On The Opportunity Costs Of Linguistic Choices

As someone who enjoys reading and studying languages for fun, frequently I ponder the relationship between languages and the way that knowing languages creates a context by which one can view one’s own native languages and see the results of different choices that various linguistic communities have made.  It was not until I started learning Spanish formally, for example, that I understood many of the grammatical tenses of English, having never been taught such distinctions as indicative versus subjective (or other) moods, or between different past tenses like perfect and imperfect.  In studying languages it has struck me that a great many different choices can be made by different languages, and each of those choices has consequences.  Today I would like to, without naming names, discuss some of the underlying patterns that can be found in languages and the freedom and burdens that certain language choices provide for their speakers.  To be sure, this is not a lengthy discussion, but it is something that might spur our thinking about the way that language shapes the possibilities that are available and the way that we think.

Let us assume we have a language that is heavy in cases that features noun and adjective declension as well as verbal tense.  Such a language is likely to be a burden to learn in some ways, as the same word in one’s native language may end up having multiple different forms depending on the cases involved because there must be agreement across all parts of speech.  Yet this burdensome proliferation of forms of the same words also presents with it a certain degree of freedom, as the cases provide such a high degree of specificity about what a word means that there can be significant freedom to vary the order of words within sentences while preserving the same meaning.  This allows the speaker to draw emphasis to some elements of a sentence rather than others, and makes for a high degree of rhetorical flexibility in determining how it is that one wants to say a given statement.  What part do we want to come first, what part last?  Is the subject or object or verb of the most interest in a given situation?  These choices require a cost of more information provided in the words itself, but this means that the word order can be more free and less stereotypical.

Let us assume we have a second language that has build up a structure where word stems can be combined together to create much larger words that contain a great deal of semantic content.  Such a language allows for words to be coined easily by the combination of various smaller words together that allows for them to have a greater context that can make for very specific coined words that fit well in very specific circumstances, allowing for someone to coin a word for the feeling of bliss that happens when one smells baking bread coming from the kitchen, or the the panic that results from the sudden hearing of sirens increasing in volume as they come in your direction.  Obviously, though, such a language carries with it some heavy burdens, such as having the ability to recognize the constituent parts of large words and recognize the stems, prefixes, and affixes that combine together to create such long and complex vocabularies.  This presents a burden for learners who must, in order to understand some individual words, recognize a large amount of smaller elements that make up a single word.

Let us then take up the example of a third language.  This language is very simple and straightforward in its grammatical structure, and as a consequences has a relatively fixed word order and the proliferation of articles and participles and other smaller helping words that help fix the meaning of a language and avoid ambiguity that may result from its grammatical simplicity because of its lack of cases as well as verb-endings and the limitations it has on putting words together in larger structures.  In addition, this particular language, in part because of its extreme grammatical simplicity, has a fondness for swallowing words up from other languages that provide additional meanings as well as additional tones to existing words.  As a result, this language has a large variety of words and each word may have a great many meanings depending on the precise context and situation in which the words are used, but the words individually are often simple, and it is the simplest words whose shades of meanings are often the most complex.  Such a language may be particularly difficult to learn how to speak, as opposed to reading and writing, because its pronunciation will be governed by the history of the word and the the form it had when entering the language, as well as the ambiguity that results when words from a variety of different languages with different sound profiles are combined together in a language whose extreme simplicity of form makes it difficult to convey enough information to say something correctly.

One of the reasons why communication is such a challenge is because each of the choice for how a language works increases the burdens upon the speaker and the listener, or the writer and the reader, to convey meaning in a way that it can be understood by someone else.  If we want to add some sort of flexibility to the language in terms of word order or the ability to coin words or the ability to readily adopt words from other language, that carries with it additional burdens in that we must either know the specific forms of a word that convey their meaning in a clear way, or that we know the various smaller parts that sum up to create meaning in a given long word, or that we know enough about where a word comes from that we are able to pronounce it correctly (this is sometimes a challenge for those of us who know many words from books that we have never heard someone say aloud).  Other choices, such as the creation of individual signs for each word, further add complexity to languages, while the creation of syllabaries or alphabets provides for different complexities that are involved in languages.  The point remains the same, though, in that every way that we allow meaning to be fixed in a way that it can be communicated to someone else provides a burden upon the people seeking to communicate to understand the nuances of the choices that are made.  Mutual comprehension requires us to learn how to understand and be understood, and though different choices are made with different costs in different areas, costs must be paid for us to enter into some sort of communion with someone else.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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