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Eureka: A fireside chat on the solutions to most linguistic problems Eureka: A fireside chat on the solutions to most linguistic problems
by Akli Hadid
2018-06-05 08:47:27
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Rather than occupying space on Ovi by writing about 30 articles solving each linguistic problem individually, what I'll do here is have a long fireside chat on unsolved problems in linguistics. I'll offer solutions to all those problems which are believed to be unsolved by Wikipedia, as there is no other authoritative source listing all the problems that are believed to be unsolved in linguistics.

Let me start off by talking about myself and other linguists. Most serious linguists are American, middle class and highly educated at that. And you can not claim to be a linguist without having understood the work of Noam Chomsky, an American, Edward Sapir, another American, Bill Labov, another American, or Deborah Tannen, another American. Alright Saussure was Swiss and there are a lot of active researchers out there in linguistics, I've met some of them in Korea, from the Philippines, from Germany, from France, and from other countries. But a lot of them model their research on American researchers.

lingua001_400The American school of linguistics thought, if you want to call it that, assumes that language is clear, coherent, centralized, codified and more importantly, grammatical. And even when it's ambiguous, you can clarify the ambiguity. American linguists often try to grammaticalize the different languages they encouter, that is as soon as they discover a language, they come up with its grammatical codes. As I mentioned before, I am a foster kid who spent my life around different countries and with different families and here's what I encountered. The Kabyle language, which one of my foster families spoke, has about 322 villages depending on how you count and each village has its grammatical specificities, not to mention its lexical specificities. That's a lot of linguistic variation. Algerian Arabic has countless variations, some of which are so varied that they could be considered separate languages. Korean has so many variations that Koreans need to use subtitles when the average Korean is speaking. And those writing the subtitles don't just do it in one shot, they often have to listen to the passage several times before they can infer the meaning and type out the subtitles. French has many ethnic and regional variations within France, some of which are barely intelligible. I remember watching a documentary with friends about Colombia, and despite having lived there and speaking the language fluently, I had no idea what the drug dealer in the documentary was talking about.

The point I'm trying to make is language is a flexible thing. Linguists often study the language as spoken by educated, affluent, middle class people of any given region or counttry, but like any doctor who has worked in a hospital long enough will have seen his share of abnormalities, I have seen my share of abnormalities when it comes to language. I've seen my share of Korean toddlers ask me “give me vanilla ice cream” but found out soon enough that they didn't want ice cream, they didn't know what else to say to a white guy like me. What grammar category do you put that in? Or when a guy starts yelling and does not know himself what words he's using. How does that fit into grammar? Or when a foreign ambassador in Algeria uploaded a picture holding hands with his wife and one of the Facebook commentors said “welcome to Bejaia” which is really an idiom for “you guys are acting too liberal in this conservative country.” How do you categorize that. OK. Here's one for the Ig-Nobel prize for stupidity. How do you categorize the giving the middle finger in semantic or grammatical terms? The list is endless.

Some call linguistics the science of happiness because there's always some kind of humor involved in linguistics, unless your name is Noam Chomsky. Just kidding, but the guy has no sense of humor though. So for the rest of this fireside chat, I'll discuss all the unsolved problems in linguistics in the order cited by Wikipedia. Again these are not discoveries aimed at winning any prize, these are written in the form of, if a student were to ask me about those unsolved problems, what would I tell him or her.

Is there a universal definition of “word”?

No. And let me say why with this anecdote. We Americans like to play with words, imrpovise our way through conversation, add a little bit of creativity in our speeches. We also like it when other people understand what it is that we are saying. The French like to copy and paste, copy and paste. The Koreans like to copy and paste, copy and paste.

That is if I were to write a speech, as an American, maybe I'd look at other speeches before hand, but I'd try to come up with my own story. That's what I've always done on Ovi, and in other publications. But the French, usually, I know I'm stereotyping, tend to take a speech that was previously written, change a word or two here and there, and publish. The Koreans take a previously written speech, change a word or two here and there, and publish.

Same goes with conversation. We Americans like to observe and share our observations with others. We look around and describe what we saw to others. The French, often, hear a story they like from someone on television or from a friend, and share that exact same story. The Koreans hear a story from a friend and share that exact same story. Now I know some Americans like to do that as well, but a lot of us like to come up with our own stories.

Now what are the implications for the definition of a word. Word is a word. “Let's have a word” is considered a sentence. But in “let's have a word” the word “word” has no meaning unless it comes with the full sentence. But this actually has meaning. In the speech that the Koreans or French (or other nationalities) like to copy and paste, the speech has no meaning. They're not trying to tell a story, they're not trying to convey information. It's a formality. There needs to be a speech, so we'll give one devoid with meaning. So let me be provocative. The entire Korean speech, is, in sum, a word.

Why am I saying this. Some consider the plural “s” we add at the end of nouns in English to be a “word” while others consider it's a morpheme, not a word. But when someone gets drunk and starts screaming, is that a word? In English we call “onomatopoeia” any word that is the imitation of a sound, words like boom or bam or sneeze. But what about the scream itself, is that a word. What about the sound of drops of water? The sound of cooking oil in the fry pan? Are those words. They can be! Let me tell you how.

In 2015, at the height of Korean President Park Geun Hye's excesses, rumors had it you could go to prison for criticizing her. I was at a restaurant discussing how she had ducked the Sewol tragedy's first anniversary by going to Latin America, the furthest continent from Korea, and that she had called in sick for 10 days after she came back. Call in sick in Korea?! That's when one of the chefs in the kitchen overheard me speaking and slamed a fry pan so hard my ears almost bled. Slaming the fry pan is a word, that translates to “shut up” or “be quiet” or “change the topic of conversation.”

