Language, shmanguage

The sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich once famously quipped, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” [1] Interestingly, this phrase itself displays a number of fascinating, illustrative elements of language. When he says “language” he is referring to one specific set of combinatorial rules and ways of creating sequences of word units into a discourse that is spoken by a particular group of people. [2] But the term “language” itself has multiple meanings, and the one with which we are primarily dealing with in these readings is of the human capability for natural language. As Radford points out, language is ambiguous, and humans must be able to use context to interpret semantic meaning. [3] We know that, in the context of these texts, “language” is primarily a meta concept, while in the above quote “language” refers a specific language like English or Yiddish.

Though this may be jumping ahead, the sentence also points out some interesting semantic and sociolinguistic phenomenon. Claiming a language has “an army and a navy” is obviously meant non-literally—it shows the capacity for language to be (and for humans to think in a way that is) metaphorical and symbolic. It also highlights the fact that the only difference between a formal language and a dialect is that a language has the apparatus of a power structure (in the form of a state with a military) enforcing its official use. The implications of this can be what Radford calls language shift, or when one language becomes dominant over another. [3]

While I have given more attention to the semantics of this sentence (because it’s semantically very interesting), there are three other elements we can examine in light of Jackendoff’s models. First, there is the phonological structure, referring to the literal sounds made when articulating the sentence aloud (which is dictated by the rules of the English language’s letters and how they combine and interact). Second, there is the syntactic structure, which refers to “grammar” or rules for how to combine words to make larger units of meaning. The semantic structure, which I have already addressed, refers to the meaning that we interpret from such combination of words and phrases. Finally, the least flushed out is the spatial structure, which places your understanding of a sentence into the context of a perception of the wider world. [4]

On a final note, something I am particularly interested in is how language—in particular, miscommunication and changing peoples’ expectations of how language functions—is used in humor and comedy. Examples are everywhere, but I thought this clip was particularly appropriate. It features Ali G (one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical characters) interviewing our very own beloved Noam Chomsky. In just three and a half minutes it highlights a number of linguistic issues, including ambiguity, dialects/slang (and the misunderstandings that arise from them), language as an exclusively human phenomenon, non-language communication, misperceptions about the field of linguistics, the arbitrary nature of words/signifiers, and more.



[1] Weston, Timothy B., and Lionel Jensen M. China beyond the Headlines. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.

[2] Irvine, Martin. “Language and Symbolic Cognition: Key Concepts.” (2015): n. pag. Web.

[3] Radford, Andrew, Martin Atkinson, Harald Clahsen, and Andrew Spencer. Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

[4] Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.