Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Glorious lingustic imperfection

Last night I had one of my epiphanies. It came to me in the privacy of the commode.

Language is gloriously imperfect. It is a marvelous achievement of our species but it isn't perfect. Though it is rule governed virtually every rule has its exceptions.Why in every language does the same word  have many meanings and why are there many ways of saying the same thing? Why are there homophones, homographs and homonyms,? Language is constantly changing but as language communities become more sophisticated, knowlegeable and educated shouldn't that change be toward a more perfect form? Shouldn't language become more regular and simpler as it matures and changes? Why do strange phenomena such ass the many different forms of be- is am,was were, be, been, being persist? Why do some languages lose future tense  or second person plural. If alphabetic writing is the end product of evolution why do non-alphabetic forms of writing continue in use?

And why is language perception so clearly based on illusion?

 I want to argue that language is imperfect because:
1. It needs to be. If it were perfect it would not serve our needs. It has to be dynamic and easily changed because our need for it is always changing.
2. It can be. By that I mean that our brains are comfortable with all this imperfection. Not only can they make sense of imperfect language, they thrive on it. Our brains are equiped with a set for ambiguity. They thrive on redundancy. Something in the way the human brain uses language requires it to be imperfect, to be malleable, flexible , and recursive.

It is easier to argue my first point than the second because the manner in which the brains represents meaning to itself is not well understood. We all have the experience of knowing what we want to say but not finding the right way of expressing it. I'm avoiding talkng about how the brain "stores " meaning, or ideas or words because I'm not convinced that's what it does. There seems to be some way the brain constructs and organizes what it "knows".

This is not to say that there is no need for language to be consistent in the way it is used. It wouldn't work if we didn't share in the way we used it- if we didn't "play by the rules" But it wouldn't also work if it required each of us to use it precisely and perfectly either. 

I'll have more to say about imperfection. What do you think?

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