Here's an even funnier example. If a Korean colleague puts an apple on your desk, it's an ambiguous sign. Maybe he or she wants to thank you for a service you've done. Maybe it's because they consider you need to go on a diet and start losing weight. Maybe it's because the Korean word for apple “sagwa” also means to apologize and they want an apology. Maybe it's because “sagwa” and “sarang” which are homonyms and mean “to die with” and “sarang” also means love, so maybe they have a crush on you. Or maybe they're referring to the Apple Iphone sign and that means you need to call them for whatever reason. Either way, is putting an apple on your desk considered a word. Or maybe they just want to feed you with an apple. But all this has all the qualities and properties of a word. It conveys meaning.

So some say that a word has to be made of sounds uttered by the human mouth, but what about sign language? This discussion could be endless, but the point is, the more I get into it, the more you will understand that there might be a universal definition of a word, but that definition would be infinite. I could try my luck at writing a definition, by that would need more than the Talmud's 22 volumes, and unlike the Talmud, few people would bother reading me.

Is there a universal definition of a sentence?

No. And this one's an easy one. When we Americans communicate in writing, a lot of us try to convey as much meaning as possible and try to make our writing as understandable as possible. So we use sentences, punctuation, to break down some of the writing to make it easier for readers to read it. But guess what. The Chinese don't have punctuation. Japanese doesn't have punctuation. And punctuation was a very recent addition to Korean, and still they only use dots to mark space between sentences.

But in conversation we don't use punctuation. We use markers like “and then, and then” or some people with Asperger's syndrome pause between sentences when they speak because they're really immitating writing. When people give public speeches they tend to pause because they tend to be reading from a script. Movies, sit-coms and dramas are scripted.

Here's the deal. When you meet someone for the first time, say you go on a first date or you meet new people at a meeting, or strike up conversation with someone, there can be some moments of awkwardness for some. You don't know who you're dealing with, so you ask a lot of questions, tend to pause as you speak, keep your sentences short. Even then you're not speaking using “sentences” but you're really using “statements.”

But then suppose you're acquainted and familiar with the person and you strike up conversation. You tell them the story of your vacation in Bali, or to use a less privileged example, your struggles with paying rent. If you're American, you might come up with a clear, coherent narrative, but your narrative will have gaps, your conversation partner will have gaps as they listen and might miss out on bits of information. Or might find some information irrelevant. Or if you're French you might use a lot of exclamation points as you converse along, and will have frequent interruptions, might even have trouble focusing on a single conversation topic.

The point is the notion of sentence is really one for written, almost academic speech. If you try to analyze conversations on Facebook chat or WeChat you'll notice that most sentences don't have the kind of structure that you might expect. Not to mention all the emojis and smileys. Is the succession of emojis a sentence?

Again when it comes to sentences there could be a universal definition, one that would take 30 volumes to codify and that no one would borrow reading.

Are there any universal grammatical categories?

Picture a tennis match. Grunt, grunt, grunt, grunt, scream, grunt, scream, cheer, cheers, applause, cheers, noise. Now this is technically a linguistic exchange between the players and the crowd. They are communicating, to themselves, to the crowd, and the crowd is responding to the players. I bet you can't come up with a Chomskyian grammatical tree for this exchange.

The truth is there are grammatical categories, but they are endless. I don't speak all 6,000 languages spoken in the world, nor do I speak the some 7 billion variations and more because each person can speak several variations of a language.

But let me give a few examples to illustrate the point. In the Korean language, you clearly mark when you are talking to yourself and not expecting a response, when you are talking to another person directly, and when you are talking to a crowd. Plus the Korean language has all kinds of grammatical categories that don't exist elsewhere, although to simplify they tend to be categorized as “verbs.” For example, when you find out new information, you use the suffix “guna.” For example, if you see a person and are not sure if it's a man or a woman, and that as you look closely you find out it's a man, you tend to say “namja-guna” as in “I just found out this guy's a man!” This could be a separate grammatical category.

Now let's go back to the example of the Korean toddler telling me “give me vanilla ice cream.” The grammatical nature of this sentence is verb-pronoun-noun-noun. But the function of this sentence is really to say “hey! I just noticed you're a white guy! Here's a sentence they taught us in school!” because if I bought the kid ice cream, he probably will be confused, perhaps thankful, but will have no idea that he was asking me for ice cream.

In terms of grammatical nature and function there could be universal categories, but categorizing the tennis match exchange is hard enough. No one has time for volumes of grammatical natures and functions.

Can morphemes and syntactic constituents be shown to follow the same principles?

This problem assumes that language is universal and that languages have the same accepted uses among users. The truth is there's a great deal of variation among language users, be it in the use of morphemes, syntactic constituents, or non-verbal language.

The assumption a lot of people have is that conversation is done like in a good book or a good sit-com, that it is verbal and vivid, clear and unambiguous, and that every single morpheme and syntactic constituent has meaning. One thing linguists don't take into account is what I like to call “code blurring” that is when people deliberately utter unintelligible sentences or phrases to confuse the listener. They might invent new words, new grammar, new morphemes that the listener had no previous knowledge of.

I remember an internship I was doing in South Korea. My boss decided to speak to me in English. Now she had questions about my credentials and to her speaking 9 languages was as significant a feat as drinking soup with a straw. So she says “that's NG.” I said “what?” Then she tells me I don't speak English because I don't know what NG means. NG means “no good” she says. Morphologically or syntactically the sentence “that's NG” would be hard to classify. Perhaps NG could be classified as an adjective, but aren't the N and the G really morphemes for “No” and “Good.” OK morphemes are supposed to convey grammatical meaning so let's say that same boss says “order some chicken's.” Now I know that's called hypercorrection and that she really should have said order some fried chicken but what's the “'s” doing at the end of chicken. If you take hypercorrection, slip of tongue, or deliberate misuse in language, which are frequent, you might get a whole new set of morphology or syntax each time. So the user pretty much chooses which principles morphemes and syntactic constituents follow.

Do prosodic domains deviate from syntactic constituent structure?

I'm not saying that grammar doesn't exist, I'm just saying that a lot of the world's grammar has not yet been discovered and if all the linguistics graduate students in the world identified all of the world's grammar they would not be done identifying all the patterns.

