Do languages exist?

And how does language work anyway? Antony Tomlinson weighs the arguments.

Languages seem an important feature of our lives. The languages we speak determine who we can communicate with, where we can work, and what we can read or listen to. Languages are also political. For instance, recent years have seen laws requiring migrants to the UK to learn English. An apparent decline in numbers of Welsh speakers led to calls for government money to be spent on Welsh language promotion. Kiev saw rioting in 2012 in response to moves to allow the Russian language, rather than Ukrainian, to be used in public institutions.

Given the powerful role that languages play, it is perhaps surprising that some thinkers claim that such languages do not actually exist. These thinkers – who include significant linguists and philosophers such as Noam Chomsky (1928-) and Donald Davidson (1917-2003) – argue that terms such as ‘English’ or ‘Russian’ signify convenient fictions rather than real entities. These thinkers challenge our common sense notion of language, and force us to explore not only the nature of language, but the nature of reality itself.

Initial Challenges

Three initial challenges seem to undermine the common sense view that languages such as English actually exist.

The first challenge: Much of our modern understanding of the world has come about through natural sciences such as physics and biology. These sciences aim to give an account of the natural world based on observation and experiment. Given the success of natural science, several thinkers, including Chomsky, suggest that linguistics – the study of language – should proceed according to its methods. Thus, linguistics should examine the natural world and the place of linguistic phenomena within it. This is where a problem arises for the common sense view. For although studying observable aspects of linguistic phenomena may tell us, for example, about the vocal chords or the brains of language users, it is hard to imagine how we could observe any entity called ‘the English language’. It is true that we can observe sounds that we call ‘English expressions’, but the English language cannot just be a collection of all the sounds English speakers have made (some English sentences have never been uttered, while some sounds, such as hiccups, are not language). The challenge argues that if languages like English cannot be observed in a natural scientific manner, they are not real; rather, the idea of ‘the English language’ is a pre-scientific notion, like ‘the devil’. We may talk about it in daily discourse, but the term does not represent anything actually existing in reality as revealed by natural science.

linguistic jigsawLinguistic jigsaw © istockphoto.com/gyasemin

The second challenge notes that, although at first sight it seems simple to identify different languages as ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, and so on, on closer examination, our way of dividing linguistic phenomena into so-called ‘languages’ seems arbitrary. To use Chomsky’s example in Knowledge of Language (1986), Dutch and German are traditionally treated as separate languages. However, some German dialects are closer to Dutch than to other German dialects, with which they are not mutually intelligible. Thus, our standard way of dividing different forms of speech into ‘Dutch’ or ‘German’ does not capture any real aspect of the world, but arbitrarily groups together linguistic phenomena.

The third challenge attacks the common sense view’s apparent prescriptive nature – that it implies that there is a right and a wrong way of speaking a language. If the English language exists, then it must have determinate rules. Anyone not following those rules ‘is not speaking English’. In English, strictly grammatically speaking, the sentence “I don’t know nothing” expresses the idea that I know something. However, Bob from East London uses “I don’t know nothing” to express the idea that he doesn’t know anything. Seemingly, Bob’s usage is incorrect according to the rules of English. However, the claim that Bob is not speaking English is not only snobbish, but seems impossible to intellectually justify. How could we demonstrate Bob’s usage to be incorrect? We could refer Bob to grammar books; but who is to say that those rules must be followed? The idea that there is an entity called ‘the English language’ that determines the correct ways of speaking English seems unjustifiable.

The Idiolectal View

Given these challenges to the common sense view, some folks believe that the phenomenon of human language is best understood not as a series of languages like English or Welsh, but as a series of idiolects.

An idiolect is the language of one individual. A description of one person’s idiolect includes all the vocabulary and grammatical features of that individual’s personal way of speaking (or writing). Their idiolect is an independent, self-contained system. So Bob’s use of “I don’t know nothing” is simply a feature of Bob’s idiolect. It is not ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ according to any external standard.

This view holds that individuals’ idiolects, as opposed to mass languages like English, are the only form of language that exists. It is an approach that fits well with a linguistics based on natural science. For while it seems impossible to observe and experiment on ‘the English language’, we can describe the idiolect of one individual, and study the way in which it manifests itself, for instance in that individual’s behaviour or brain. In this way, linguistics now becomes continuous with natural sciences like biology.

