Imagine you’re a traveller in a strange land. A local approaches you and starts jabbering away in an unfamiliar language. He seems earnest, and is pointing off somewhere. But you can’t decipher the words, no matter how hard you try.
That’s pretty much the position of a young child when she first encounters language. In fact, she would seem to be in an even more challenging position. Not only is her world full of ceaseless gobbledygook; unlike our hypothetical traveller, she isn’t even aware that these people are attempting to communicate. And yet, by the age of four, every cognitively normal child on the planet has been transformed into a linguistic genius: this before formal schooling, before they can ride bicycles, tie their own shoelaces or do rudimentary addition and subtraction. It seems like a miracle. The task of explaining this miracle has been, arguably, the central concern of the scientific study of language for more than 50 years.
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The hashtag, or #, has recently been named UK children’s word of the year. Children’s dictionary writers at Oxford University Press analysed 120,421 entries to BBC Radio 2’s annual short story competition. They found that under 13s were using the hashtag symbol in a new way: to add emphasis or to signal a comment in their story-writing. According to Vineeta Gupta, head of children’s dictionaries at OUP, examples of this phenomenon might include: “This is a wonderful day, #sunny” or “I have the best family, #fantasticfamily”.
This finding is remarkable in two ways. First, the hashtag is self-evidently not a word. It was developed for use in Twitter feeds. So how is it that it can take on a new meaning, a trait normally the preserve of language? Celebrated examples of language change include the word “queen”, which 1,000 years ago could mean woman or wife. Today, it refers exclusively to a female monarch.
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What do you get if you cross a kangaroo with an elephant?
You’ll have to wait for the punchline, but you should already have shards of meaning tumbling about your mind. Now, jokes don’t have to be all that funny, of course, but if they are to work at all then they must construct something beyond the simple words deployed.
Language is the tissue that connects us in our daily social lives. We use it to gossip, to get a job, and give someone the sack. We use it to seduce, quarrel, propose marriage, get divorced and yes, tell the odd gag. In the absence of telepathy, it lets us interact with our nearest and dearest, and in our virtual web of digital communication, with hundreds of people we may never have met.
But while we now know an awful lot about the detail of the grammatical systems of the world’s 7,000 or so languages, scientific progress on the mysterious elixir of communication – meaning – has been a much tougher nut to crack.
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The use of emojis has become a global phenomenon. By 2015, over 6 billion emojis were being sent every day by over 90 percent of the world’s online population.2 Emoji, today, dwarfs even the reach of English.
For some, emojis are prompting warnings about the death of real language. Professional art critic and contrarian Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian newspaper in 2015, contended that “After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away.” Emoji is, he proclaimed, a “huge step back for humanity.” His derision is clear: “Use emoji if you want to, I’ll stick to the language of Shakespeare.”
But is language really the prime mover and shaker in our everyday world of communication?
Continue reading in Nautilus