Prosidy means the phonologic tones we use when we speak. Of course those are grammatical to a certain extent. Remember that fry pan slamming incident I described above where the lady asking me to shut up by slamming her fry pan. That was grammatical, that was a verb in the imperative form.

Let me give you another example. I had a job in South Korea where my boss was constantly threatening to call immigration. “I will call immigration” he constantly threatened. The sentence “I will call immigration” itself is pronoun-future tense verb-noun and is subject-verb-object. But that's really not what the sentence meant if you look at the tone it used to be uttered in.

So here's a solution to the problem. And I hope I win money for this. When analyzing any give sentence, be it sounds, words, or anything in conversation you really need four layers of analysis.

Here's how it goes:

Sentence

I will call immigration.

Layer one: syntactic analysis

Subject-verb-object. Pronoun-future tense verb-noun

Layer two: prosodic analysis

Rising pitch (you want to use software to indentifying rising or falling tone, number of debibels as the sentence is being uttered)

Layer three: body language analysis

Hands around the hips, face turning red.

Layer four: pragmatic analysis

A threat. Does not get along with the worker he's talking to.

All four layers have grammatical meaning. That is you can not give a sentence meaning without analyzing all four levels of speech.

How do you delineate languages from each other?

Let me be a little bit provocative here. Some guys speak the same French that I speak and yet we don't understand each other. Others speak the same Korean that I speak and yet we don't understand each other. What determines language intelligibility is not phonology, morphology, sytanx and semantics, it's pragmatics. That is what topics of conversation are going to be discussed? What will make the conversation alive and thrive? You can be a speaker of Spanish and meet a speaker of Portuguese, and if you two are determined to keep the conversation going, soon enough you will be able to understand each other. You can both be speakers of Spanish, but if you don't have the will to have a conversation with the other person, you won't be able to understand them.

Let me give a few examples here. I remember Koreans refusing to have Korean conversation with me. They wanted the conversation to be in English at all costs. But then they would ask me what I do, and I would lie and say “I'm a Korean teacher.” So they would marvel at the fact that I teach Korean, and that would obviously mean that I speak Korean, and that's how the language would switch to Korean. Otherwise, despite both speaking Korean, our Korean would have been unintelligible. I had to give them the cue that I was a Korean teacher, that way they would open their ears and pay closer attention to what it was that I was telling them.

Let's take another example. Years ago I was doing an internship at an Algerian television station. While my supervisor and I both spoke French, my supervisor kept saying things I could not understand. While she should have been lecturing me on the nature of the job, perhaps asking me what my motivation was to do an internship there, and the conversation should have centered around personal and professional topics, she was saying things like “I'm a peaceful woman!” “I have a dove on my head!” and “the world has no secrets for me, I know everything.” We if she knows everything, what's the point of having conversation then?

Let's take an extreme example. There's a movie where a Korean man falls in love with a Japanese girl. They slowly work their way through conversation. She speaks Japanese and he speaks Korean, and after conversing long enough, they both learn each other's language.

Now to answer the question “at what point do two languages become separate languages” I will say that when there is a will to communicate, there will eventually be means to communicate. When there's no will to communicate, there will be no means to communicate. And if you're having trouble getting someone else to accept that you speak their language, just say that you're a teacher of their language. If they still don't want to talk, that means you two really speak different languages.

How do creole languages emerge?

When two people or a group of people grew up speaking different languages, and that there's a need for them to engage in conversation, creoles emerge. That is the emergence of creoles is a social rather than linguistic emergence. The goal in forming creoles is to engage in conversation, not to create a new language.

When two adults of different linguistic backgrounds engage in conversation, and that they spend several days, weeks, months, years engaging in conversation, eventually three things can happen:

-Person A ends up adopting the language of person B

-Person B ends up adopting the language of person A

-They end up speaking a language that mixes elements of person A's language with person B's language.

Let's look at all three more closely. For the first two, if one person ends up adopting the language of another person, that's usually because one person did a good job at teaching their language to another person. But the network factor is also important, that is, the person with the strongest network will usually teach their language to the person with the weakest network. The network could be family, teachers, superiors and supervisors, administrators etc. That is if an Australian went to Korea, and that Koreans really wanted to communicate with him, he would likely end up adopting Korean. But why is it that Koreans in South Korea tend to end up adopting English when speaking with the Australian? Again it's the network effect, because the Australian tends to hang out with other English speakers, both Korean and non-Korean. That is conversation is rarely between two people, it tends to be between a group of people, and the group with the strongest ties will tend to impose their language. Other times, a group can deliberately refuse to teach their language to non-speakers, and will either adopt the non-speaker's language or a mix of the two languages. Why? Because a lot of groups tend to value opacity when dealing with guests, and want non-speakers to remain guests and not to interfere with local affairs.

Now why would two or more people start using a mix of the two languages to start a creole? This is usually when several people meet and are of completely different linguistic backgrounds, and that there is no dominant language in the group. That is there are no teachers, no administrators, no superiors, and they are in a state of linguistic anarchy. They have to engage in conversation, so over time, as they converse, they a new language will emerge through conversation.

How does the new language emerge. Ever wondered how the more time you spend with your wife or husband the more new terms and words you adopt to describe things, either euphemistically or simply because you like the new word or expression. Now imagine a group constantly coining new terms and expressions to describe things in their conversation for the sake of advancing conversation. That's when creoles emerge. Now since the parents have not known each other since childhood, there may be distance, lack of trust and skepticism when dealing with each other, leading to short, boring conversations. But their children, who will have known each other from childhood, will complete and perfect the creole. That is they will use words that their parents and family and the community uses, but their conversation will tend to flow better.

How does lexical substitution function?

A word or an expression can have endless meanings depending on the context in which it is being used. The more closed a society is, the more closed a group of individuals is, the more closed an individual is, the more context his or her expressions or words can have depending on meaning. Yet this problem has one big false assumption: it assumes that we understand what it is that we are talking about when we speak. The truth of the matter is often we don't. Even I don't really fully, deeply understand a lot of what it is that I say.

