Why is language so important?
“Imagine that you are watching a nature documentary … the song of the humpback whale contains several well-known errors, and monkeys’ cries have been in a state of chaos and degeneration for hundreds of years.”
There's no doubt about it, we're fascinated by language. Hence the widespread sharing of images on social media, like this comic strip about an allergy to grammatical errors. (NB: I too suffer from this allergy, and it’s not seasonal.) And there’s even a society devoted to promoting “good” English.
Perhaps the title of this blog post ought to be Why do we Find Discussing Language so Fascinating?, because it’s clear that we will never bore of discussing language issues.
Whether humans or animals it’s to our advantage that we can communicate, and as humans we’re unique in being able to do that via language. Since communication is fundamental to language, as long as we get our message across, why does it matter how we do it and whether the grammar is correct?
As children, we have an innate ability to acquire a language system, without being explicitly told the rules, hence a four-year-old might say words like sheeps, because subconsciously she’s learnt that the suffix -s makes a word plural – she has of course never heard an adult say sheeps and copied them.
Each language has its own rules that enable us to communicate – we agree on these rules therefore we understand each other. If those rules are broken extensively then we might be unable to understand the message a person is trying to communicate. There are many prescriptivists who take this to the extreme and delight in admonishing other people’s “errors”, or cringe in dismay at things such as grocers’ apostrophes.
Critical attitudes to language are all around us, but, as the above quote from Steven Pinker demonstrates, they are often nothing but unjustified value judgements. What does it matter how we say or write something if it can be understood? When talking about language, we need to differentiate between the contexts in which language occurs. Formal, written language such as a newspaper article is very different to written text speak, for example.
I doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t understand the message of the character on the right in the cartoon. So what does it matter that grammatical and spelling errors are used? If I try really hard, the editor in me can read it without dying inside too much, but it’s the final use of pacific (for “specific”) that is the sucker punch. As much as I understand the sentence, I can’t get past the error so it distracts from the message. And in writing, if we don’t adhere to the same system, the deviations will become so extreme that we no longer understand one another.
Let’s not forget though, that an inherent property of language is that it constantly evolves. If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking and writing like Chaucer in the UK. We can’t stop this evolution but we can try to keep it on track politely, with grammatical conventions so that comprehension doesn’t suffer.
Read our blog to get an idea of what we do, how we edit, how we organise projects... and learn about grammar and linguistics – some of the foundations of our work.