Introduction to language and society


Subject name: language and society
Prof. name: Prof.Rajesh Kumar Department: Department of Humanities and Social
Sciences Institute name: IIT Madras
Lecture number : Module -1 Lecture title: Introduction to language and
society In this course, we’ll talk about the relationship
between language and society. We will see how language works in society
and how society governs the use of language. There is a very strict and unique relationship
between these two elements. Language is useful in society, it is meaningful
in the society; however, it is one of the most sophisticated products of human mind. We will explore the relationship between language
and society throughout this course. Today we are going to be looking at the components
that will be useful for us to understand in the beginning before we get into the details
of the elements that we will be discussing in this course. Two things that are important for us to understand
is language and society. Such a discussion falls in the larger discipline
called ‘linguistics’. So we will try to understand three terms – language,
linguistics, and society. Let us start first with linguistics. (Refer Slide Time: 1:22)
Linguistics is a larger discipline that deals with the study of language. In short, we can say ‘everything that we
study about language falls in the domain of linguistics’. In this case, we are going to be looking at
language and society. Such a connection, such a relationship falls
within the larger domain of linguistics and this is specifically called ‘sociolinguistics’. A look at language from its role in society
is called sociolinguistics whereas when we look at society from the perspective of language,
such a thing is called ‘sociology of language’. We will be looking at sociology of language
as well. We will not be making the narrow distinction
between the two, which is micro and macro distinction, but we will be looking at both
together. So that is how we define linguistics, that
is how we relate language and society and sociolinguistics. The next term is language. As we know and has been established in various
discussions and huge range of research that language is a product of human mind. Language is special purpose cognition. Language is very different from all other
activities that we do. It constructs humans. It is constitutive of humans; and also language
not only defines humans but language – in the particular context of what we are going
to be discussing – becomes or happens to be medium of construction and dissemination of
any kind of knowledge. The role of language in human life, in society,
is huge. It is an accepted phenomena so much so that
we understand and acknowledge that we cannot conceptualize humans, we cannot conceptualize
society, or for that matter, anything else without language. Such is the significance of language. When it is called the medium of construction
of knowledge and dissemination of knowledge, it is imperative for us or for anyone to understand
what language is about, how language works and only then we can understand what we do
with the language. So linguistics also deals with systematic
study of language – study of language in a systematic fashion. It is the studied at the level of sounds,
words, sentences, and discourse. These are four fundamentals of the study of
language. These are four blocks of language. We study sounds, we study words, then we study
sentences and finally when we get to discourse, that is the place where we can see the relationship
between language and society. So, and we have discussed the significance
of the language, we have looked at components of language in terms of sounds, words, sentences
and discourse, it is also important for us to very briefly touch upon how is it that
we learn language. And then we will understand language in little
bit more details before getting into a discussion on its relationship with society. So keep in mind so far that an understanding
of what language is and what language does in the real world will follow to some extent
from how we learn language. It is very significant to understand the point
about language learning, particularly when language learning is natural, automatic for
humans. We’ll try to understand this very briefly. It is a much larger discipline. It has been discussed in details. But let us see how we discuss it here. There are fundamental ideas and fundamental
things that we need to put in front and such things are: there is a hypothesis that all
human children are born equipped with the capacity to learn language. This has led people to say language is a biological
capacity. And this happens only in the case of human
children. So such a capacity is also called Language
Acquisition Device. This is a hypothetical entity which is assumed
to be the language capacity for every human child. This device, this hypothetical device, has
been argued to have, in simple terms, blueprints of all the languages. That is, it has fundamentals of language at
least these two parts. Together these two parts are called Universal
Grammar. So the blueprint or the fundamentals of language
is what we know as universal grammar. Universal grammar will have two parts: Principles
and Parameters. Principles are those elements which are common
to all languages. That is, language do not vary along the lines
of these principles. In fact languages are similar to one another
along the lines of these principles. Whereas, languages vary from one another along
the lines of parameters. To take an example, all the languages will
have sentences. This is a principle. All the sentences must have verbs. This is also a principle. All the sentences must have a subject. This is also part of a principle. And this will not vary language to language. This is going to remain constant. However, what varies from language to language
– and that is known as parameters – are the following: Some languages will have verbs
in the middle of a sentence. These languages are called Verb Medial languages,
namely English. When we say a sentence, “John eats a pizza”,
the verb “eat” precedes the object and therefore it ends up being in the middle of
the sentence and this therefore this language is called verb medial language. On the other hand, a language like Hindi,
where we can say the same sentence as, “John pizza khatha hai” the verb “khatha hai”
is the final constituent in the sentence and such a language is called Verb Final language. So according to the parameter of occurrence
of verb in a sentence, there are three types of languages. And they are: verb final languages like Hindi
and many other languages, in fact, most of the languages spoken in South Asian sub-continent. However, verb final languages are not restricted
to South Asian sub-continent alone. English, German and many other European languages
could be, are, verb medial languages. However, Arabic is Verb Initial language. So these are the three positions verbs could
occur in natural languages. And that could be considered parameter. There are hundreds of parameters along which