Let's take a word to illustrate as an example. A word that we all love to use. The word “immigrants.” We think we all know what it is we are talking about when we talk about immigrants. There are too many of them, they don't work, they can't find jobs, society is too harsh when dealing with them. Who the hell are these immigrants? Richard Branson is an immigrant. Are we talking about him? Jim Carrey is an immigrant, plus all those Canadian rock stars. Justin Bieber is an immigrant. There are hundreds of millions of immigrants around the world. It would take an entire encyclopedia or more to define the different types of immigrants that we can find in any given society. Yet when we're at a café or a pub, we tend to, with great authority, lecture each other on who those immigrants are.

Let's take another example, one that I used in this very article. “Americans.” I said earlier that we Americans like to speak clearly and do this and that. Kanye West is an American. Kim Kardadshian is an American, yet they don't come off as great examples when it comes to eloquence. There are almost 300 million Americans, all very different, with very different values and beliefs and backgrounds and habits and what not. Yet we all seem to speak with great authority when we say “Americans do this” or “Americans do that.”

Let's take another example of lexical subsitution. In the famous game show 'the Family Feud” a lot of times Steve Harvey will accept answers of words that are of a similar category to the word he was looking for. So if you say “socks” he will accept it as part of the answer clothes. A funny example was when they were looking for the word “actor or entertainer” and someone suggested “pornstar.” Pornstar was accepted as the equivalent of actor or entertainer. And then there's just self-censorship. In today's Algerian version of Family Feud, the contestant was asked “name a job you would never do” and the two contestants answered “driver” and “plumber.” Of course the most popular answer was “prostitute.”

So there are endless ways lexical substitution can function. Here are some of them.

-Generalizations. Using the word “Americans” do describe some Americans.

-Specifications: Using the word “salad” when you mean “food.”

-Euphemasim: My ex-fiancée, who was Korean, used to talk about “foreigners” when she was talking about me.

-Imrpovisation: using words with no meaning at all. Like that Korean kid who tells me “I want vanilla ice cream.”

-Self-censorship: Refusing to name an object and naming a completely different object instead. Like saying “I was at my best friend's house” when you were really at the motel with your girlfriend.

The categories are endless. There are three factors to consider when discussing lexical substitution: we don't always understand what the other person is saying, we often don't understand what it is that we are talking about, and we are forgetful. That is we tend to distort and forget a lot of the conversations that we had. It's often scary when someone remembers every single word that you told them during a conversation, because when we have conversation, we really hope that the other person will forget a lot of what we told them.

How do idiolects and dialects emerge?

An idiolect is a language a single person speaks. A dialect is a language a group of people speak. A language is something a large group of people speak. Let me give you an example. If I work at a coffee shop called the “English Café” people around the country or area will call it “coffee shop.” That's language. Then people who come to the café will call it “the English Café” or “the café.” That's dialect. People working at the café might call it the “Eng Ka” short for “English Café.” That's also dialect. Now I might work there and hate working there and might call it “the shithole.” That's an idiolect.

How do idiolects emerge and how do dialects emerge? Let's put things simply. Let's just say that some people like to meet lots of people. Other people like to be restricted to a group of friends. Others like to stick to two or three people and rarely venture out of that circle. I'm the kind of person who likes meeting new people all the time, and every time I meet new people I encouter new dialects and idiolects. I remember hanging out with English teachers in South Korea which had an entire dialect made up of words like “hagwon” (Korean cram school) and severance pay and contract violations and wonjangs (school owners or principles) and so on. Then you had the different groups of Koreans, Americans, Korean-Americans, and endless other subgroups I encountered which all had their dialects. Chefs tend to say “they work at a kitchen” when the average person would say that they are a chef at a restaurant. Doctors might say they work at the “office” when most people would say they work at the hospital. College professors tend to call their students “kids” when most people would refer to college students as adults. The dialect variations are endless.

How do they emerge. Take a group of people and let them hang out long enough and a dialect will emerge. Take a group of people and give them the same social conditions and administrative conditions and another dialect might emerge. Take individuals who navigate from one group to another and a mixture of the words, phrases and grammar they encouter within each social setting will become their idiolect. Because each social group has its social and administrative realities, and because people tend to borrow from the different social or administrative realities, or simply to make up words related to social or administrative realities. For example, a lot of the terminology used in Facebook has become widely used today. Words like to “unfriend” or to “ghost” or to “add a friend” or to “delete an account” are all new inventions. The opposite can also be true. When Cyworld, the Korean version of Facebook, used to be popular, a lot of words like “dottori” (the currency of Cyworld that you would trade for money” or “pogayo” (an expression people left on pictures posted by other people to say they were going to share the picture) or “minihompi” (profile page) or UCC (user created content,today mostly knonw as “Youtube videos”) used to be popular before the website shut down and an entire nation stopped using those words.

The origins of language and the origins of speech

Once upon a time homo sapiens were mute. The one day two of them walked to a bar and had to conversation:

“-dude that hunt was rough. Thank God we caught a couple of buffalos. Otherwise Margaret would have given us shit for not bringing food back home.

-Yea but you had some wild berries and apples. That would have made a good dinner. Let me trade you a couple of buffalo pounds for a jar of berries.

-Nah. I'm having a big party with a tribe. Waiter another beer please! We're all gonna share some of that buffalo and we're gonna have barbecue. But I'll save the haggis for my son's circumcision next week.”

No that's not really how language emerged. I don't think we will ever be able to find out exactly how speech developed and how grammar came about, but one thing I know for sure is that speech emerged from sounds homo erectus probably made. First there were pitches, then probably came to vowels, then the consonants, then grammar.

To understand the origins of language, you need to understand why human beings communicate in the first place.

-To signal danger (as in be careful there's a snake!)

-To distance danger (as in get out of my room!)

