CONCEPT OF LANGUAGE

Language may be defined as the general faculty of speech or as a nation’s unique means of communication. As the general faculty of speech, it refers to the aspect of human behaviour that involves the use of vocal sounds in meaningful patterns and, when they exist, corresponding written symbols to form, express, and communicate thoughts, ideas, facts, propositions, attitudes, desires, and feelings. As a nation’s distinctive means of communication, it embraces all historically established patterns of such behaviour adopted by the nation for the purpose of effective information transmission and feedback.

When conceived in the latter perspective, language emerges as a national tongue, a socio-cultural marker, serving as an instrument of geopolitical national consciousness, identity, and expression. Hence, a great many of the estimated 4,000 languages (e.g. English, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, etc.) spoken in the world today expose a wide range of cultural differences, influences, and similarities between recognisable language/speech communities in the vortex of communication.

Besides, the word language has other related shades of meaning as portrayed in such expressions as the language of a subject, the language of an action, and the language of a writer. The language of a subject (usually referred to as the register, jargon, or symbols of a field) refers to any method of communicating ideas, as by a system of signs, symbols, gestures, or the like which distinguishes one subject from another subject. In this parlance, one can say that the language of Algebra is different from that of Phonetics/Phonology, and the language of Medicine is different from that of the legal profession.

At another remove, one can talk of the language of an action with reference to the transmission of meaning, feeling, or intent by significance of act or manner, as exemplified by the import of the winking of an eye or the snapping of fingers at someone. At yet another remove, the language of a writer (e.g. Miltonic language or Shakespearian language) is the writer’s characteristic style of speech or writing, sometimes referred to as the writer’s idiom(s) or diction.

Essentially, however, the popular conception of language as man’s verbal mode of communication is the central focus of this book. Based on this conception, therefore, let us now look at the characteristics and functions of language.

 

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF LANGUAGE

Language is a hierarchical system, composed of sound, grammar, and meaning. Sounds build up into words and words conduce to meaning(s). And in this hierarchy, there are subdivisions of each segment: Sound is subdivided into Phonetics (the study of sounds produced by speakers) and Phonology (the study of the sound system of a language), Grammar comprises Morphology (word structure) and Syntax (sentence structure), and Meaning, the concern of Semantics, explores the meanings of words and sentences.

Language is characterized by four independent activities/skills: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. Each of these skills, if judiciously transferred, affects and enhances the development of the others.

Every language has its own varieties known as language variations or sub-languages. Each variation makes the language adaptable to distinct functions and occasions. Four broad variations are usually noticeable: (a) Dialect, (b) Register (c) Collocation, and (d) Style. While Dialect refers to special selections of words and forms of expression that distinguish one social or geographical group (speech community) from another speech community, Register refers to special selection(s) of words and forms of expressions peculiar to distinctive/particular functions or professions (e.g. Science, Arts, Business or legal registers). Collocation distinguishes words in use by discovering the tendency of words to occur at regular and consistent associations. But Style portrays a writer/ speaker’s ability to combine the variations or alter the normal forms of language to achieve a special purpose, such as emphasis, persuasion, or emotional effect.

Language is culture-bound and, therefore, it has a national character. It makes a nation unique, for it is both an instrument for expressing the people’s world-view and a repository of the people’s cultural heritage. Even when it moves beyond the shores of those who use it as their mother tongue, and becomes a second language to other nations, it still bears vestiges of its socio-cultural roots.

Language acquisition and usage are, to some extent, spontaneous and unconscious. Hence, a child of six years learns his mother tongue almost imperceptible and uses it automatically in response to certain stimuli. Second language learners and users also experience the subtle internalization of certain idioms and expressions of the language as they listen to speakers or read through the literature of that language. Yet, the mastery of any language is difficult and time-consuming because it requires a careful understanding of the intricate system of symbols embodied in the language.

Notably, every language is replete with a complex body of communication symbols that are systematically organised. The order and meaning(s) which these symbols display arise from a series of recognisable rules (otherwise referred to as grammatical conventions) in the language.

‘Language can be described as a system of systems because it is a composite system that embraces other subsystems, such as phonology, lexis, morphology, syntax, cohesion, and semantics. These subsystems constitute the basic elements of language.

Language is distinguished from other systems of communication in that it is a system that accommodates considerable precision and economy. Relatively small number of sound units, meaningless in themselves, can combine to form an enormous number of meaningful words.

