Is language more than the sum of its parts? Words are words, right? What’s the big deal? Wait ‘til your wife asks you to take out the trash…again! Wait until your fat prick of a boss mentions: "It’s Thursday. Report ready?" Just words, but they blast you like a short fused grenade.
Words ride on an express train of ideas. Some make you want to use a bazooka to carve your name in a tree. And even the simplest of phrases carry complexities, just as one hair off your head conveys your entire DNS. But let’s not get too complicated. I may spill my beer. One small example: nevertheless.
Sure, it’s a compound word, but what do the words mean separately? Never. The. Less. If you know the separate words, but had never put them together, would they naturally fall in place? We never separate nevertheless and explain to ourselves what it means. We just know what it means. Hell yeah! Problem solved. Take another swig. We know the idea and that idea contributes to the totality of what we’re saying or hearing.
“Nevertheless, I’m going with Sam’s curvaceous wife to checkout…er, something she wants to show me.” Nevertheless implies a lot of things. “Jack is a notorious bastard, nevertheless, I’m meeting him for a beer.” No matter what it is, nevertheless ties a neat bow around it.
There’s something else to consider.
We think in pictures. When I mention tits, do you only see the words? Gentle men and women of the jury, I rest my case. If I say ‘car’ and a French woman says voiture, and a Japanese man says, kuruma, all three of us are going to picture more or less the same object, although in the case of the French woman you may still be stuck on ‘tits.’ In our own separate ways, we’ve learned a sound that produces an object, or an idea, or a movement, or a mood. A slight tonal change can make a hell of a difference. “Honey, I swear you said we could meet someday, not Sunday!”
Speaking of mood, we dress up ideas, using facial expressions and body movement. I can say, “I don’t know,” meekly, embarrassed that I don’t know the answer, or I can say it loudly, with eyes wide and a snarl, meaning I’m going to kick your ass if you ask me again! Same words.
As any husband knows, if your wife gives instructions and asks you to repeat them, you may come close, but chances are you won’t repeat the words exactly. Your mind may be elsewhere. French woman. Tits. French woman. You got the idea. Whether you’re lucky, or not you have to scratch for an answer. No way will you capture the exact words.
“Go to the store and pick up some milk and anything else we need to make an omelet. Now what are you going to get?”
“I don’t know…some milk…maybe some eggs. I think I’ll get some bread, too. And do we have any cheese?”
“Yeah, we’ve got cheese. Just get the milk and eggs…and…what was that other thing?” It’s not the forgetfulness that makes us change replies, it’s the limitless possibilities.
And so it goes. Did you know we almost never repeat ourselves exactly?
In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that given a sentence of twenty words, the number of sentences a person can construct using those same words is ten to the power of twenty (a hundred million trillion). “At five seconds a sentence, a person would need a childhood of about a hundred trillion years…to memorize them all.” Do you realize how much beer that would take?
So after you talk about your trip to the beach, and someone says, “You’re repeating yourself,” the truth sits squarely in the center between yes and no. The ideas, maybe. The exact words? Not a chance.
Lots of people, many of them sadistic language teachers, think that grammar is the penultimate in language learning. I once had a language teacher tell me that a person cannot speak a language without knowing grammar. Tell that to an eight year old. But in a sense, I grudgingly admit she was correct, but not in the way she meant. Read on.
Underneath formal grammar is a built-in grammar code. Again, from The Language Instinct, comes this tidbit: We all have a sense of grammar, simply from knowing a language. Speaking or writing can be grammatically correct, yet still just “not sound right.” It’s an inherent grammatical code. Yoda makes complete sense, but when he says “A nitwit you are,” it doesn’t fit our built in code of word order, and in this case it may piss you off. How about, “Sally poured with water in the glass.” No split infinitives. No dangling participles. Yet…yet…it just don’t sound right, although Sally never was that bright! And, when I express myself ungrammatically, you still know exactly what I mean. What a conundrum!
Here are a few more examples of knowing what is meant, without examining what is said:
In the meantime. “In the meantime, you worthless dog, I want you to mow the lawn.”
As far as it goes. “I like marriage, as far as it goes.”
Anyway. “Anyway, let’s not argue about your meddling mother.”
Just in case. “I bought the 12 pack of condoms, just in case.”
None of your business. The Germans say, “It’s not your beer!”
Keep it to yourself. “As for you and me, Eileen (wink, wink), let’s keep it to ourselves.”
We sometimes exclaim: Never heard of it! But not, “Never seen of it.”
How about: I haven’t made up my mind. Can you say, I haven’t made up my thought, or haven’t made up my decision? They’re every bit as grammatically correct in the formal sense, but English speakers, even those with no sense of grammar, never say them. Breaks the internal grammatical code. Also makes your friends think you’ve been tapping the keg before breakfast.
Many times these words and phrases are what you could call social noise. You could leave them out….but they’re not left out, at least not by those who are thinking in a language.
In the play, The Miracle Worker, about the life of Helen Keller, the teacher is asked by Helen’s mother, what will you teach her? The answer? Language. “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.” We can easily tell a drawing from a photo, even though we may not remember everything we see in a photo. Lack of detail? Just doesn’t look right?
With speech, you can understand something, but it just doesn’t sound right.
Why can you take four years of Spanish and still not speak it? Doesn’t make sense. Yes, it does. Language is so complex, so individual, that a list of words, or conjugation of verbs, or rules of grammar are to language as a quick pencil sketch is to photography.
Riding a bicycle. It’s not just sitting up straight and pedaling and steering. Your brain has to adapt to direct all your body parts for balance. Give your kid all the hints you want. Won’t make a difference. Takes time for the brain to curl around the balance thing.
Friends, who are fluent in another language, tell me you must be immersed to truly learn a language. Same thing as learning to ride a bike. It takes time and magic for your brain to twist and turn and develop an internal language code. Big difference between speaking a few phrases, or passing a written test, and actually thinking in a language.
Had a more honest language teacher once tell me, “Pay attention in class, study hard, and in five years you’ll be fluent. Or, don’t study so much, don’t take the class so seriously, but stay active in the language and in five years you’ll be fluent.” Thanks, Bob. I’ll take door number two.
Anyway, in the meantime, let’s just sip a cool one and think about it. Nevertheless, it’s none of your business, and I hope you’ll keep it to yourself.