Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: No “pure” language

You can't keep language pure. They always adapt.
You can’t keep languages pure. They always adapt.

This post concludes the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe,” and the third, Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate.”

4. Borrowing words from other languages is par for the course.
This is a corollary to point 2, “Describe, don’t prescribe.” Many speakers of certain languages work hard to keep their language “pure,” that is, not to utter words from other languages while speaking their language. No language ever existed in a vacuum, however, as far as we can tell. When the first Europeans came to what is today the Northeast US, they found speakers of Mohawk and Mahican (completely unrelated languages) communicating with each other, and soon after they came, Pidgin languages developed between the Dutch and some of the native peoples. (See my earlier post, “A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland.”) Surely words mixed among all of these languages.

How much more so today, when speakers of so many languages are constantly bumping into one another by virtue of jet travel and the internet? Every language is adapting to a new state of affairs.

While I believe that languages can’t help but borrow from one another, I still like the work of language academies, even if I disagree with their self-understanding. French, Modern Hebrew, and other languages have designated groups that sanction the use of new words. I don’t believe in the mission of keeping the language “pure,” but I like the resourcefulness and creativity of these groups. They look to the native verbal resources of the language to express a new concept. Hence the French word “ordinateur” and the Hebrew word מחשב maxshev entered into these languages.

Furthermore, I like academies because they help speakers not forget words of their languages in order to pass on as much as possible to the next generation. For example, I knew someone whose father is Navajo and a scholar of Navajo folk literature. He purposely uses obscure Navajo words when he delivers public talks in his native language; otherwise, those words might disappear entirely from the language.

How do you feel about the “purity” of your language? Do you feel that young or less educated people are “ruining” it?

Photo credit: melolou / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND


Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate

Is translation impossible sometimes?
Is translation impossible sometimes?

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe.”

3. Anything you can say in one language you can say in another.
This above premise contradicts a widespread notion among language enthusiasts. Indeed, when I originally suggested this point, I received several comments by folks who disagreed with it. All over the internet we find lists of “words with no translation” (note that they assume that the target language is English), but the list begs the question of the nature of translation.

Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate”

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe

Prescriptive grammar just punishes people for talking normally
Prescriptive grammar punishes people for talking normally.

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain.”

2. We describe grammar, we don’t prescribe it.
Rules such as “no split infinitives” or “There’s no such word as ‘ain’t’” don’t exist in the linguistics that I study. Such rules are called “prescriptive” because they prescribe a particular way of speaking that goes against how people actually speak. The linguistic school to which I belong does not impose a certain way of speaking; instead, we aim to describe the way people actually speak. In this way, everyone who speaks a language is  valued equally in how he or she speaks.

Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe”

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain

Every brain contains the grammar of a language
Every brain contains the grammar of a language

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea.

1. Grammar resides in every human brain.
Chomsky defines grammar as the rules that produce and decode language. As a result, grammar resides inside the human language-speaker. It doesn’t exist “out there” in a book or only well-trained minds.. Moreover, this grammar is not something learned in school; it’s acquired as a child engages in the community of your native language. Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain”

Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background

English: A portrait of Noam Chomsky that I too...
A major influence on my language love, Noam Chomsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe that everyone speaks the language(s) that exists in his or her mind. I think that’s lovely. The beauty of language is not the sound of a virtuoso at the piano; it’s the sound of birds chirping or a stream flowing, a sound untrained, but not rough, with the heart of a human being, like a child laughing. When I hear those beautiful sounds, I want to capture them and put them inside me. By learning language I can keep the sound going any time I want. As a result, there is no “better” language or “more beautiful” language inside linguistics. That judgment requires other criteria outside linguistics. Read what I learned

Week 16 of Loving Somali: Why study Cushitic languages?

Map of Cushitic and Afro-Asiatic languages
Map of Cushitic and Afro-Asiatic languages

Languages opened my mind to new ways of thinking. This statement is so cliched, so let me try to fill it with some meaning.

When I study a language, I have to grasp new ways of expressing oneself. I don’t mean expressing one’s innermost thoughts; I mean trying to parse out mundane things like, “I’m hungry,” or “Please stop that!” To learn that, I inevitably have to talk to people who spend at least part of their lives outside of the monolingual English community I’ve spent most of my life in. That means that they approach the world differently than the people of my community. Again, this is not necessarily a profound difference; I’m talking about a community who sees a huge difference between, say, Ethiopia and Somalia. Basing my thinking on a new set of relevant facts changes my day-to-day concerns.

This week. I wanted to express some of the basic facts about a linguistic realm that few people—even professional linguists—know anything about. I will describe the Cushitic language family, concluding with why someone should care about Cushitic languages.
Discover more

Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension

Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty
Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty

Languages bring me into a world I do not understand and reveal complexities I never imagined. Sometimes I feel like Darwin in the Galapagos. Study and observation bring me joy, and when I immerse myself in these complex phenomena, I discover deeper truths. The more complexity, the more beauty, even if comprehension eludes me. And exploring the facets of language lead me to the subtle dynamics of the culture around it. Continue reading “Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension”

Language, space, and motion: Russian, Georgian, Somali, ASL

How do we depict space and motion using language?