-To annoy competitors (as in you're not getting any of this food)

-To mate and reproduce (as in you look cute today)

-To communicate affection, companionship and solidarity (as in hey pretty!)

-For attention seeking purposes (as in look I'm eating a grape!)

-To express desire, either with other people or with spiritual being (I really care for a drink right now)

-To express emotions, both positive and negative (I feel happy or sad today)

-To express leadership or domination (you get two grapes, you over there get three grapes, you're not getting any grapes)

-To express submission (sir, yes sir!)

-To find, seek or provide information (where's Joe? He's in the kitchen.)

-For entertainment purposes (telling a story, making people laugh or making people cry)

There are other purposes for communication, but these can be done by most animals and these don't necessarily involve a complex language system with phonetics, morphemes, syntax and semantics. High-pitch sounds or body language can express such information, along with some body language and some context.

There's a theory out there that I agree with that goes that homo sapiens started taking so much space and mutliplying so much, that is tribes were so crowded that human beings needed to find complex ways to communicate. The more crowded our tribe is, the more complex the means of communication. So when we had thousands of members in our tribe we came up with complex language, then when we had tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands we came up with writing or telegrams, now that we are millions or billions we have facebook, wechat and ways to categorize and store information about our tribe so we can keep track of it. Otherwise we would all be lost somewhere in the jungle. This is why we all have names and last names, keep track of time and call of friends or family to find out where they are and what they are up to.

Unclassified languages and language isolates

Most tribes communicate with other tribes who communicate with other tribes and that's when you get a network of communications. A lot of inter-tribe communication has to do with information exchange, because tribes trade. Tribes are also not static, they move from place to place, settle in one place, move to another. If you look at a map from 100 years ago you'll see what a difference a hundred years make when it comes to population displacement and border changes.

Now some tribes remain static and confined to a certain geographic area with no contact with the other tribes, and over thousands of years, their languages evolve to bear no resemblance with that of other tribes, be it phonetically, semantically or syntactically. Or sometimes two or three tribes live in isolation with the rest of the world. This is true for tribes who live in fertile lands with no significant natural disasters over thousands of years. It is true for populations who live near rivers, fertile moutains or on islands and that are self-sufficient.

It is no surprise that most language isolates classified as such are not vibrant languages but moribund languages. Technological progress and progress with transportation, centralized states, generalized trade, population mixing, standardized languages all has something to do with the disappearance of language isolates.

The two most notable cases of language isolates are Basque and Korean. The Basques were “the invisible tribe” that is a populous tribe that the Romans, French or Spanish did not interact with in any significant way over thousands of years, leading their language to develop in isolate ways. That is when the Romans were invading the rest of Europe, not just the army but also settlment populations, Roman languages mixed with local languages, but Roman languages did not mix with Basque, and Basque retained its forms from thousands of years. Other tribes were also Isolates in Europe, but eventually joined the Pax Romana.

As for Korean, populations moved from China, and the larege Mongolian invasions in the 12th century meant the language mixes Chinese elements (Sinitic elements) with Mongol elements. But the Koreans like to perpetuate the idea of an isolated nation because historically control over the Korean populations was rigid, totalitarian and the Korean population has been highly stratified and ranked since 1392 under the rule of the Yi Dynasty. Such rigid stratification left no room for social elements foreign to the society to enter the society or join as members, thus the myth that the Korean language is an isolate language. But linguistic elements were always allowed in. And 600 years isn't that long in linguistic historical terms.

Reconstructing the distant past of languages

You have two reasons to want to reconstruct distant past languages. Either to be able to decypher, read and understand an ancient document, or out of pure curiosity.

But before you get there, you need to understand that in a not so distant past languages were nowhere near as standarized as they are today. Television is a recent invention, the internet is a very recent invention, and newspapers did not sell more than 30,000 copies a century ago. The radio is also a very recent invention.

Every now and then I will read an article that says that old English has been reconstructed, that old French has been reconstructed or that old Spanish has been reconstructed. You need to understand that English, French and Spanish were not nearly as standarized as they are today, and dialect variations were a lot more common that they are today. In the past, more so than today, you would get large phonetic, phonologic, morphologic, syntactic and semantic variations if you moved from village to village. Plus English, French or Spanish were not the main language spoken in those countries, regional languages were a lot more common back then. So if you want to reconstruct old English or old French with the assumption that the language is one big standardized language, you might be wasting your time. You may want to know that variations of the language varied greatly from village to village.

Now when it comes to decyphering ancient documents, you need to take into account that in the old days it was scribes who did all the writing, and that scribes were an educated elite with their own idiolects and dialects. Finding out the actual pronunciation of the word could be hard, because transcribing a language as it sounds is the exception, not the norm. Scribes tended to allow themselves a few poetic liberties when transcribing, used words that no one actually used or had their own codes when it came to transcribing the realities of their day. So linguistically, the text may not be 100% accurate.

As for the contents of the text, you need to know that a lot of scribes also took pragmatic liberties and liberties when it comes to accuracy. If you've even been an accountant before, you will know that you've cheated with the numbers a couple of times. If you're a writer, and I'll confess to this myself, you sometimes distort the truth, either deliberately or because you did not know any better. As for the story being told, it could be an attempt at accurately representing the truth, but you need to know that in the past and still today, a great deal of allegory and double talk was used when representing facts. They tell one story, but really mean to tell another. So if your job is to reconstruct old languages, you would probably need 300 volumes or more, and the 300 volumes wouldn't tell the full story, and would be speculative at best.

Undeciphered writing systems

Languages can be phonetic (one sound, one letter) or allophonic (two or more sounds, one letter) or biphonic (one sound, several letters) or syllabic (one syllable, one letter) or pictogramic (one word, one letter) or conceptual (one concept, one image or letter). So given all these variations, with many languages mixing transcriptions (most are phonetic, allophonic, biphonic, syllabic, pictogramic and conceptual).

