolves. Over time, slight changes in how people spoke built up until different tribes could no longer understand each other.

My friends and I would like to have a secret language[edit]

A lot of "secret languages" are actually not real languages, just your usual language with a couple of changes that make it harder to understand. For example, Pig Latin is not a real language and it is not even related to Latin, it's just English with the last letter moved and the added ending -ay. Verlan, the language common among French youths, just inverts the syllables of a word (for example, the English word "teacher" would become "chertea" by its rules). Since there is just one underlying concept in these "languages", they are quite easy to learn and it will only take a little practise until you can have fluent conversations in them. However, because of that, it's quite easy for adults or non-group-members to understand what you're saying, once they figured out the concept.

A method that will protect your secrets better is to use a secret alphabet. Write things down as you would usually, but don't use Latin letters (the letters used by English for example). Use a different alphabet, either one that you invented (be careful not to make letters too similar to Latin letters then, so that they can't easily be guessed) or an existing one — there's a big collection at http://www.omniglot.com/writing/alphabets.htm . Note: learning a new alphabet will probably take you a little more time than learning to speak in Pig Latin for example, but it can still be done in a few hours if you have a good course. Try this course for the Korean alphabet, for example. More than 99% of Americans or Europeans can only read the Latin alphabet, so your secrets will be quite safe even if you use an existing alphabet. However, be aware that it is possible to decipher an English text written in a secret alphabet, given enough study. For some people it's a fun enigma, just like crosswords. The key may be to make the text look like it isn't English at all, so that people don't even try to decipher it — that's why I liked to use Korean.

Secret alphabets have one big disadvantage: they can only be used when you're writing down the message. What about the times when you want to quickly communicate something to your friends during break or when playing outside, or when you want to call somebody names without him being aware of it? In those cases you will still need a secret language that you can speak in. Have you had the idea of learning a foreign language like, for example, Spanish for that purpose? I'm afraid that this is not a very good option because it will take you years until you can speak that language well enough to communicate with your friends. And Latin, French, Chinese, or the like aren't better suited either. The only really easy language that you might succeed learning quickly enough is Esperanto or Ido — but it will still require more effort than learning, for example, Pig Latin or a new alphabet.

Constructed languages[edit]

Constructed languages are special languages. They aren't developed "naturally", but are created by people. People had various reasons to create new languages. Some thought an international language would help people from different countries to understand each other better and to have less conflicts. Esperanto is the best known example of this kind of language, and is the only constructed language to achieve a large number of speakers. Some estimates for the number of speakers of Esperanto are as high as 2 million.

Some constructed languages are a part of imaginary world, like Klingon, which was created specially for the science fiction series Star Trek. Fictional languages for different races in the Lord of the Rings trilogy have also been developed. There are even languages that were created without any purpose beyond being just for fun. Toki Pona is such a language.

Unusual languages[edit]

Some languages do not have any tenses. This means that there is only one way to say a verb. Imagine saying I go to school yesterday. In these languages, words like yesterday and tomorrow are used to say when you did something. Other languages even use pictures!

(Definition)

tense — a form of a verb that describes a time for an action; for example, "I went," "I am going", and "I will go" are in past, present, and future tense. They are different tenses because they describe when I did the action of going.

(Definition)

verb — a word that describes an action.