languages vary. To give you one more example of a parameter
is the following: in some languages what we call preposition precede nouns. Whereas in some languages, they follow the
noun. For example, when we say “on the table”,
the element “on” which is considered, which is a preposition in the language English
precedes the noun “table”. Whereas “table par” in a language like
Hindi, preposition, in this case, post-position “par”, follows the noun “table”. So along the lines of these things, languages
vary from one another. These are parts of Universal Grammar and they
are all in-built in Language Acquisition Device. And that has been argued and it has been argued
that human children are born with this capacity. What happens is, human children interact with
their immediate society, that is, the society where they are born. And the society for them constitute the people
who interact with them. The language that people who interact with
young children provides input and on the basis of that limited, fuzzy, unclear input children
get triggered and Language Acquisition Device gets triggered and the capacity which helps
them develop the capacity to generate infinite number of grammatical and fully acceptable
sentences. At the age of four, human children become
linguistically adult. So the role of input that they receive from
their immediate surrounding serves a critical role in learning of language. When what they receive from their immediate
surroundings triggers what exists in human mind, that is, Language Acquisition Device
together develops the capacity to speak, the capacity to generate sentences. And then there are further details of this. So in short the society plays an important
role in learning of language as well. It is highly unlikely that a child born in
Chennai or New Delhi will be speaking a language like Spanish or French. However, what is normal is a child speaking,
a child born in Chennai will be naturally speaking Tamil and child born in Delhi will
be speaking the language of the surroundings where she is born. This is how, in short, we understand how we
learn language. To define a language is one of the most complex
thing because of the nature of language. Refer Slide Time: 14.37 There are two parts in understanding language. One is the nature of language and the other
is the structure of language. We have just discussed the principles and
parameters on the basis of the structure of language. The Nature of language is equally important
for us to understand. We will be looking at the nature of language
in great details in its relationship with the society shortly. While we say the nature of language is such
that there are two terms which can help us define the nature of language. The two terms are continuum and fluidity. In fact, we will see in great details that
language does not seem to be a countable entity. In fact, the nature of language is fluid and
that fluidity constitutes a continuum which helps us understand internal variations within
the language. Therefore when we say a language Hindi and
just with this much – ‘Hindi’, it is not unfair to assume that everyone speaks Hindi
the same way. However, that is not true. In fact, Hindi is spoken in lots of different
ways – hundreds of different ways. Similarly all other languages are spoken in
many ways. These are that is because of internal variation. That is because the nature of the language
is fluid and each of these varieties constitutes becomes a point on continuum that helps us
understand the nature of language. In short the language has been defined in
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as one of the impressive and fascinating human capacity. It has also been termed as strikingly powerful
and complex system. We just discussed the phenomena of language
learning. The phenomena of language learning helps us
understand what language is about. The complex system – it is called a complex
system because it is highly structured and rule governed – it is powerful and complex
both at the same time because we learn to speak language without knowing, without putting
constant efforts. Therefore it is very simple to conclude that
learning language is totally effortless. And here we mean learning language at a very
early stage. We are talking about learning to speak first
language. Therefore the terms like human capacity and
human languages being powerful and complex, these are important things to understand and
they follow from our understanding of how we learn language. Refer Slide Time: 18:13 We have talked about linguistics. We have talked about sounds, words, sentences,
and discourse. The fundamental ideas of sounds are studied
in phonetics and phonology, words are studied in morphology, and sentences are studied in
syntax. Meaning is studied in semantics. These are some of the fundamentals of understanding
language. These sub-disciplines of linguistics help
us understand different details of language, different components of language. These are interfaces within them as well. But we leave them aside. Then we get to discourse and that becomes
a part of sociolinguistics where society comes in the play. Now, why we want to understand what linguistics
is about, in the context of our understanding of how we learn language and what language
is about, is following and simple: we want to emphasize that as much language is a phenomena
of human mind, language is a social phenomena as well. The role of society in us learning language
is vital. Primary input comes from society. And the society is the element that decides
what we speak. The underlying system gets elaborated, gets
clarified when we talk about Universal Grammar and principles and parameters. However the rules of use of language would
come from society. And they happen, if not at a time, almost
simultaneously – one after the other – soon after the rules of the language gets clarified
in human mind. Therefore it is important to understand that
language, what we call language in society is actually the language of discourse- the
language that people speak. Human mind is concerned with units of language,
parts of language. But society deals with all of them together
at the level of discourse. So for the study of sentence, any individual
sentence works – John eats the pizza; Delhi is a big city; Taj Mahal is beautiful; and
Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu. All these constitute units and they are sentences. However when we try to put them together they
do not generate discourse. They are random sentences. Our constitution of discourse around something
is what constitutes the use of language in society and that is what we need to understand
in this course. With these fundamental ideas of how we learn
language, what the components of sentences and language are and how we study them, we
will need to understand how the two things work in society. Tomorrow we will be looking at the relationship
between language and society in more details, with terms like language and dialects and
how they work in society on continuum with fluidity. Thank you.

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