Before you try to undecipher a writing system, try to imaging you were an alien from a distant planet somewhere in New York City trying to decipher what English is. You'd have some letters like the letters “l” or “r” which are phonetic. Then you would have letters like “e” or “a” which are biphonic because they have different pronunciations depending on their location. Then you would have “t” which is allophonic because the “t” in Target is not the same “t” as in Manhattan. Then you would come across Japanese or Korean stores that partly use syllabic alphabets, at least in the case of Korean phonetic alphabets written in syllabic order. Then you would come across pictures of food at McDonald's for example, where a picture of the “Big Mac” would symbolize the burger itself, or you would look at numbers like 5 or 6. Then you would have symbols for concepts, like if you went to a Church and saw the cross, or saw images of Jesus Christ herding the sheep. What sense would you make of all that?

In addition to alphabets having different representations for sounds, they also have different orders of writing. Hebrew is written right to left, English left to right, Chinese can be written left to right, right to left, up to down or down to up. Chinese prepresents one pictogram per line, but Korean represents one syllable per line. A lot of alphabets mix other alphabets, Japanese has four different alphabets (if you include the English alphabet) and Korean alternates between Chinese, Korean and English alphabets.

Now you also need to understand that some documents can have several languages in them. The Rosetta stone famously had three languages and that's how Coptic was decoded from the Ancient Greek that has survived to this day. Some manuscripts can have one language in them, others can mix different languages, others can be a whole new language that no one actually speaks.

Not to mention the codes and symbols that we all use every now and then. “Mr. A.” can mean “Mr. Alfred” but can also mean “John Doe.” Or it can be code for anything. Maybe Mr. A. is code for a bag of onions.

So when decoding ancient texts, you really want to make sure that the text you are decoding is useful. Archeologists of course find it useful, and there's a great deal of articificial intelligence software that has been developed to help decode ancient languages. When trying to decode ancient texts, rather than use artificial intelligence, you want to try to figure out: who wrote the text? Where did he come from? What other civilizations was he or she in contact with? Where did he pick up writing from? Did he write the text for his eyes only or was there some form of correspondence with others? And finally, are there other texts that use the same code or cipher?

Are there objective ways to classify languages by difficulty?

Of course the most difficult language in the world is Russian. No no no it's Mandarin Chinese. Hold on a second, Japanese has one of the most difficult alphabets in the world. No no no Navajo is the most difficult language in the world. Try Xhosa and all the click sounds.

How do you determine the difficulty of a language? Do you make people vote? Do you decide that the language with the most consonnats is the most difficult? Or the language that has the most suffixes for grammar? Or the language with the most pronouns? The one with the most pre-positions or post-positions? The one with the thickest dictionary?

Now languages kind of work like musical instruments or martial arts. My friends who play musical instruments say the hardest one to learn is the first instrument, the second is easier to learn, the third even easier, and once you've learned a few musical instruments you can pretty much learn to play any musical instrument with little effort. Same goes for the martial arts. They all have their codes and motions, but once you're fit in a martial art, you learn a second, then a third, and by the tenth martial art you can pick up pretty much any martial art quicky.

Languages kind of work the same way. The first foreign langauge you learn will be a drag. But if you successfully learn that first foreign language you can move on to the second, third, fourth, and before you know it you're fluent in 20. Now just like the martial arts and musical instruments you can play some better than others, and some are just Bruce Lee or Mozart while others are more like that annoying 7 year-old who dabbles with music or the martial arts.

One factor that makes learning foreign languages difficult is the hostility that some people can have when it comes to teaching their language to non-native speakers, or just to talking and chatting with strangers. Japanese is not difficult because of all the different alphabets they use, but because few Japanese people will make you feel at ease and at home when you speak their language. Japan, Korea and many other countries have rigid social structures where you can basically only be comfortable with someone if you went to school with them or attend church with them. You can do what I did, which is sit at café tables and chat with strangers, but this is a novelty in Korea and Japan and strangers are still treated with hostility.

Learning the phonetics, syntax or semantics of a language is never complicated. It is the pragmatics that are always complicated. If you go to a café in South Korea and order coffee, you just say “coffee”, look down at your feet and make no eye contact with the barista. If you order coffee in Israel, you better make eye contact with the barista. If you order food at a Japanese restaurant you just point at the item on the menu. In the United States, you had better smile and maybe even ask “what's the salmon salad like?” If you're in the Middle East you want to talk about history, politics or the economy, but you don't want to mention what you did last week or last month. In the United Kingdom, you better give a detailed report of what you've been up to these last few weeks. Just like each martial art and musical instrument has its own peculiarties, each language and person speaking the langauge will have their own peculiartieis.

How accurate are linguistic typology and language classification

Let me confess something. I freaking hate linguistic classification. Hate it. Because linguistic classification was originally used in racial classification and 6 million of my folks were murdered because some idiot was trying to show how races were related by looking at the linguistic similarities between them. I'll add that just because Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages doesn't mean all Arabs are Semites, nor does being a Semite or speaking a Semitic language excuse hating the Jews or admiring Hitler.

Now more seriously, how accurate is language typology and language classification? Now let's look at some figures. In 4,000 BC the world population was 7 million. 6,000 years isn't that much time in linguistic terms, so with 7 million people being the forefathers of the languages we speak there can not be a great deal of linguistic variation. So our languages originated from those 7 million people or from the 1 million people that are estimated to have lived on Earth in 10,000 BC. This fact is often omitted in history, archeology and linguistics because when we learn about hunter gatherers in school we often imagine the entire population of the United States picking fruits and berries around the country. So a very few, select group of people was at the origins of the languages we speak. Then some tribes conquered more than others and left linguistic traces in some places or others. Language also evolves within a tribe, and has influences from outside the tribe.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Kabyle Berber is often called a Hamitic language of the Afro-Asian family. But an alien from outer space would gladly let you notice that the language has significant traces of indo-european in it, namely French. Others would classify Tagalog or Cebuano, two languages widely spoken in the Philippines, as Austronesian, although again, they have a great deal of indo-european elements in them, namely Spanish.