Of course, there are similarities between idiolects. For instance, most people living in Germany use idiolects similar to those of other German residents. However, there is no such thing as ‘the German language’; only overlapping independent idiolects. Furthermore, although some German people have idiolects more similar to those of people in the Netherlands than to some other Germans’, the question of whether or not German and Dutch are different languages is redundant. These languages do not exist. There are only collections of more or less similar idiolects.

The idiolectal view thus avoids the challenges threatening the common sense view. However, to suggest that the world contains only idiolects, rather than languages such as English, is a radical idea flying in the face of common sense. If we can provide an account of language that allows for the existence of languages like English whilst avoiding our three challenges, it is surely to be preferred.

The Public Language View

One alternative to the idiolectal view sees a language as a social convention. Much inspiration for this view comes from the writings of the American philosopher David Lewis, particularly Convention (1969).

Lewis analyses the ways that conventions are established and maintained by societies. Take the convention of driving on the left-hand side of the road. This convention, which existed long before it was written into law, arose for obvious practical purposes, such as preventing crashes. Lewis notes that this convention only functions because all British, Australian, etc drivers recognise that it is in force, follow it, and expect and hope that others follow it too. Of course, they could equally well have followed the French and American convention of driving on the right to achieve the same ends. However, once a convention is in place, it often remains that way for as long as it is generally useful.

A language, Lewis argues, is established and maintained in a similar way. Take the English expression “It’s raining.” The convention that we utter “It’s raining” only when we believe that it is raining exists for useful communicative purposes. Of course, for the convention on this use of sounds to work, we all have to recognise that it is in force, follow it, and expect and hope that others follow it too. True, we could equally well have followed the French convention of uttering “Il pleut” when we believe that it is raining, but the English convention is now in place.

On this ‘public language’ view, English, Welsh, and other languages, can be seen as complex systems of conventions. The conventions arise and endure because they solve coordination problems between individuals in a society. Thus, a language is essentially interpersonal. In contrast to the idiolectal view, a language cannot be regarded as a system confined to one individual.

How can this public language account meet the three challenges facing our common sense view of language?

First, critics pointed out that languages such as English have no place within the world described by natural sciences. In response, supporters of public language can agree that languages like English are not part of the natural world. However, this isn’t because they don’t exist: rather, it is because they are artificial. They are social artefacts, only to be understood from within a social perspective. To give an analogy, the fact that we exchange paper or metal tokens for goods and services is clearly a convention. Economics studies the dynamics of such conventions. As a social science, it does this by recognising the social role this convention plays. It would be bizarre to undertake a study of monetary exchange solely via the methods of natural science. Approaching monetary exchange as a purely natural phenomenon – perhaps by analysing the metal used in coins, or by scanning the brains of consumers – would be of little use in understanding this system. The same seems true for other complex interpersonal issues such as economic growth or unemployment. Although conventions such as monetary exchange are artificial, it does not mean they do not exist, or even that they are entirely subjective. Like natural sciences, social sciences discover facts about the world that are independent of the investigator’s mind. Facts about economic growth or employment are only discovered through careful empirical investigation – albeit of the social rather than of the natural world. Similarly, on the public language view, linguistics must be undertaken as a social science. It should proceed from a social perspective, uncovering facts about the conventional artefacts we call ‘languages’. These are not facts about natural phenomena, but are no less real or important for that.

The second challenge argued that our way of dividing linguistic phenomena into languages such as German or Dutch is arbitrary. In reply, it may be noted that in most modern societies there is a ‘standard language’, a system of conventions recorded in books, and adhered to by people in public life, such as newsreaders. In this sense, standard public languages do seem to exist. Nevertheless, there will be other dialects within a language. Yet, if the conventions of one dialect are similar enough to others to enable linguistic coordination, we surely can talk about users of different dialects as having the ‘same language’. However, the dividing line between languages is sometimes unclear. As we saw, some German dialects are closer to Dutch than to other German dialects. Perhaps, then, our current way of dividing groups of dialects into ‘German’ and ‘Dutch’ is mistaken. Nevertheless, this does not rule out the existence of these languages. Rather, it is the job of the linguist to determine a better way of classifying these dialects. Of course, dividing lines between languages may be fuzzy, and ‘fuzziness’ is itself a controversial intellectual issue. However, this does not pose special problems for languages. Even in natural sciences objects can fail to fit clearly under one concept or another. For instance, it may be unclear whether certain prehistoric creatures are best categorised as ‘birds’ or ‘reptiles’. Such cases are difficulties, but they do not lead us to think that birds or reptiles do not exist. Neither does the fuzzy dialogue category case show that German does not exist.