Ever since I started learning Russian, the specific ways that language creates space and moves within it fascinates me.  We had to learn 10 verbs that could be translated “go,” each with a different nuance in how the object moves through space.  Then I found that motion and space play an important part in every language.  This displays the utility of early language: to describe who and what went where.  Languages across the world show an amazing level of specificity when describing space and motion, and our primordial ancestors probably benefited from it.


As I began above, Russian manifests a complex way to express motion.  (Other Slavic languages express motion in a similar way.)  First, going verbs distinguish whether one is going by foot or by conveyance.  Second, they distinguish between motion with or without a particular end-point.  So we begin with four basic going verbs: idti (by foot, specific endpoint), xodit’ (by foot, no specific endpoint), exat’ (by conveyance, specific endpoint), ezdit’ (by conveyance, no specific endpoint).  I will also note that there are four verbs for carrying something with the same distinctions.

Then one can add a prefix to specify the path more specifically, namely, into (v-), out of (vy-), towards (po-), away from (u-), up to the edge of (pod-), away from the edge of (ot-), through (pro-), and around (ob-).  One can add any of these prefixes to any of the above verbs.  So I can walk up to something: poiti.  I can drive around with no endpoint: obezdit’.  I can walk away from something, with no endpoint in mind: uxodit’.  This ability to combine paths and endpoints results in very specific verbs.


Georgian (completely unrelated to Armenian, or any Slavic or Semitic languages) focuses more on the speaker’s position relative to motion.  Unlike Russian, it does not distinguish the means of motion (by foot vs. by conveyance) or a general endpoint.  Rather than look at the endpoint of the motion as a generic point, it focuses on whether the endpoint is the speaker or hearer.  If the endpoint is the speaker or hearer, you may add a prefix, mo-.  (If you don’t add this prefix, you don’t have to add anything.)

In addition to this endpoint, you can also specify the path by adding one of a multitude of prefixes (called “preverbs” in traditional Georgian linguistics) like you can in Russian: up (a-), out (ga-), in (sha-), down into (cha-), across/through (garda-), thither (mi-), away (c’a-), or down (da-).  This precedes the endpoint marker.  So “up towards me” would be amo-.  So, motion fills a space where the interlocutors occupy the central space, and the path of motion may or may not interact directly with them.  (Georgian information from B. G. Hewitt, Georgian: A learner’s grammar, 2005, p. 29.)


Somali looks at motion with similar relationships among the involved entities.  The speaker is one reference point, and the other entities are another reference point.  These relationships appear as mandatory adverbs (not connected to the verb per se).  Entities may move towards each other (wada), away from each other (kala), to the speaker (so), or away from the speaker (si).  So the verb “separate” is kala durka; “go in [away from the speaker]” is si gal, and “come in [toward the speaker]” is so gal.  Somali thus emphasizes the relationships of entities to one another as they cross each other’s paths, and details whether the speaker finds himself or herself on that path.  (Somali examples come from John William Carnegie Kirk, A grammar of the Somali language: With examples in prose and verse and an account of the Yibir and Midgan dialects, 1905, pp. 73-74.)

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) uses space and motion in a unique way.  A speaker can use space for pronouns.  For example, if you tell a story about a dog and a bone, you can sign “dog” and place it in space — say, to your left — then sign “bone” and place it to your right.  As you mention the dog in your discourse, you can point to the left space, and referring to the bone, point to the right space.  You can do this with multiple objects.

Then with motion you can move among entities.  So if you add a cat to your discourse, you can put it in the middle.  The dog can go to the cat, or the cat to the dog.  The verb will change shape as it varies from a center-to-left motion or a left-to-center motion.  The speaker, the hearer, and others in the physical vicinity can become discourse objects as well.  So the left-side thing (dog) can carry the right-side thing (bone) to you, and the verb will move from the bone to the hearer.  The speaker sets up the space however he or she wants, and then the motion follows the speaker’s structure.

Space, motion, and our ancestors

Based on this sample of completely unrelated languages, depicting space and motion to an amazing level of detail plays an important linguistic role universally.  Moreover, this intricate system functions almost entirely on a subconscious level.  Language depicts space and motion effortlessly — as if made to do so.

It probably was made to do so.  Our ancestors had to describe quickly and effortlessly where prey and predators were and where they were headed.  Those humans who used the tool of language survived and humanity evolved such that complex yet efficient depiction of space and motion existed universally in language.

How does you language depict space and motion?  Does your language do anything cool with space or motion? (Probably!)  Tweet this and continue the conversation!

Photo credit: Sprengben [why not get a friend] / / CC BY-NC-SA