It's true that some languages use agglutination while others use inflextion or others use consonnatic roots and that's how they're built. But even within the same language families, you can find a language that's inflexive and another that's agglutinative. There's this old Israeli guy I met and we were discussing origins. “I'm not Israeli, I'm not Ashkenazi, I'm not Romanian, I'm just me!” he yelled then we laughed. Same goes for languages, they're not ind-european, they're not romance, they're not French, they're just the language the guy speaks!

To what extent can conlangs be used by humans?

For a constructed language to be used by humans, you would need the following conditions:

-Two people meet and have no other language in common than the constructed language, they will use the constructed language. This is increasingly rare because most constructed languages originated in English-speaking countries, thus those who speak constructed languages tend to speak English.

-A group of people from different backgrounds have the cultural motivation to adopt the constructed language as the main language. They build schools which teach in the constructed language, train teachers to teach in the constructed language, write literature in the constructed language, encourage their children to speak in the constructed language. Eventually, the constructed language will become the children's first language.

You would need a great deal of motivation to adopt the constructed language and a great deal of organization would be required. This is because people tend to naturally speak common languages with each other. So the community would need to be free of foreign influence, would need to be tight-knit and would need to interact frequently with each other.

Esperanto is the most common conlang known, and until now it is mostly a gimmick where groups meet in cafés or dinner halls and speak the language for fun. When there are more pressing or serious issues, their first language or English tend to be used.

Hebrew was successful because there was a vast literature in Hebrew, because schools and courts and the police and the army were forced to adopt the language, and because people from different backgrounds insisted that their children speak Hebrew among themselves and at home. In many households speaking another language was taboo, and Hebrew eventually took over as the first language. Some Jewish communities outside Israel tried to adopt Hebrew as the first language, so far with very little success, because in France the courts speak French, the police speaks French, the store clerks speak French, the army speaks French and school children speak French. The same could be said about the United States or any other country, so eventually children use the local language and only have sparse knowledge of modern Hebrew in most cases.

How did grammar emerge?

When the Bible says God created man in His own image, I see this as the abstraction that God created man with the ability to handle and make use of precise tools and to use them with great precision, a feature that no other species has.

As homo sapiens evolved, homo sapiens could stand straight, have hands that can handle most objects with great precision and use them with great precision, meaning that man ended up having a precise sense of property, social relations and a keen sense of observation for danger, as well as being able to set up traps to prevent danger and so on. The fact that we can use our hands and limbs to design objects with great precision also means that homo sapiens had to be able to communicate orders, thoughts or ideas with great precision.

I've argued in this article that the use of language is rather imprecise and is often ambiguous, but the fact is that no other species remotely comes as precise as human beings when it comes to communication. In my opinion, the precise use and domination of tools came first, and language evolved along with the use of tools to build property and grow food. The more tools being used became precise, the more complex grammar and language became.

Grammar is mostly word order and nature and function of words. As I said, words are themselves hard to define, and word order is ambiguous and different sets of words in different order can be understood, when different sets of words in what appears to be good word order can be misunderstood. This is not “colorless green colors sleep furiously” I'm talking about. If a non-native speaker, or even a native speaker says something like “how old?” we often understand in the context that he or she is probably asking “how old are you?” If you go to a Chinese or Korean restaurant and the waiter grunts “how many?” he or she probably means “a table for how many people?” But then I remember asking my ex-fiancée several times “when are we planning our wedding?” to which her answer was always “I feel sleepy, I need a nap.”

Grammar changes from person to person and from dialect to dialect but is an ambiguous set of perceived word orders and phrase natures and functions that convey ambiguous meanings, that are yet more precise than anything else found in the animal kingdom.

Do children learn language for social reasons or is language wired in their brains?

This one is an easy one. I love dogs but never owned one. My friends who have had dogs adopted their puppies at birth, or at a very young age. The puppies stayed in the house the whole time, my friends communicate with their dogs a lot, sometimes having conversations with them. Some of my friends have confessed that they talk with their dogs every day, sometimes having elaborate conversations. Their dogs feel their emotions and react emotionally, and in some cases will refuse to eat if my friends have had a real rough day or a breakup.

But! The dogs never learn a single word. Not even a “yes” or a “no” or a “got you!” or a “what?” Nothing. Nor do they understand anything you are telling them. So of course language is wired in the brain of human beings, and save some neurological dysfunctions, human beings will pick up pretty much any language they are exposed to. But not automatically.

I grew up in New York City, Mozambique, Colombia, Turkey and Algeria going to the French schools there. Pretty much everyone at the school did learn French, although some spoke it with a heavy accent and some did not always express themselves fluently in French. What is more surprising perhaps, is that a lot of the kids who were in New York City, sometimes at a very young age, did not pick up English. Some were 8 years old, 10 years old, 12 years old, supposedly at an age where you naturally pick up the languages you are surrounded with. Some had stayed in New York City for 3, 4, 5 years or more, yet did not pick up English. Of course these were the exception rather than the norm, but they existed. Nor did they pick up Portuguese in Mozambique, Spanish in Colombia, Turkish in Turkey or Arabic in Algeria. What went wrong for those who couldn't pick up the language?

What happened is that if their parents were French, they spoke French of course. If their parents were Italian they spoke Italian. But there were different scenarios. One was of an Italian kid in New York City who had been in the City for years, yet did not learn English, nor did he learn Italian. His parents were Italian, but I presume he got comfortable to speaking French with his classmates and ended up speaking French with his parents. His parents probably spoke French, with a heavy Italian accent. There was this other case of a couple of unrelated French girls who had been in the City for years but struggled with English. They probably spoke French at home, did not watch that much TV, their friends were French, their surroundings were French and they went to France every single vacation or opportunity they had.

So kids absorbe languages like sponges, but don't assume that just because you're putting them in a bilingual environment they will become bilingual. They will probably use the language they are more comfortable with and stick to that language. I remember a couple of kids with a Russian mom and an American dad in Korea who did not understand my English nor did they understand the little Russian I knew. To them it was all Korean.

