Complex, rich, grammatical

LANGUAGE AND DIALECT : People generally separate language from dialect on the basis of script, larger lexicon, purity, standardisation and areas where

Complex, rich, grammatical
It may indeed come as a surprise to lay persons that professional linguists have not been able to define with any precision such basic concepts as ‘word’, ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ among others. In the case of ‘word’ for example, after detailed debates of considerable complexity, most linguists are quite happy to work with the definition that what we see between two spaces in a printed text is a word.

The fact that such a perspective excludes from our purview the whole range of oral tradition, shows the immediate limitations of such a definition. It also does not tell us whether to treat ‘isn’t’ etc as one word or two. The debates around trying to define a word have indeed been fascinating.

For example, is ‘strawberry’ a word made out of two independent words, that is, ‘straw’ and ‘berry’  or just a single word in its own right? How is the meaning mapped if we think of it as a compound of two words; and, indeed what about ‘cranberry’?

It is the issue of language and dialect that has generated debate that does not seem to abate. The basic reason for this is that people try to seek a linguistic answer to a question that is essentially social and political in nature. For a professional linguist, there is actually no difference between a language and a dialect. It is not that linguists don’t talk about languages, dialects and varieties. But they do so with the full awareness that, linguistically speaking, all varieties or dialects or languages are equally complex, rich and grammatical.

They would talk of regional dialects indicating the divergence that obtain among different regions or social dialects indicating the differences one witnesses in the speech of various social classes. The level of mutual comprehensibility among geographically contiguous areas is always higher than those which may be separated by natural geographical boundaries such as forests, rivers or mountains. The regional dialect tells us where you come from and the social dialect tells us who you are.

The status of language or standard language is acquired not because of any inherent property of a variety or a dialect but because of its association with a socio-politically powerful group. As Sapir said: ‘When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.’

People generally separate language from dialect on the basis of script, larger lexicon, grammatical complexity, purity and standardisation and large geographical areas over which it is spoken. A moment’s reflection would show that all this is simply a baggage of myths. These features simply emerge from the association of a particular variety that gets associated with power.

There is a perspective on language which looks at it as an innate faculty of the human brain; just as we have eyes to see and ears to listen, we have a blueprint embedded in our brains to learn language. Our brains are assumed to have a blueprint of Universal Grammar and all human languages are rather trivial variations on this blueprint in terms of a limited number of parameters.

Languages for example, could be verb-medial like English or verb-final like Hindi or Kannada. Similarly, what are technically called ‘ad-positions’ could appear either before or after nouns. For example, in Hindi we say ‘mez par’ but in English we say ‘on the table’; what corresponds to ‘on’ appears before the noun in English but after the noun in Hindi.
But there are other perspectives on language. Though some of them grant the presence of an innate faculty, they argue that language is essentially socially constituted. As one of the most sensitive sociolinguists, Dell Hymes argued, “we don’t need just linguistic competence to talk; we need communicative competence of which linguistic competence is only one part”.

Communicative competence

Communicative competence varies from one society to another and is socially located and acquired. In order to examine communicative competence we need the concepts of a speech community and the concept of a verbal repertoire; not just the concept of an individual and his mental grammar.

When we engage in conversation we need to follow the rules of politeness and address forms saying things that are not just grammatically accurate but also socially acceptable. However, the concept of ‘speech community’ and ‘verbal repertoire’ is as underspecified as that of ‘word, dialect and language’.

In general, a speech community would have a territorial correlate, considerable frequency of interaction among its members, a shared set of verbal signs and a shared set of norms of behaviour. It will also be set off from other groups by weaker lines of interaction. However, what we wish to construe as our speech community cannot be taken for granted; it will depend on the level of abstraction we wish to achieve.

We could talk of a small Punjabi village as a speech community or we could talk of the whole Punjabi Diaspora across the globe or we could limit our study to say a small group of Punjabi immigrant children in a city in England or Canada. Similarly, the concept of verbal repertoire is proposed to include the totality of verbal choices an individual has and to account for variability in linguistic behaviour in terms of person, place and topic.

Though we have a fairly good grip on different concepts involved in linguistic analysis, the operational conceptual machinery for any specific issue will depend on the kind of questions we are asking and the assumptions we make about individuals, social groups and language.

(The author retired as Professor of Linguistics, Delhi University)

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