He be workin’ (Katie Oberkircher)

As Steve Pinker points out at the beginning of his video, language is at the center of how we think, how we evolve as humans, how we form social relationships, and how we understand biology. All of these factors together intersect with the themes of community and memory.

To explain language to someone unfamiliar with linguistics, I would start by explaining the relationship between words, rules and interfaces. We arrange words into combinations that follow certain rules to share and receive ideas. Then, I would refer them to Jackendoff.

To comprehend language, Jackendoff gives us parallel architecture as a way to understand the relationship between semantics, syntax and phonology. These elements only produce sentences because they happen simultaneously (Jackendoff, 126). Further, different combinations of these elements impact the construction and meaning of sentences, which we understand in the context of our environment/community.

Even though all societies have a language, we exist in specific “communication environments” within those societies, which influences how we understand each other (Irvine, 3). Dr. Irvine articulates that this environment is comprised of “assumptions, collective knowledge, and a repertoire of speech genres shared by participants but not explicitly stated in the formal semantics of expression” (Irvine, 3). Although sentences are constructed the same way, we rely on certain beliefs and collective information not necessarily reflected in the form of a sentence to understand each other.

Pinker explains this idea as a third interface between language and mind. We use the context of our social and cultural environment to understand language.

But how entrenched is language in a particular culture? This question brings up the idea of dialects. Pinker uses Ebonics/Black English as an example (He be workin’ vs. he workin’). The main verb “be” used here differentiates between employment status vs. someone’s current actions. Using the unchanged version of the verb “to be” confuses word tense, but indicates that actions are habitual, so we can infer that using “is” or “are” would not produce the same meaning in this context. So, people who use this dialect learn this rule in order to understand each other, although it is not a rule that we attribute to universal grammar.

This distinction brought up a few questions: Does dialect impact how we think? Is dialect considered a different language? In other words, what boundaries do dialects create, and are we aware of them? Do dialects overlap and/or evolve? Is it possible to know where one language leaves off and another begins?

Questions for further exploration:

  1. Is the way we communicate via social media considered a dialect? How does the inclusion of abbreviated phrases like LOL, u, nvm, onw, and other shorthand impact how we think and communicate face to face?
  2. If some thoughts don’t take place in sentences (i.e., music), how does language impact how we conceptualize those products? What is the significance of the intersection of language and nonverbal forms of expression?

Big Think. Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. Accessed September 19, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-B_ONJIEcE.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Linguistics and Symbolic Systems: Key Concepts” (intro essay).

Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.