Codes of spoken communication

Nearly all studies in linguistics break down human speech into thousands of individual “languages”. This blog post investigates this statement, adopting the style of a stream of consciousness, while making little to no attempt to justify its claims or conclusions.

First of all, individual people can deliberately adapt their code to match the codes of the people around them. Individual people can also deliberately obscure their code from the people that surround them. Much of the processing involved is usually based on exposure to and/or experience with using different codes in one’s life-time, however, an individual person is also capable of pure invention.

In a setting like New Delhi, what was historically two codes, referrable as “English” and “Hindi”, has developed into one code, referrable as “a mixture of English and Hindi”. When in the presence of foreigners, an individual person from New Delhi may wish to match their code with the code of the foreigner in order to ease communication. If the foreigner wishes to use “English”, the New Delhi speaker must do one of two things: (1) they must learn the code “English” from scratch; (2) they must somehow extrapolate the code “English” from the code “a mixture of English and Hindi”. What seems to happen is a mixture of both. The lexicon and syntax of “English” are a fundamental topic in the education system of New Delhi – with this knowledge, a person from New Delhi can subtract the elements of “a mixture of English and Hindi” which are not “English”-like, and proceed accordingly.

The question follows: what are the elements of a code of linguistic communication? Clearly the most important element are words: those elements that combine some recognizable phonetic structure with some recognizable meaning, such as a concept or the property of a concept. Two people engaged in some co-operative manual labour can get by using only words which both of them are familiar with, or words which one of them can easily learn, whose meaning refers to an object or action (or property of an object, or property of an action) that can be pointed to. Words can also express emotional reactions. A combination of words can express opinions.

When individual people get together and form a community, a consensus on the arrangement of words often arises. For instance, native people of South Holland generally agree that, when speaking to other natives, the second word that comes out of a speaker’s mouth should be a verb. However, breaking this “rule” does not hamper understanding. The arrangement of words in a speech code is merely a social construct of the community which uses that code. Thus, if an individual person wants to integrate into a foreign community, he/she must be familiar not only with the words preferred by the speech community, but also the preferred method of arranging these words. In northern and insular Europe, speech communities tend to have strict rules concerning the arrangement of words in their codes; whereas in most of the indigenous communities of Australia, speech communities prefer the arrangement of words to be free, and instead are strict about the selection of words which one can use.

The use of the word “code” is confusing, and should probably be replaced with a term such as “language”. One would be hard-pressed to find a linguist who is willing to apply the label “language” to the code “a mixture of English and Hindi”, which contains both words and rules of arrangement from the traditional codes “English” and “Hindi”. Yet, “English” contains words and rules of arrangement from “Old French”, and “Hindi” contains words and rules of arrangement from “Proto-Dravidian”. The term “language” has become an empty vessel for inserting one’s political ideals. Yet, the pervasive use of the term has confused linguists into coining the terms “monolingual” and “bilingual”. All human beings, if they can speak at all, can speak more than one speech code, since each community has a separate code, and each community has sub-communities, and each sub-community has separate codes, and so on. Furthermore, speech codes constantly change over time – speakers internalize the changes, but they also have a memory of what the speech code used to be. The number of speech codes known by a single person may be infinite.

It is a circular fallacy for a linguist to observe a community that speaks “a mixture of English and Hindi”, and then attempt to divide this code into two different codes, “English” and “Hindi”. (Even worse, if this linguist claims that the speech community is speaking two “languages”.) Speakers of “a mixture of English and Hindi” only make the distinction between “English” and “Hindi” when they are speaking to outsiders – that is, they adopt different codes, which have only a superficial link to the code they use with their neighbours and family members.

The view given earlier was that two codes, such as “English” and “Hindi”, may be combined, but that this combination is uni-directional. That is, if a person in New Delhi wants to speak “English” or “Hindi”, he/she must learn the two codes from scratch, albeit with some analogous input from his/her native code “a mixture of English and Hindi”. Much is often made in the linguistic world about the mass language extinction which is predicted, under the current empty and false definition of a language. In fact, new speech codes arise all the time, as codes are constantly being combined in the minds of individual speakers. An important thing to note, from the above example, is that combining codes does not result in the death of the two original codes. Rather, their words and arrangement features are copied into a new code; the original codes remain in the memories of the creators, and may live on as the creators speak to outsiders or teach “language” to their children. Eventually, if one of the original codes falls out of use, then aspects of its programming will remain in the new codes. Gradually, as the new codes are copied again and again into new combinations, those aspects of the original code will be copied less and less, until finally its traces are barely detectable in contemporary speech.

Comparative linguistics may uncover traces of ancient lost codes. However, this model implies that family trees follow an upward order of two, where every code has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, and so on. Current models of historical linguistics show branching trees of languages leading up to a single ancestor. Under the code-combination model, this is clearly false. In light of reality, the upwards-order-of-two family tree is also false, since metaphorical “inbreeding” is bound to occur. Nevertheless, Proto-Indo-European is clearly only one of potentially hundreds of ancestors of any one of the speech codes found in Europe, Persia and northern India. The fact that traces of Proto-Indo-European are the most prominent of any of the ancient ancestors speaks only for social and cultural factors in the development of Europe.

Much more may be written about this code-combination model of language, which, despite being in its primeval stages in this blog post, is probably not the first proposal of its kind in general linguistics. Nevertheless, this blog post concludes by asserting these opinions, which have guided the model, without cementing them as empirical facts:

1) Linguistics is the study of coded forms of verbal communication. These are called speech codes.

2) Whatever the same speakers use regularly for communication in the same situations for the same purposes, this is one single speech code.

3) Speech codes are not constrained by human cognition, but rather by cultural norms and expectations.

4) Two people in the same speech community cannot speak the same speech codes. Speech codes are inferred, transformed, combined and lost in the minds of individual speakers. Speech communities merely reflect an attempt between people to converge their codes. This implies that a speaker does not learn a language – he/she attempts to copy the code which appears to be shared by the speech community with which he/she is attempting to integrate into. These principles apply to infants as much as to adults.

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