But it is not an abstract autonomous system. There is a constant interaction between linguistic skills and communicative skills, between grammatical competence and communicative competence, between language in use and the use of language, between the acquired principles of a language and the actual socio-situational application of the language. Hence, the multiple influences of social environment and norms, coupled with the encroachment of other communicational modes on language, help to illustrate that rather than being autonomous in itself, the language we use is socially circumscribed.

Language is, therefore, dynamic; that is, it grows in space (environment), times, and functions. The growth may come through acculturation, socialization, or conscious eclecticism or hybridization of two or more languages.

 

FUNCTIONS OF LANGUAGE

Since man is the only homoloquent being, language stands out as man’s most natural and prominent means of communication. It facilitates the complex process of verbal communication and helps man to build up sequences of organised and logical thought. It also helps to promote understanding between the speakers and their audiences. With it, man causes useful, appropriate, and efficient action to take place.

Besides, language may be used very deliberately and thoughtfully by some public figures in the pursuance of certain public aims and purposes. Hence, it is used to formulate social objectives, goals, norms, and regulations. It can be manipulated skilfully and adapted to serve literary, rhetorical, or political ends. Sometimes, whether deliberately or accidentally, language is employed in concealing and confusing thought, especially in law and political rhetoric.

Essentially, however, language can be employed to serve one or all of the following principal kinds of purposes:

  1. subjective or personal (communicating personal feelings/views/opinions).
  2. informative or objective (giving information, statements of facts, and objective reports).
  3. evocative (arousing people’s feelings and sentiments, calling up memories and emotions in addition to their ordinary meanings: e.g connotative usage).
  4. persuasive (causing or convincing someone to do something which he would otherwise not have done).
  5. logical (appealing to someone’s sense of reason and judgement, or reasoning correctly, or following the rules of logic).
  6. artistic (employed skilfully, especially in the arts, to create beautiful works, such as novels, plays, poems, songs, etc.).
  7. commercial (used in business transactions).
  8. educative (used in teaching, i.e. for pedagogic and instructive purposes),
  9. political (employed in politics, political campaigns, and in the art of governance),
  10. diplomatic (used tactfully in creating, negotiating, and managing cordial relationship between nations, peoples, governments, institutions and social groups).

 

A COMMON LANGUAGE IN NIGERIA

In Nigeria, English Language is used in all facets of national life: communication, commerce and industry, education, religion, politics, entertainment, administration, law, and diplomacy. It is, in fact, Nigeria’s lingua franca.

In addition to its conventional role of communication, English serves not only as an instrument for unifying the multilingual ethnic groups in Nigeria but also as a means of communication with other peoples and nations of the world. It is, therefore, important for every Nigerian to study and master the nature, conventions, idioms, and techniques of English Language to ensure effective use of the language.

 

ENGLISH LANGUAGE: ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT

English Language was brought to England (land of the Angles) by three Germanic tribes (Angles, Jutes, and Saxons) who settled in the land in the fifth and sixth centuries AD after invading and conquering the country. Before these English settlers came, the original inhabitants of England (the Britons), who had been under the Roman Empire, used to speak a form of Latin. In the sixth century, Roman missionaries (monks) reintroduced Christianity into England, and as the religion spread, a great many Latin words were adopted by the Anglo-Saxons (the English) to express new ideas connected with the Christian faith, religion and learning. In the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, the language suffered Scandinavian influences through the Danes, who not only made continual raids on the English coasts but also invaded and settled on most parts of England, introducing such words as skill, skin, ill, get, Thursday, their, them, they, etc. into the language. In the eleventh century, English Language suffered French influences occasioned by the Norman Conquest of England under William the Conqueror in 1066. And since the Norman conquerors of England spoke the French dialects of Normandy and Picardy, they made the dialects of central and Norman (North man) French a dominant tongue of the court (the ruling class) and the literati (the English literary intelligentsia) from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. However, during the Revival of Learning in the sixteenth century, the wide study of Greco-Roman literature in English led to frequent borrowing of Latin and Greek words for literary purposes in English.

In the face of these turbulent times, the development of English Language waned a little while that of French, by the seventeenth century, accelerated to a point of international recognition as a global language of diplomacy.

But from the seventeenth century up until the nineteenth century, emigrants from England to other parts of the world in search of colonies boosted the spread of English across the globe. Thus, by the eve of the twenty first century, English (and not French) language has become a world language spoken in almost all the continents of the world including Europe, USA, and Africa.

