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Thinking about languages- I speak a few- I find it fascinating that languages follow rules across the board. Of course there are important exceptions in each language, where we just have to memorize these exceptions, but in general, languages seem to follow a systematic structure (some more than others).For instance, similar conjugations apply to a wide family of verbs in English, French, Hindi, Arabic and I would imagine others. Are there any theories as to why languages tend to be structured in this way? Or is it that structured languages survive more than unstructured ones? It is just baffling/wondrous that most languages which have emerged abide by certain rules, rather than languages with exceptions upon exceptions. What gives?

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    How would anyone understand each other if languages didn't have any rules? You could get onto questions about whether human brains are innately disposed to follow certain language rules, but fundamentally without rules we'd just be making random noises.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 16 at 22:18
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    Basically, all human behavior, all animal behavior, all living creatures, and all physical phenomena are structured by following rules. Why should language be any different?
    – jlawler
    Oct 16 at 23:00
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    You might find it interesting to read about Creole languages. When people who do not share a language are thrown together and need to communicate, they tend to develop a pidgin or jargon, with shared words but almost no grammar ("rules"). When children grow up hearing or seeing a pidgin spoken round them, they generally spontaneously develop a grammar, and their language becomes a creole. Nicaraguan Sign Language is a fascinating example of a signed creole language.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 16 at 23:07
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The answer should be clear if you consider what it would mean for a language to have no rules. In English, we have specific words that refer to specific things: horse, car, pig, elephant, stick, and also actions: kick, hit, see, eat. These are "rules" of a type (as a rule, we refer to the equine mammal using the word "horse", and we don't use the word "car" for that purpose. There are rules in English about how to combine words to express the idea "The elephant kicked a pig", "The pig ate a stick", "A car ate a horse", and we can tell because of those rules that the last example refers to a strange situation.

Imagine there was a language with no rules, meaning that you can use any word to refer to anything, in any order, and it doesn't have to be the same if you say the same thing twice, it will come out different. Of would break communication abandon you language because with of were to a would man. dog digging would favor in this language broken communicate an know from no to word way source be bites would action the if idea a man would refer not they bites rules. Indistinguishable another to there be people milk, “cow” of person, the dog or and down, to hole. A using.

There is also a question about why languages tend to have single words constructed out of two or more meaningful parts. This is basically a phonological thing: it's easier to mash everything together, but easier to understand that mashup if the mashed-up word has some sensible structure so that you can tell that part A refers to the subject, part B is the object, part C is the tense and part D is the specific lexical root.

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According to Noam Chomsky, languages are basically innate. He points out children acquire language without explicit instruction. Interaction with language activates the language function. The structure of language corresponds to the structure of the brain functions that operate it; i.e. the left hemisphere of the brain leaves an "impression" on language. That is what is left, the structures of verb, noun, tense, declination, and the like. It is the pattern that is readily adapted to the sounds it is exposed to, i.e. the spoken language. Human languages correspond because rules of grammar are presumably artifacts of the communicators, humans, who use them.

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  • Perhaps I understood wrong, but couldn’t you say that for any thing? I could watch someone chop tomatoes and say that I now know how to chop tomatoes without having been taught to, and therefore its innate and I just activated that part of the brain? Oct 18 at 2:00
  • @QuintusCaesius-RM No matter how many times a dog listens to humans speak, it will never be able to speak itself. The argument of Universal Grammar is that there is a special part of human cognition for language which is unlike pretty much all the other skills a human can acquire. The arguments for language being special are the speed at which it is acquired and how little stimulus is required compared to the results. Of course many linguists dispute the whole idea.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 18 at 2:02
  • @curiousdannii But no matter how many times a dog watches me chop tomatoes, it will not be able to chop tomatoes, so could I say that there is a special part of human cognition for chopping tomatoes? I could use most of the arguments for innate language theory (if thats whats it is called) for a bunch of other things as well. I still don’t seem to understand the difference. Oct 18 at 4:09
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    It might be worth mentioning that Chomsky's theory is far from being universally accepted.
    – fdb
    Oct 18 at 10:09
  • Chomsky - not universally accepted: same with Zoroaster, Moses, Siddhartha, Confucius, Plato, Jesus, Nietzsche, etc. However, one difference, Chomsky's theory is the most cited by a large margin. His work changed the way we look at language, and it is worth noting that one should be familiar with the fine details of the work before one says something complacent and borderline arrogant, like "far from being universally accepted." There are other arguments to make besides, oh, some reactionaries are displeased with Chomsky for personal reasons. Nov 10 at 15:36

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