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Friday, August 21, 2015

Language Love, Part I ~ Cosmos

The Cosmos of Language @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

[I’ll be exploring the concept of language in this five-part series as I am preparing to tutor an Essentials class (English grammar and writing) with our Classical Conversations community this coming year (year six!).]

We use language to think about and communicate ideas.

We use grammar to think about and communicate ideas about language.

Grammar is a form or cosmos.

Let’s start our exploration of language with the word cosmos.

A cosmos is an orderly or harmonious system. The word derives from the Greek term κόσμος (kosmos), meaning literally "order" or "ornament" and metaphorically "world,” and is diametrically opposed to the concept of chaos.

[Explore cosmos in depth here.]

While we’re at it, let’s look up the definition of ornament: (Merriam-Webster)
2a. something that lends grace or beauty
3: one whose virtues or graces add luster to a place or society

Order. (Form. Structure. Truth.) Ornament. (Beauty. Harmony. Grace. Virtue.)

Order + Beauty (literally) = World (metaphorically)

Let’s go to the very beginning.

Genesis 1:1-2 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Formless. And what did God do? Created form: separated light and darkness, waters and sky, land and seas.

Empty. Once the form was established, God filled the place with beauty: plants, stars, birds, sea creatures, animals, man.

Genesis 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

(Words matter!)

Array: verb (used with object):
1. to place in proper or desired order
2. to clothe with garments, especially of an ornamental kind; dress up; deck out.

And, as Leigh Bortins says, that’s how you teach everything to everybody. Figure out what the form is, and then you have all the content in the world to make it creative, beautiful!

Sentence forms
Latin ending forms
Math formulas
The structure of a story
Poetry forms

You can put in whatever content you wish once you know the form. The content is what makes it unique and interesting.

When we learn the grammar of language, we are learning form so that we have the tools to communicate truth, goodness, and beauty.

6 comments:

Rachael Younger said...

I'm going to toss out a question for ya, that might or not be useful (as a linguist and philosopher):

Is language required for thought?

And, really, I have visceral dislike of your use of 'grammar', but that's the linguist in me. Grammar is so language dependent (e.g. English, Chinese, Spanish). Its so *prescriptive*. I think its just something I gotta get over.

And if you want to go deeper into the philosophy of language, I can share some ideas and books. Helps that I'm married to a professional philosopher. :D

It does sound like an interesting class and discussion!

-Rachael

Heidi said...

Do we use language for a purpose other than to think or to communicate?

Language is not necessarily the *only* way we think (we can also visualize), but I am of the opinion that it is the most effective and efficient and primary way we think, particularly when dealing with abstract thoughts, which is why it is difficult for us who know a language to think without it.

We can communicate ideas with pictures, music (though I posit that music communicates emotion more than ideas and that music itself is a structured language), or body language (and a structured "body language" such as sign language is more effective).

Do people who are unable to process language (spoken or visual such as ASL) create their own kind of language in their mind? Is there a specific structure to how they process sensory information and emotions? Are they able to process new ideas analogically (something they don't have direct experience with)? And how do they communicate? Are their pictures or body language structured? So interesting to consider!

The definition of grammar from Dictionary.com is the following:

noun
1. the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; morphology and syntax.
2. these features or constructions themselves:
English grammar.
3.an account of these features; a set of rules accounting for these constructions:
a grammar of English.
4.Generative Grammar. a device, as a body of rules, whose output is all of the sentences that are permissible in a given language, while excluding all those that are not permissible.
5.prescriptive grammar.
6.knowledge or usage of the preferred or prescribed forms in speaking or writing

Is it the definition I gave (structure of language and a specialized vocabulary so that one can communicate with others about language) that you dislike or that grammar itself is prescriptive?

General rules (prescriptive) are helpful for effective communication with others, yes, just as general rules are helpful when playing a game of soccer or singing in a choir. It helps eliminate some of the chaos. :) If one simply wants to kick a ball around on one's own, rules are not so important. In any endeavor, a shared understanding of structure (prescriptive) is important if two or more people are to work together effectively.

Maybe "effective" is too "product-oriented." But I'm not sure why I would want to communicate ineffectively since communication by definition requires that I get my point across. :) I also want to think effectively rather than ineffectively.

Are the definitions of words prescriptive? If I want to call a cat a choskep or a dog I can still think about a cat using that name, but I would have difficultly communicating with another person efficiently if we didn't have a shared, prescriptive idea of the word "cat"--unless I showed a picture. But, obviously, communicating with pictures would be cumbersome in most situations.

Humans tend to find things with structure more beautiful. Structure in music. Structure of the human body. Structure of buildings. Not to say that those structures are unchangeable, but that structure is still evident.

I think that the structure of language is beautiful and allows for incredible creativity within that prescriptive form. Breaking the rules occasionally and purposefully can add a certain artistic tension that would not be possible without the expectations of structure.

Regardless, it would be difficult for us to have a conversation about these ideas without the general prescriptive grammar of the English language. :)

Thanks for the stimulating questions. My husband and I just had a rousing discussion. :D

Rachael Younger said...

Yes, I love this conversation! Wish we could have it in person.

I react to "grammar" b/c of the way it presented to me as a kid. And, as I studied linguistics in grad school, I saw how our older grammar rules that came out of latin created such awkwardness in English. Its just my own personal experience that leads me to like "syntax" better, and it feels more inclusive. (I concentrated on theoretical linguistics in grad school)

Part of my question comes out of philosophy of what makes a person. Can a baby 'think' even if they don't have language? What of the child who grows up isolated from others? do they think?

And studying the structure of language is a most beautiful thing! That's why I dedicated 5 years to it!

"If I call a rose by any other name, is it still a rose?" There's on side of that question in that if we call the same thing by different names, we can still figure out what we are talking about with a picture. But if you change the name, do you change the thing? Is what you call the fuzzy feline animal important beyond designating something? Are words themselves powerful beyond what we give to them? (ah, such good questions! I think, at least.)

You might find William Lycan's book "Philosophy of Language: a contemporary introduction" of interest. (Philosophical book). From a different angle, you might find Alan Cruse's book "Meaning in Language: An introduction to semantics and pragmatics" interesting (linguistic angle).

Heidi said...

I think that the general human "capacity" for thought and language is important, not necessarily whether the capacity is developed or not (and to what degree) in individuals. There is obviously a sliding scale of capability (and I'm at the low end), and not even Einstein used his ability for thought at full capacity. :) We're all brain damaged to some degree. Ha! It's the fallen world we live in.

So I consider thought and language to be human giftings and one of the ways we are made in the image of God, but all humans have a soul regardless of their individual brain development.

I don't believe that the letters we put together to "name" something changes the "nature" of that thing. But it helps to have words both to contemplate the nature of the thing and to communicate the idea of that thing to another person. It's a magical thing to be able to say "cat" and know that the idea of the thing in my head is now in your head. :D

I'll check out the books you recommended.

And stay tuned for my next posts. We might disagree on a few more ideas. :D

Heidi said...

By the way, I re-read my post and considered our conversation. I changed the first two sentences slightly to better reflect what we've discussed. :)

Heidi said...

I don't know if you'll think it much of an improvement though. :D

We use them for those purposes, but they aren't the *only* tools we can use.