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Introduction to language and society


Subject name: language and societyProf. name: Prof.Rajesh Kumar Department: Department of Humanities and SocialSciences Institute name: IIT MadrasLecture number : Module -1 Lecture title: Introduction to language andsociety.

In this course, we’ll talk about the relationshipbetween language and society.We will see how language works in societyand how society governs the use of language.There is a very strict and unique relationshipbetween these two elements.Language is useful in society, it is meaningfulin the society; however, it is one of the most sophisticated products of human mind.We will explore the relationship between languageand society throughout this course.Today we are going to be looking at the componentsthat will be useful for us to understand in the beginning before we get into the detailsof the elements that we will be discussing in this course.

Two things that are important for us to understandis language and society.Such a discussion falls in the larger disciplinecalled ‘linguistics’.So we will try to understand three terms - language,linguistics, and society.Let us start first with linguistics.(Refer Slide Time: 1:22)Linguistics is a larger discipline that deals with the study of language.In short, we can say ‘everything that westudy about language falls in the domain of linguistics’.In this case, we are going to be looking atlanguage and society.Such a connection, such a relationship fallswithin the larger domain of linguistics and this is specifically called ‘sociolinguistics’.A look at language from its role in societyis called sociolinguistics whereas when we look at society from the perspective of language,such a thing is called ‘sociology of language’.

We will be looking at sociology of languageas well.We will not be making the narrow distinctionbetween the two, which is micro and macro distinction, but we will be looking at bothtogether. So that is how we define linguistics, thatis how we relate language and society and the next term is language.As we know and has been established in variousdiscussions and huge range of research that language is a product of human mind.Language is special purpose cognition.Language is very different from all otheractivities that we do.It constructs humans.It is constitutive of humans; and also languagenot only defines humans but language - in the particular context of what we are goingto be discussing - becomes or happens to be medium of construction and dissemination ofany kind of knowledge.The role of language in human life, in society,is huge.It is an accepted phenomena so much so thatwe understand and acknowledge that we cannot conceptualize humans, we cannot conceptualizesociety, or for that matter, anything else without language.Such is the significance of language.

When it is called the medium of constructionof knowledge and dissemination of knowledge,it is imperative for us or for anyone to understandwhat language is about, how language works and only then we can understand what we dowith the language.So linguistics also deals with systematicstudy of language – study of language in a systematic fashion.It is the studied at the level of sounds,words, sentences, and discourse.These are four fundamentals of the study oflanguage.These are four blocks of language.We study sounds, we study words, then we studysentences and finally when we get to discourse,that is the place where we can see the relationshipbetween language and society.So, and we have discussed the significanceof the language, we have looked at components of language in terms of sounds, words, sentencesand discourse, it is also important for us to very briefly touch upon how is it thatwe learn language.And then we will understand language in littlebit more details before getting into a discussion on its relationship with society.

So keep in mind so far that an understandingof what language is and what language does in the real world will follow to some extentfrom how we learn language. It is very significant to understand the pointabout language learning, particularly whenlanguage learning is natural, automatic forhumans.We’ll try to understand this very briefly. It is a much larger discipline. It has been discussed in details.But let us see how we discuss it here.There are fundamental ideas and fundamentalthings that we need to put in front and such things are: there is a hypothesis that allhuman children are born equipped with the capacity to learn language.This has led people to say language is a biologicalcapacity.And this happens only in the case of humanchildren.So such a capacity is also called LanguageAcquisition Device. This is a hypothetical entity which is assumedto be the language capacity for every human.This device, this hypothetical device, hasbeen argued to have, in simple terms, blueprints of all the languages.

That is, it has fundamentals of language atleast these two parts.Together these two parts are called UniversalGrammar.So the blueprint or the fundamentals of languageis what we know as universal grammar.Universal grammar will have two parts: Principlesand Parameters.Principles are those elements which are commonto all languages.That is, language do not vary along the linesof these principles.In fact languages are similar to one anotheralong the lines of these principles.Whereas, languages vary from one another alongthe lines of parameters.To take an example, all the languages willhave sentences.This is a principle.All the sentences must have verbs.This is also a principle.All the sentences must have a subject.This is also part of a principle.And this will not vary language to language.

This is going to remain constant.However, what varies from language to language- and that is known as parameters - are the following: Some languages will have verbsin the middle of a sentence.These languages are called Verb Medial languages,namely English. When we say a sentence, “John eats a pizza”,the verb “eat” precedes the object and therefore it ends up being in the middle ofthe sentence and this therefore this language is called verb medial language. On the other hand, a language like Hindi,where we can say the same sentence as, “John pizza khatha hai” the verb “khatha hai”is the final constituent in the sentence and such a language is called Verb Final language. So according to the parameter of occurrenceof verb in a sentence, there are three types of languages.And they are: verb final languages like Hindiand many other languages, in fact, most of the languages spoken in South Asian sub-continent. 

