What Words Do…

I’ve been thinking a lot about language and linguistics lately.  It’s possible that this is a by-product of the fact that I’m taking a rather challenging course in advanced grammar and linguistics.  Just a guess, it’s hard to say why I think what I think.  In any case, one of the most interesting and engaging concepts that I’ve come across lately is related to the question of what language is for.  There’s a linguist out there, a guy named Halliday (I quoted him about a zillion years ago in my last post), who suggests that language has a whole bunch of different functions.  That is to say, language does a lot of things.  Most of these things (I won’t bother listing them all, it’s kind of complicated) eventually clump together as we grow older.  Eventually the most important clump, or meta-function, is the informational function.  Language for adults is mostly about communicating information, about telling something to somebody that he/she doesn’t know (or that we think he/she doesn’t know, whatever).

Here’s the thing, though.  For kids this is one of the least important functions that language performs.  I’m not sure exactly when this happens, I haven’t read all of the relavant research, but early on in life when we are learning language we don’t really think about language as a tool to give others new information.  If you have little kids who have only recently learned to talk watch them and see if this seems right or not.  It works with my son.  If he sees a picture of a cow he says “Cow!”  I’m pretty sure he’s not telling me it’s a cow.  He knows I know that.  What he’s telling me is that he likes cows.  He’s using language to communicate not information, but emotion.  He’s engaging with me relationally.

This is, I think, why we have so much difficulty with poetry.  We are so fixated on what the poem means that we completely miss what it is that poems are for.  Poetry is trying to do something other than give information, it is trying to create an emotional encounter.

Let me put it another way.  If I come home and my wife looks at me angrily and says “You’re late,” she is not using the informational meta-function of language.  She is not trying to inform me of the fact that I am late.  If I assume that her words are being used to communicate information the evening is likely going to go badly for me.

Your words do a lot of things, and though communicating information is an important one of those things, it isn’t the only one.  As an excercise today, try being more conscious of the relational aspect of your language and the language of those around you.  Be attentive to what your words do and not just to what they mean.  It is, at the very least, a fun experiment.


7 thoughts on “What Words Do…

  1. An interesting blog Colin, one near and dear to my heart being a teacher and struggling with the mysteries of language development and retainment intimately on a daily basis. Unless students “know”, internalize or understand well, how to interpret the meaning of sensory information that is common to our culture, they quickly fail or say, fall behind in some capacity until their brain develops further to allow the learning of extremely subtle nuances of language and communication. Language and vocabulary are the building blocks of understanding that render concepts and ultimately forge neural pathways in our brains. Or something like that!Making the assumption that it is impossible NOT to communicate (at least while you are alive), I think that kids are communicating information all the time. With coaching, they get better at forming words. Enlightened parents are excellent at reading body language and interpreting the grunts and groans of little ones. That is one of the basic roles of parents; learn the language of your kids. It’s a two way street. Does Liam really like cows? Perhaps what he likes, what he takes notice of or affirms for himself with you is that you both agree on the sound of COW for the visual pattern that you both recognize. You as parents affirm him and praise him for making this loose association with an image. Liam likes the praise and has obviously associated praise with the emotion of feeling good about himself. Liam is giving you information! He recognizes “Cow”. He is telling you this. You confirm it, over and over. This is the socialization process, his culturation. Yes, relationship is the medium for developing language and engaging in the educational process. The two are intimately intertwined. My experience in the classroom has confirmed repeatedly that young students learn way better when they have built a positive relationship with the teacher. Excellent substitute teachers build relationships quickly. Their body language, their words and their presence engages students.I like your language exemplar. Of course learning how to communicate and interpret the many aspects of communication is the key for living a long and happy life. Many of us talk to God about how to do that better in our daily lives with others. How do we develop our “God language”?

  2. My favorite part of this particular post is visualizing Jinny telling you you’re late…while she has you in a headlock. Totally interesting though processes there buddy. I like the idea of language and its nuances as well. What a word means and how is is properly used are of equal importance and interest to me. Good call Deanna by the way.

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