The third and final challenge argued that if English, for example, existed, it would present prescriptive rules rendering certain usages ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, leading to the snobbish and unjustifiable claim that Bob’s use of “I don’t know nothing” is incorrect English. However, this claim is not at all an implication of the public language view. For while Bob’s use of “I don’t know nothing” is incorrect within the conventions of Standard English, it is correct with the conventions of Cockney English, and the public language view does not maintain that any dialect (eg Standard or Cockney) is better than any other. The only uses of expressions that the public language view disallows are those that are not established by any convention at all. We will return to the issue of unconventional language use later.

Chomsky’s Innate Knowledge

The public language view apparently gives us everything we want. It allows for the existence of languages like English, and resists challenges to the common sense view. However, public language faces other objections, one of the most influential being presented by Chomsky.

Chomsky holds that the grammatical rules of human language are innate. That is to say, there are structures in our brains with which we are born which allow us to understand and produce language. Systems of grammar are ultimately therefore not derived from public conventions, but are internal to individuals, so Chomsky’s position is highly idiolectal. The role of linguistics, for Chomsky, is to examine the structures of innate grammars by studying the idiolects of individuals using the methods of natural science.

talking headsTalking heads © istockphoto.com/cienpies

One of Chomsky’s key arguments against public language is that it makes no sense of the way that we learn our first languages. For if a language was only a system of conventions, then a child would have to learn all the rules of this artificial system in order to master language use. However, as Chomsky points out, children are only exposed to a finite number of expressions before they start creating entirely new combinations of words. Furthermore, they are rarely explicitly taught the often obscure rules of their language. How then, Chomsky challenges, could a child go from hearing a few sentences of English, to coming to know the system well enough to produce completely original sentences? Chomsky thinks this is impossible. Instead, he argues, a child could only show this extensive knowledge of the rules of grammar so quickly if that knowledge were already pre-programmed into his or her brain. The basis of language then, Chomsky argues, is not an external system of conventions, but something internal to individuals’ brains.

An apparent problem with this argument, however, lies in Chomsky’s conception of ‘knowledge’. It is indeed implausible that a child could gain a complete knowledge of grammar if this is the kind of propositional knowledge (an explicit knowledge of facts) one gets from memorising a grammar book. However, it is perfectly possible to memorise grammar tables and still be unable to speak a language! A more plausible way of understanding a child’s ‘knowledge of language’ might see it as a practical ability or ‘skill’ – see Michael Devitt’s much-discussed book Ignorance of Language (2006). A skill is something we learn through practice, by way of trial and error, often without being aware of the principles enabling us to exhibit that skill. A typical example is riding a bicycle. I could gain propositional knowledge of how to ride a bicycle by, for instance, learning from a physics textbook about the equations of motion and the balances of forces that make cycling possible. However, this is unlikely to help me ride it. Instead, to learn to cycle, I must practise, and only in this way will I eventually gain the skill. In a sense I will then know the principles of cycling, but this knowledge will not be propositional knowledge.

It is conceivable that a child similarly learns its first language as a skill. The child originally makes sounds. Some sounds are effective in getting across what the child wants, some are not. Furthermore, when the child makes mistakes, he or she is corrected by adults. Over several years of trial and error, the child masters a public language. Explicit, propositional knowledge of grammar need play no part in this story, so the mystery of how children could know all the rules of public language seems removed.

Chomsky has responded to such arguments by suggesting that knowledge of language and skill in language are separate elements in language use. To demonstrate, he notes that someone whose brain functions are temporarily impaired can lose their skill in using language, but, on recovery, exhibit this skill once more. For Chomsky, this shows that the knowledge of the language remained stored in their brain while their skill in language use came and went. Thus language use is not merely a skill.

However, this argument is questionable. We can imagine someone whose brain functions are impaired such that they lose the ability to cycle. On recovery, they regain that ability. None of this shows that there is an additional element of knowledge of bicycle-riding required alongside the skill. Neither then does Chomsky’s example prove this to be the case with language.