However, verb final languages are not restrictedto South Asian sub-continent alone.English, German and many other European languagescould be, are, verb medial languages.However, Arabic is Verb Initial language.So these are the three positions verbs couldoccur in natural languages.And that could be considered parameter.There are hundreds of parameters along whichlanguages vary.To give you one more example of a parameteris the following: in some languages what we call preposition precede nouns.Whereas in some languages, they follow thenoun.For example, when we say “on the table”,the element “on” which is considered,which is a preposition in the language Englishprecedes the noun “table”.Whereas “table par” in a language likeHindi, preposition, in this case, post-position “par”, follows the noun “table”.So along the lines of these things, languagesvary from one another.These are parts of Universal Grammar and theyare all in-built in Language Acquisition Device.And that has been argued and it has been arguedthat human children are born with this capacity.

What happens is, human children interact withtheir immediate society, that is, the society where they are born.And the society for them constitute the peoplewho interact with them.The language that people who interact withyoung children provides input and on the basis of that limited, fuzzy, unclear input childrenget triggered and Language Acquisition Device gets triggered and the capacity which helpsthem develop the capacity to generate infinite number of grammatical and fully acceptablesentences. At the age of four, human children becomelinguistically adult. So the role of input that they receive fromtheir immediate surrounding serves a critical role in learning of language. When what they receive from their immediatesurroundings triggers what exists in human mind, that is, Language Acquisition Devicetogether develops the capacity to speak, the capacity to generate sentences.And then there are further details of this. So in short the society plays an importantrole in learning of language as well. It is highly unlikely that a child born inChennai or New Delhi will be speaking a language like Spanish or French. However, what is normal is a child speaking,a child born in Chennai will be naturally speaking Tamil and child born in Delhi willbe speaking the language of the surroundings where she is born. This is how, in short, we understand how welearn language. To define a language is one of the most complexthing because of the nature of language.

Refer Slide Time: 14.37 There are two parts in understanding language.One is the nature of language and the otheris the structure of language.We have just discussed the principles andparameters on the basis of the structure of .The Nature of language is equally importantfor us to understand.We will be looking at the nature of languagein great details in its relationship with the society shortly.While we say the nature of language is suchthat there are two terms which can help us define the nature of language.The two terms are continuum and fluidity.In fact, we will see in great details thatlanguage does not seem to be a countable entity.In fact, the nature of language is fluid andthat fluidity constitutes a continuum which helps us understand internal variations withinthe language.Therefore when we say a language Hindi andjust with this much - ‘Hindi’, it is notunfair to assume that everyone speaks Hindithe same way.However, that is not true.In fact, Hindi is spoken in lots of differentways - hundreds of different ways.Similarly all other languages are spoken inmany ways.These are that is because of internal variation.That is because the nature of the languageis fluid and each of these varieties constitutes becomes a point on continuum that helps usunderstand the nature of language.In short the language has been defined inRoutledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as one of the impressive and fascinating human capacity.It has also been termed as strikingly powerfuland complex system.We just discussed the phenomena of languagelearning.The phenomena of language learning helps usunderstand what language is about.

The complex system - it is called a complexsystem because it is highly structured and rule governed - it is powerful and complexboth at the same time because we learn to speak language without knowing, without puttingconstant efforts.Therefore it is very simple to conclude thatlearning language is totally effortless.And here we mean learning language at a veryearly stage.We are talking about learning to speak firstlanguage.Therefore the terms like human capacity andhuman languages being powerful and complex,these are important things to understand andthey follow from our understanding of how we learn language.Refer Slide Time: 18:13 We have talked about linguistics.We have talked about sounds, words, sentences,and discourse.The fundamental ideas of sounds are studiedin phonetics and phonology, words are studied in morphology, and sentences are studied insyntax.Meaning is studied in semantics.These are some of the fundamentals of understandinglanguage.These sub-disciplines of linguistics helpus understand different details of language,different components of language.These are interfaces within them as well.But we leave them aside.Then we get to discourse and that becomesa part of sociolinguistics where society comes in the play.Now, why we want to understand what linguisticsis about, in the context of our understanding of how we learn language and what languageis about, is following and simple: we want to emphasize that as much language is a phenomenaof human mind, language is a social phenomena .as well.The role of society in us learning languageis vital.Primary input comes from society.And the society is the element that decideswhat we speak.The underlying system gets elaborated, getsclarified when we talk about Universal Grammar and principles and parameters.

However the rules of use of language wouldcome from society.And they happen, if not at a time, almostsimultaneously - one after the other - soon after the rules of the language gets clarifiedin human mind.Therefore it is important to understand thatlanguage, what we call language in society is actually the language of discourse- thelanguage that people speak. Human mind is concerned with units of language,parts of language.But society deals with all of them togetherat the level of discourse.So for the study of sentence, any individualsentence works - John eats the pizza; Delhi is a big city; Taj Mahal is beautiful; andChennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu.All these constitute units and they are sentences.However when we try to put them together theydo not generate discourse.They are random sentences.Our constitution of discourse around somethingis what constitutes the use of language insociety and that is what we need to understandin this course.With these fundamental ideas of how we learnlanguage, what the components of sentences and language are and how we study them, wewill need to understand how the two things work in society.Tomorrow we will be looking at the relationshipbetween language and society in more details,with terms like language and dialects andhow they work in society on continuum with

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