universal grammar, subcultures and linguistic fillers


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Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Rules of Grammar

Chomsky’s concept of universal grammar is the springboard for human language development. In the right environment, humans learn how to communicate with each other via language. However, we are often taught the “rights and wrongs” of language as it relates to grammar and syntax. The conventions we are taught to adhere to are called “prescriptive” rules. These rules are prescribed to us within our culture, often by means of certain gatekeepers. It is interesting to consider that if language is a system–a discipline which has its own discourse–than it is not immune to having gatekeepers who write and/or enforce the rules. In this case, prescriptive grammar is taught to humans by means of English teachers (who themselves were taught by English teachers and professors), copy-editors, style-manual and handbook writers, etc (Pinker 385). Society’s construction of grammar creates a framework of etiquette for us to follow.

In direct opposition to this lies the concept of “descriptive rules,” an idea centered on describing how people actually talk and make use of language (Pinker 383). Pinker writes that linguists and scientists are more likely to look at descriptive language because prescriptive language is comprised of “bits of language that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since” (Pinker 385). As someone who had been raised according to the prescriptive rules of grammar in and outside of the classroom (yes, my mother was an English teacher) and who has a tendency to freak out over grammar, this concept was entirely novel to me.

 

Slang as Linguistic Innovation

Studying descriptive language enables one to look at the impact of slang upon our cultures. The creativity involved in the creation of new words is something to be remarked upon.

Pinker describes how words used by groups such as college students (“blow off”) and rappers (“dissing”) and other various groups (“banter, sham, stingy, junkie, jazz”) started as slang but have made their way into our socially acceptable language dictionary (415).

He notes that slang and colloquialisms within particular cultures act as a badge of membership, which is true of academics, advertising agency executives, culinary maestros, and musicians. A shared lexicon among these different disciplines simultaneously has the potential to springboard innovation through incubation, as well as for isolation and relative creative stagnation.

 

Pragmatics and Linguistic Fillers

Linguistic fillers (some commonly attributed to various subcultures, others to humans across the board) are often indicators of power dynamics within the relationship of two or more people communicating with each other. Language has political and social implications. It’s interesting to note that pragmatically, these fillers have no linguistic value; yet when one takes their semantic meaning into account, they can provide more information about one’s cultural background. Combined with the nonverbal and contextual language cues that Chomsky does not give much attention to, one can learn a lot about the sociological implications of the use of fillers.

Examples of subcultures:

Northern Californians:

  • “hella”

Southern Californians:

  • valley girl accents:
    • “like, totally” ;
  • surfers:
    • “stoked”
    • “sick”
    • “sketch”
    • “epic”
    • “radical”

Language and Identity

Southern Californians become upset when Norcal words like “hella” starts infiltrating their lexicon.

Language is used to foster perceptions of the “other,” us vs. them, particularly in cultural/national conflicts. Example: Spain’s autonomous communities (Catalonia vs. Madrid vs. The Basque Country).

 

// one last note on language and creativity //

an example of comments in a piece of code I wrote. comments are denotated by ” // “.

In programming in particular, coders were accustomed to being extremely liberal in how they chose to write their code, particularly in regard to commenting. Commenting code is important because it provides readers with a clue on why a certain piece of code was constructed in the way that it was written. Initially, most programmers were fluid in the way they commented (if they did at all) because only readers that would have stumbled across their code were themselves. However, as programming languages have become essential to digital culture (front and back end design, user interface coding, etc.), more and more programmers end up working on the same piece of code, and some kind of uniformity had to occur in order for coders to build off of each other.

This kind of creative collaboration within a network of programmers stems from their ability to communicate via a shared language. Computational linguistics could argue that this serves as a springboard for innovation.

 

//* works cited *//

Noam Chomsky, “Form and meaning in natural languages.” Excerpt from Language and Mind, 3rd. Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Irvine, “Linguistics: Key Concepts.”

Lynch, Sally. “Filler Words Become Regular Practice.” Elon Pendulum. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Perennial Classics, 2000. Print.