To conclude, Chomsky’s concern with a certain type of knowledge of language motivates him to reject the public language view. However, this notion of knowledge does not seem the only conception available. It is not obvious, then, that Chomsky’s arguments undermine the public language view.

Davidson’s Malapropisms

An advantage of the public language view is that it accounts for the use of language to communicate. Jane follows a convention by uttering “It’s raining” only when she believes it is raining. Steve, hearing this, and aware of the convention, becomes conscious of Jane’s belief. In contrast, the idiolectal view sees each person’s idiolect as an independent and self-contained system. I use my language, and you use yours. How these mutually-independent systems could be used to communicate seems mysterious.

Nevertheless, in his essay ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’ in Truth and Interpretation (ed. Ernest Lepore, 1986), Donald Davidson suggests that the idiolectal view best captures the way communication proceeds. Unfortunately I can only outline Davidson’s argument here, but at its core are cases of communication via malapropisms.

A malapropism is a (usually comic) misuse of language. For example, in the BBC WWII comedy, ’Allo ’Allo!, Crabtree, a British agent disguised as a French policeman, always greets characters by saying “Good moaning!” rather than “Good morning!” Despite this malapropism, we easily understand Crabtree; we recognise what he means largely thanks to contextual clues: for instance, it is morning and the first time we have met Crabtree today.

Malapropisms show that communication without a common convention is perfectly possible. The upshot of Davidson’s discussion is that we do not use conventions to communicate in normal cases of language use either. So when Jane says “It is raining,” it is not knowledge of convention that allows Steve to understand her. Rather, contextual clues (it is raining, Jane is pointing out of the window) allow Steve to recognise what Jane intends to communicate. So Davidson suggests that we each have our own separate idiolects, and whenever we communicate, we are in effect interpreting the other person’s idiolect by working out how they use expressions – even if their idiolect seems identical to our own.

However, perhaps an act of communication via malapropism is an exceptional case rather than a paradigm of linguistic understanding. Supporters of public language, including Michael Dummett (see Truth and Interpretation here also), suggest that communication is usually via shared conventions, and it is only when another person’s language use deviates from convention that we are forced to interpret them in the way that Davidson suggests. Furthermore, malapropisms are only comprehensible because they are parasitic on conventional language: Crabtree’s malapropism “Good moaning!” is easily comprehensible because it shares sounds, structure and context with the expression “Good morning.” It is surely the shared conventional background that makes communication easy in this case.

A clearer case in which communication occurs without shared conventions is communicating in foreign lands where you do not speak the language. Imagine I am leaving a guest house in China. The landlady cannot speak English and I cannot speak Chinese. However, before I leave she shouts something, points at the sky, and waves an umbrella. From the context, I guess that she is expressing her belief that it’s about to rain.

However, this case seems very different from my communication with another English speaker. Firstly, as an English speaker, I cannot help but understand the utterance “It is going to rain.” In contrast, it can take effort to work out what my Chinese landlady is saying. In addition, it is hard to see precisely what role the landlady’s verbal expression has in communicating to me the information about the weather. She could have communicated the same information to me just as effectively had she made the same gestures but remained silent, or made random noises. Without knowledge of shared conventions, verbal expressions do not seem to have any role in communication. Davidson’s suggestion that communication proceeds via interpretation of different idiolects rather than shared conventions seems to miss something.

Concluding this brief examination of Davidson’s argument, it seems that cases of malapropism highlight, rather than undermine, the role of convention in linguistic communication. For, without such shared conventions, communication via speech would be both punishingly difficult and seemingly pointless.

A World of Languages

The idiolectal view challenges our common sense idea that the world contains languages such as English, Spanish and Hindi. However, it seems that supporters of the idiolectal view have not given sufficient reason to abandon common sense. Instead, the more plausible public language view holds that languages, and dialects, are shared systems of conventions through which speakers gain a practical ability to communicate.

We live in a world of languages. These languages play a role in our public and private lives and are objects of interest in their own right. As adults we benefit from learning languages, so gaining access to the practices of otherwise alien societies. Thankfully, then, languages exist, and bring colour to reality.

© Antony Tomlinson 2014

Antony Tomlinson did postgraduate studies in philosophy at Cambridge, followed by a stint as a philosophy lecturer at Lakeland College in Japan. He currently creates language-teaching materials.

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