“Were language acquisition solely a question of learning by rote, it would in principle be impossible: one of the key distinguishing features of any given human language is that the number of expressions it contains is infinite.”
--David Shariatmadari, Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language (2019, p. 246)
Starting in 1908, the study of language and its structure, linguistics, began to try taking apart this most sociable of human capabilities. It departs from the academic study of specific tongues (ancient Latin and Greek, modern Spanish and French and English, to unwritten Asian, African, and Native American) or language families, began only in the twentieth century, forming around courses at the University of Geneva in the first decade taught by Ferdinand de Saussure. Linguistics took off in US universities a half-century later in the innovative 1960s across the academic curriculum.
How scientific can the study of language be? That’s difficult to say, because science is about understanding the totality of things, and the infinite and varied nature of humankind’s spoken and written tongues, and their sheer diversity, makes that nearly impossible. Science also attempts to use what it knows to predict what can happen within any given domain—difficult to determine against the constant changing voice and rules of language as it moves forward in time and among various groups of speakers. As Geoffrey Sampson puts it in his expose of the field, The Linguistics Delusion (2017), “The heart of the problem is that linguistics sees itself as a science--the soundbite it has used since the 1960s to define itself is “the scientific study of language. That is a delusion. Human language is not the kind of thing that can be studied by the methods of science” (p .2).
English is not the leading native language, spoken by only 400 million people. By sheer numbers, Mandarin Chinese is first, over 700 million. But English is spoken by 20% of the world population as the secondary language of up to 2 billion people as well as the common linguistic science and technology standard. The hegemony of English is ironic in that English is difficult to learn and master as languages go. Ancient forms, Latin and Greek, are widely taught as international academic standards. Spanish, French, and Russian are also Indo-European internationally well-distributed, with Arabic rising as the leading non- Indo-European member (Western Semitic). Half the world speaks an Indo-European language. Sino-Tibetan is the second-largest language family, with over a billion Chinese speakers. These places on the language racetrack change continuously, advancing and retreating with the way they are used and the geopolitics of language learning.
There are six leading language families, with many branches including extinct ones, accounting for two-thirds of all languages on earth. A total of 142 families are comprised of over 7,000 languages now spoken, including very large speaking groups and very small ones (representing 2400 at risk of extinction). One example is the Tuyuca speakers of the East Amazon, just 1000 currently, with 1.5 million tenses, making it one of the world’s hardest to learn. Archi, spoken in a few Dagestan villages, has just 900 speakers. Silbo Gomero, spoken on the coast of Spain and the Canary Islands, is whistled. Xhosa in South Africa, among 11 national languages and the national language of Zimbabwe, uses clicks. An entirely invented language is Esperanto, conceived in 1887 by Polish writer L.L. Zamenhof. It was designed as a lingua franca, based on Germanic, Romantic, and Slavic roots, but has just 100,000 speakers. Klingon, the Star Trek invention, still has only 100 fluent speakers—we assume they speak mostly to each other. And modern Hebrew is an ancient language revitalized, spoken by 9 million, almost all Israeli.
This variation, along with the infinite generative power of words, makes linguist Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar a difficult proposition to make and maintain. Sampson maintains that the attempt at comprehensive grammar has been abandoned, and that there is little sense of convergence toward this ultimate goal (p. 32). It is not like saying that homo sapiens have a common body, with variations not in structure but in weight, height, skin color, eye color, gender, and genetic code. All people come into the world with the ability to learn any language, any at all—from Icelandic to any of the 300 Australian Indigenous family. President Herbert Hoover knew Chinese from his mining engineering work and could communicate that way with his wife when they wanted to share private messages. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) convention, even when held in Beijing, is not conducted in Chinese but in English.
The many languages, and the wide diffusion of centuries and distances between them, under many currents of change, showcase the diversity of speech, words, syntax, and semantics among them all. Such diversity indicates the richness of the language toolbar itself in the ability to express an infinite number of ideas and realities. Of course, language is also the largest barrier to communication and idea-sharing—a Tower of Babel-- among the various families together with subfamilies that have developed as expressions of culture. But as Charles Darwin showed, looking for differences may be more instructive and produce better insights than looking for commonalities. Indeterminism, rather than limits-seeking, is the rule in physics, history, biology, the arts, and economic life. Language on the ground, rather than linguistically bound, is more generative, variable, creative, and less rule-bound. And this seems to offer the gateway into creativity rather than chaos.