REAL WORLD LINGUISTICS 101
by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Languages are its
subject, in exactly the same way that chemicals are the subject of
chemistry. It's harder to study languages scientifically than it is to
study chemicals, because so much of the evidence is shut away inside the
brains/minds of human beings. Still, we can learn a lot from indirect
evidence in the form of spoken and signed and written language. And the new
technology used in today's neuromedicine is beginning to give us a little
direct access to "language in the brain."
Let's start by specifying that we're going to restrict our discussion to
human languages, of two kinds; natural human languages and constructed
Natural languages We'll consider human languages that are
called "natural" languages because they either are, or once were, used by
human beings for ordinary communication. These languages (such as Chinese
or Cherokee or English) have no known "author" or "inventor".
Constructed languages We'll consider human languages called
"constructed" (sometimes "artificial" or "auxiliary") languages, which have
been created by human beings in the way that novels and plays and
symphonies are created. These languages (for example, Esperanto or Elvish)
can be recognized as the work of specific individuals.
The word "language" is often used to refer to items which are really codes
or pseudo-languages. We read about "the language of flowers" and "the
language of bees." Roughly speaking, the important difference between such
things and natural human languages is that natural human languages are
infinite. You could never make a list of all the possible utterances of a
natural human language; no matter how many you wrote down, it would always
be possible to add more. We'll come back to this later. For now, let's just
agree that unless I've said specifically that we're considering a
constructed language or a code when the word "language" is used in this
course it refers to natural human language.
Human Language is Rule-Governed
The first thing we need to understand about language is that it's not
random. In linguistics we say that human languages are rule-governed.
You're certainly free to say anything whatsoever that you want to say,
*"Elephant elephant up up tree tree the the looked gefloop."
That's your privilege. You're not free, however, to assume that any native
speaker of English will be able to understand what you mean when you say
that. Linguists mark sequences like that with an asterisk at the beginning,
which stands for "What comes next is not an acceptable sequence."
You're also not free to assume that any native speaker of English would be
able to fill in the blank in the following:
The question "Was that book called Dune?" is to "That book
was called Dune" as ".........................................?" is to
"Elephant elephant up up tree tree the the looked gefloop."
When you want to use language to communicate meaning, you have to use it
according to its rules, which linguists call its grammar. I want to be
absolutely clear about what that word means in this course. By "grammar," I
mean the internal mental grammar the system of rules for a language that
is stored in the brain/mind of a human being who is a native speaker of
that language. I'm not using the word to refer to a system of rules printed
in a book or on a computer screen. Your internal grammar is completely
independent of the grades teachers may have given you in grammar classes;
if you've always thought you were "really bad at grammar," please set that
What's In Your Mental Grammar?
Suppose you're a native speaker of English with an internal English
grammar. What does that mean? What kind of information is stored in your
internal grammar? What kinds of things do you know just because of your
- You know that a telephone pole forty feet high, if it has been blown
over by a windstorm and is lying flat on the ground, has to be referred to
as "a telephone pole forty feet long," even though it's exactly the same
telephone pole and has exactly the same measurements it had before the
storm hit. You know the rule for that, and you follow it with ease. (If a
Martian linguist were visiting the United States on a field trip and
discovered this rule, he or she would say something like this: "Can you
imagine? These people, in order to choose the correct word to describe
something like a pole or a pillar, have to first take into account its
orientation with respect to the horizon! Isn't that exotic?")
- You know that a new candy intended for sale in the United States could
be named "Jarabeek" or "Oglo," but could not be named "Szbarabeek" or
"Ngoglo." You know instantly when a proposed sequence of letters could be a
possible word of English and when it couldn't be; you know as soon as you
see it, without having to go look in any book or consult any expert.
- If someone shows you a picture of a bug you've never seen before and
tell you that it's called a "wheeg," you know that a picture of two such
bugs would be a picture of "two wheegs" and you know that even though
the letter at the end of "wheegs" is an S, you have to pronounce it as a Z.
- If someone tells you, "I'm angry because there was so much work to do
this morning and nobody lifted a finger to help me!" you know immediately
that the utterance is acceptable. But suppose someone says, "There was so
much work to do this morning that I was really glad everybody lifted a
finger to help me!" You know that's not acceptable as ordinary English,
although you might accept it as a joke or a line of poetry. You know the
rules for sequences like "lift a finger" and "bat an eye" and "turn a
- If someone asked you to state the rule for making an English yes/no
question (a question that can be answered with either "yes" or "no"), you
wouldn't be able to do it. But you know that rule. I can prove that you
know it just by asking you to give me an example of such a question. If
you didn't know the rule, you wouldn't be able to construct the question.
This list could go on and on, but I'm sure that's not necessary. The five
examples above will demonstrate (a) that English has rules and (b) that
native speakers of English know those rules even if they can't recite
them, even if they were never taught about them in school.
Note: At this point we could of course bring forward a hypothesis that
these two things are true for English but not for any other human language.
Common sense tells us that that's unlikely, but to prove that it's false
we'd have to test it. I'm glad to be able to tell you that the testing has
already been done and that you can rely on (a) and (b) as basic truths for
every natural human language. (The reason we can't say that they're also
true for every constructed human language is that with the possible
exception of Esperanto there are no native speakers of those languages.)
ON MY WAY OUT THE DOOR.....
I consider this course a work in progress, and I'd welcome your help with
it. The material above is my second try at writing Lesson One, and has
been revised on the basis of feedback from readers during the past few
weeks. If you'd like to comment on the new version above, criticize it, ask
questions, make suggestions, propose more examples (from any language), or
provide any other feedback, I'd be glad to hear from you. Please
e-mail me directly at OCLS@madisoncounty.net.
Suzette Haden Elgin
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin