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View PointOpinion: Growing centrality of languages

Opinion: Growing centrality of languages

Published: 3rd Jan 2022 12:03 am | Updated: 2nd Jan 2022 11:24 pm

By Patricia Álvarez Sánchez

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Languages are constellations of words shared by all those speakers who are immersed in a specific linguistic environment. Despite their surprising variety — there are about 7,000 — linguistics tries to analyse them and determine their structure. This relatively recent discipline, which has many schools and approaches, has also investigated the different functions of language. But what exactly are languages for?

It is undeniable that since humanity existed, they have served us to communicate, express our emotions, remember our stories and develop our cultures. In addition, languages help us preserve memory, embellish reality and are agglutinating forms of thought and meaning.

Mirror of Reality

Traditionally, it has been understood that languages are tools for naming the world, that is, they exist as a mirror of reality. However, from Romanticism and the exaltation of the particular, language becomes an expression of thought and is related to culture. Furthermore, from postmodernism, language is analysed taking into account its ideological value (in terms of relations of power, dominance or resistance).

On the one hand, linguistic relativism argues that thanks to language, we can better understand societies. This theory has its distant origin in Romanticism. One of its predecessors, Wilhelm von Humboldt, argued that the spirit of the nation flourishes in language. According to this school, languages serve us, in their diversity, to understand the idiosyncrasies of peoples.

On the other hand, Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most relevant modern philosophers, comes to the conclusion that language serves us, above all, to express our thoughts. We well know that expressing our ideas makes us put them in order and even prepares us for different activities. Many students repeat the lesson out loud to learn it, and some people simulate difficult conversations to train themselves on possible responses.

Words Heal Sorrows

In addition, words can heal almost all sorrows if we express them out loud as a confession, especially from a Freudian couch, and thanks to language, a psychologist could detect if a person suffers from depression.

Language disorders also help us diagnose developmental problems in children. In adults, aphasias can indicate tumours, cardiovascular accidents or cerebral infarcts in very specific areas of the left hemisphere.

Words, according to the postulates of John L Austin in ‘How to do things with words’, do things. When two people marry, we consider them married when a councillor or priest says “I declare you husband and wife.” This is the case even if the act has not been signed and the marriage has not been entered in the registry. It is those words that change our reality.

The Idealistic School

Languages are also synonymous with creation, at least that is how Karl Vossler and Leo Spitzer, exponents of the idealistic school, consider it. The Spanish poet Dámaso Alonso, who follows in his footsteps, comes to defend that “everyone who speaks is an artist.”
Especially when languages are artistic expression, they also appeal to the feelings of the population. Thus, Gabriel Celaya dreamed that language is, in his poetic expression, “a weapon loaded with the future” and “an instrument to change the world.”

Not surprisingly, the Portuguese revolution began with two songs, which served as a signal for the revolutionary movement to take to the streets. One of them, Grândola, Villa Morena de José Alfonso, had been banned by the dictatorship for its message and became a symbol of democracy in the Portuguese country.

Observed under the magnifying glass of the linguist, languages form abstract systems of rules that we acquire and handle with different communicative functions, but in addition, their vocabularies are palimpsests that illustrate invasions of other peoples, the development of thought and the historical changes of meaning. The study of the history of languages is the study of the societies where they are spoken.

Forensic Linguistics

In addition, languages help us create a unique identity — in fact, one of the characteristics that distinguishes us from the rest of the billions of human beings is the voice. Also the way we express ourselves when we speak or write is absolutely unique. These traits, which are analysed by forensic linguists, serve as evidence to incriminate or defend a person in a trial.

Linguist Sheila Queralt examines the resolution of many police cases thanks to her analyses in the book ‘Trapped by the language: 50 cases resolved by Forensic Linguistics.’ To cite one example, the kidnapping and murder of Anabel Segura in 1993 was solved thanks to the study of the kidnappers” voice messages. Not only because in the tapes the word ‘bolo’ was heard, which is used only in Toledo as a synonym for fool. This caused the search to be restricted. Also because their voices were made public and this made it possible for a person to identify one of the kidnappers, whom he had just seen.

A Requirement for Knowledge

Our languages are complex tools made up of words and their combinatorics, they represent generations of wisdom and put at our disposal an unrivalled wealth of resources.

Words come to life when we say them and they have a multitude of functions. Wittgenstein also said that the study of language is the only way to access knowledge. It is possible that there is nothing in our thinking that cannot be named in some way.

(The author is Professor of Translation and Interpreting, University of Malaga, Spain.

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