As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science; even in the depictions of believers these are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. The ability is language. (Pinker 54)
‘Language’ is “the system of spoken or written communication used by a particular country, people, community, etc. typically consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactic structure” (Oxford English Dictionary). People are social by nature, and language provides us with the means to communicate. Be it spoken, written, painted, or gestured, every one of us uses and interprets language countless times a day. It is one of, if not the most, necessary instruments to human function.
‘Language’ comes from the Latin word ‘Ligua,’ meaning “the tongue or a tongue-like organ, the ligula, or the central well-developed portion of it; (b) a tongue-like prolongation of the hypopharynx” (OED)
Language is an inherent ability present within all of us. The tacit knowledge of grammar possessed by a child is more sophisticated than that of the best manuals or computer programs. Language is something that no other system can do better than humans because it goes beyond words. It’s not just spoken; it’s physical. Body posture, gesticulating, the slight twitch of a facial expression – it all changes the meaning. How many people have you met who stare you straight in the eye, talk in a monotonous voice, and remain entirely still? The words are underpinned by the manner in which they are expressed; the undertone – be it tender or scathing, amused or offended – makes all the difference. If tone of voice and facial expression never affected meaning, there would be no sarcasm. Body language is often more telling than words. How many times have you encountered someone in tears who responds to concern by saying “I’m fine”? Or the quiver in the voice of a nervous speaker, or the smile we can hear through the phone; shifty eye-contact, a weak or a strong handshake – it changes everything. If words fail us, it’s said with a look, a sigh, a raised brow. Dialects may be local, but body language is global.
It is often the case that the best designs so seamlessly pervade our daily activity that we cease to notice their existence. Language is no exception. To write is to design. A writer chooses the format, the style, and the structure of the text to influence meaning. Even the standardized forms of text that we are so used to seeing – paragraph indenting, margins, equal line spacing – it’s done for ease of reading, the same way that all of the stairs on a staircase are the same height and width for ease of walking. The essence of a piece is more than the words; it’s the staccato of a short quip, or the fluidity of a soft poem – it’s the dash in a sentence.
Pinker, Stephen. “An Instinct to Acquire an Art.” Sargent and Peraskevas. 52-63. Print.
Sargent, Elizabeth M. and Cornelia C. Peraskevas. Eds. Conversations About Writing: Eavesdropping, Inkshedding, and Joining In. Toronto: Nelson, 2005. Print.
“language, n.” OED online, accessed Nov. 17, 2012, Oxford University Press.