I'll confess that I'm a weirdo. I never got comfortable with a  single language. I could have, and I'd probably be writing this in French or something. But most people are comfortable with closed social circles, a circle of three or four friends and the rest are non-persons. To me, everyone was a friend, or perhaps an acquaintance, and I did not grow up with the notion of closed groups. I still cringe when someone won't allow another person to join us at the table or when someone gets uncomfortable when an intruder joins our table, despite the intruder being nice and friendly.

So yes, learning a language is both wired in the brain and acquired socially, but most of us get comfrotable with one social group and one language. Few people get comfortable with mutliple groups and multiple languages.

Is grammar learned socially or is it wired in the brain?

Again I'd have to go back to the example of the dog who spent 13 years living with a family yet did not learn to utter a single word, not even “yes” or “no” or “mommy” or “daddy” or perhaps one of the family members names.

Autism is an interesting case in point here. A lot of autism patients do learn individual words and some build up a considerable amount of vocabulary. Yet a lot of times something autistic children have trouble with is specifically grammar. They often say “tomato” when they mean “can I have that tomato please?” Young children under the age of 5 or 6 also tend to have the same problem. So grammar is indeed wired in the brain.

But it's not just the brain. Personality has something to do with it as well. I've met quite a few people with what I would diagnose as anti-social personality disorder. That is they refuse to talk to people, and when asked questions, either answer with a simple word or don't say anything at all. Often no one has ever heard their voice except to utter a few words. Some of them might have a friend or two who they confide in, others might not have friends at all.

Note that anti-social personality disorder and Asperger's syndrome are different. Asperger's is when people have trouble with socially appropriate behavior, and often have trouble reading body language or hints that their behavior should change. Anti-social personality disorder is when people live in their own secret bubble. That is they tend to lock themslves up in a room, are very secretive about their activities, and rarely talk to anyone.

But overall grammar is both wired in the brain and socially acquired, although it is not always automatically socially acquired, as in cases of autism or anti-social personality disorder. Other than that, people will tend to acquire the grammar they get comfortable with and some will have their prefernces when it comes to grammar use. Some will say “I”m gonna” while others prefer “I will” while others use both interchangeably. Grammar books can explain the difference, but the truth is most people have their own understanding of the difference between “will” and “going to.” Some are very chatty like me, others tend to be rather quiet.

How come second language learners vary widely in performance?

There's a Korean show on KBS that I watch with great loyality called “My Neighbor Charles.” The show features non-Koreans who live in Korea, often those who struggle to make ends meet in Korea. One show struck me where a woman from Bangladesh, whose husband is also from Bangladesh, speaks Korean with great fluency and great ease. I would think she were Korean if she were speaking on the phone. Other women, mostly brides from Uzbekistan, also speak the language with great ease.

Then you had a restaurant owner from the United States who barely spoke a word of Korean. And an Australian man who owns a ceramics shop who also struggles to put a sentence together in Korean. So what's the deal here? How come a woman from Bangladesh who spent 10 years in Korea speaks the language fluently, when a man from the United States spent 20 years in Korea yet struggles to put a sentence together?

As with children, adults also have the group and the language they get comfortable with. Some are comfortable with foreign languages, others are not. What determines your level of comfort?

In 2005 I arrived in Korea. Up until 2007, I could not meet a single Korean I was fully comfortable with. They would all make me feel uncomfortable, until I gradually met people who made me feel comfortable in the country. Around 2008 and 2009, I had met a great deal of people who made me feel comfortable in the country.

Same goes for every language I learned. If a few people had not made me feel comfortable about myself in Kabyle or Arabic, I would never have learned the language. Same goes for Spanish and Turkish, or French.

Can you learn a language without having people to talk to who you're comfortable with? You can ace tests, you can memorize textbooks, you can have a deal of fluency or accuracy when learning a language all by yourself. But when talking with someone in the target language, you will say awkward things and come off as awkward. Kind of like the anti-social personality disorder I described above who don't feel comfortable with anyone and only say what they feel is absolutely necessary.

What's the best way to learn a second language?

Finding people you're comfortable with speaking a foreign language is a good start. People who make you feel good about yourself, people who make you feel comfortable about yourself. There's an article where I describe 50 signs that people hate you. Basically people who don't show signs that they hate you, but who show signs that they like you and respect you. If you're the kind of guy or girl who doesn't naturally like and respect people, you are going to have trouble finding people who like you and respect you, because liking and respecting people comes with a great deal of reciprocity.

Some countries or cities can also be more anti-social than others. Algiers is an incredibly anti-social city, and had it not been for having been to school in Algiers, I think I would have had lots of trouble learning Arabic and Kabyle. Seoul is also an anti-social city to a certain extent, group events tend to be restrictive and a lot of groups will only invite people they like to events. Ankara, Turkey was never an anti-social city and you can go to pretty much any mall or streets and strike up conversations with random people. 5 minutes and you can make three best friends, and leave them to never meet them again. Paris can be an anti-social city where only those close friends will be invited to events, while Bogota is kind of like Ankara, three minutes and you can make several best friends and never talk to them again.

So basically when it comes to learning languages the best way is to find people who speak the language and who you're comfrotable with. That's what foreign language classrooms are for. Finding teachers, paying the course, but also finding teachers who you feel comfrotable with talking in the foreign language, alone or with a group of learners. Of course if the teacher doesn't make you feel comfortable, you're not going to do any language learning.

South Korea and China are notorious for hiring English teachers with no experience teaching and often don't check if the teacher is going to be someone who naturally likes and respects the students that he or she will be teaching. Another reason why the Chinese and Koreans are famous for struggling to learn foreign languages. Japan, China and Korea are also notorious for not teaching people how to respect each other and be comfortable around each other. There, you have another reason why those three countries tend to struggle with foreign languages.

There are a few more unsolved problems in linguistics, which I'll save for another fireside chat.


      
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