Friday, May 04, 2012

What language is and does

I don't devote a lot of time to thinking about the fundamental nature of language as a thing in itself, nor the origins of language. (Partly because I am not (a) a linguist or (b) an evolutionary psychologist.) But I do feel like those things are pretty high up in the popular imagination in terms of what "laypeople" (for lack of a better term) want to know about language.

It also seems like the larger discourses of the primacy of the hard sciences, the idea of 'dethroning' the human species as unique in the world, and (maybe this one is reaching too far, but I do think it's growing) the assumed importance of evolutionary explanations for how we do (or even should) go about our business are driving people's interests in language as a cognitive phenomenon that should be studied "scientifically."

I don't by those scare quotes mean it shouldn't be studied that way. I just note that there's not a lot of interest in sociocultural explanations of what language is and how it works in the media. Dan Everett's book Language: The Cultural Tool (which I'm currently reading) has attracted a lot of attention to linguistics and I'm glad that his formula for 'what language is' -- cognition + culture + communication -- includes so much that is sociocultural. And I feel like people will be more likely to accept this argument from him than they would from a sociologist or literary theorist because he couches his arguments, to some extent, in terms that track with the discourses mentioned above.

Of course there's a danger of people seeing that the study of language is a science and thus reifying culture and communication as things that can somehow be pinned down by, say, neurological or biological observation (obviously I don't think they can, and I suspect most people don't), but overall I think the popularity of Everett's work is a good thing for the general understanding of what language does.

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