The development of English vocabulary can logically be attributed to four major influences, namely, Latin, Scandinavian, French, and Greek. Hence, one may safely say that English is an eclectic language, borrowing and adopting words from other languages, such as Latin (e.g. addendum, alumnus, datum, erratum apparatus, aquarium, formula, ultimatum, ‘strata via’ -street, profost’ -provost, papa’ – pope, etc.), French (e.g. beef, pork, dinner, banquet, rent, custom, price, baron, duke, prison, fortress, siege, standard, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, cousin, madam, etc.), and Greek (e.g. analysis, basis, crisis, phenomenon, thesis, automaton, gymnasium, hippopotamus, lexicon, etc.) to enrich itself. Sometimes, some of the loanwords from these Indo-European tongues are hybridized to produce entirely new words called hybrid words. For example, starvation and officialdom are made up of Germanic root (starv – and official – ) and Latin suffixes ( – ation and – dom).

Three remarkable periods of development are however recognisable in the evolution of English language: Old English (449 – 1100), Middle English (1100 1500), and Modern English (1600 – 1800). Old English (also called Anglo Saxon) was the language spoken in England before the Norman conquest. It differed greatly, from our present day English language in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. It was replaced by Middle English, which eventually gave way to the era of Modern English with sophisticated changes in sounds, spellings, forms, and syntax of the language.

These apart, contemporary English may be said to have developed into six major variety classes, namely, regional, educational and social, subject-matter, medium, attitudinal and interferential. Each variety class comprises different varieties of the language. For example, regional variety class shows that different geographical regions of the English-speaking world have dialectical differences in the kinds of English they speak. Within the British Isles alone, one can easily recognise Irish, Scots, Northern, Midland, Welsh, South-Western, and London varieties of English. And within North America, one can also distinguish between Canadian, New England, Midland, and Southern varieties of English. Even among different dialect regions of English, sub-varieties exist, and another broader variety class, especially that based on education and social standing, is generally recognised. The educational and social standing variety class also reveals two remarkable varieties – the educated and the uneducated English -with each cutting across dialectical boundaries. The educated English variety (e.g. BBC or VOA English) is sometimes referred to as Standard English because it is the language of education and public discourse used in formal, social, and political offices or gatherings. The uneducated English, irrespective of the dialect area that speaks it, is termed substandard English. But it must be remembered that the terms standard and substandard used here are useful and appropriate rather than rigid, for neither has been formally established by official sanction. However, two national standards of English – the British English (BrE) and the American English (AmE) -have been widely accepted today as the world standard English. There are however minor differences between BrE and AmE in vocabulary [e.g. autumn (BrE), fall (AmE)/bonnet (BrE), hood (AmE)/ cock (BrE) rooster (AmE); in grammar (e.g. one has to do one’s duty = BrE. ; One has to do his duty = AmE); and in spelling (e.g. BrE – centre, colour, carburettor, honour, levelled, metre, theatre; AmE – centre, colour, carburetor, honour, levelled, metre, theatre). In pronunciation, both national standards appear to have accepted a common standard which is called the Received Pronunciation (RP).

In addition to the two variety classes seen above, a third variety class, associated with the subject-matter, is noteworthy. Its varieties are referred to as language registers. This presupposes that every subject of discussion or discipline has terms or jargons unique to it, and such terms or distinctive words form the language register of that subject/discipline. Hence, we have different registers for different subjects such as Medicine, Law, Engineering, Management, Journalism, Football, Drama, etc. and the speaker or writer is expected to stick to either of the two national standards of English in his discourse. The fourth variety class is that grouped according to medium, which comprises speaking and writing varieties. Speaking mannerisms (e.g. gesticulations, stress, rhythm, intonation, tempo, etc.) enhance a clear understanding of unfinished sentences and thought patterns in spoken communication while written matter encourages completeness and explicitness of expression. The fifth class appertains to varieties according to attitude which are often referred to as stylistic. Such varieties as formal (rigid, stiff, cold, impersonal) and informal (relaxed, warm, friendly) styles belong to this class. The last variety class arises from the interference of someone’s mother tongue on the acquired English usage. A reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, with all the transliterations in it, will, for instance, expose the extent to which a speaker or writer’s own native language usage can influence his English. Even though the novel is written in English, some of the beautiful expressions in it are, strictly speaking, unEnglish or at best, an interferential variety of English.

English Language has come a long way with all its borrowing and varieties. Our aim in this course is to study common core English; that is educated standard English, which not only cuts across all other varieties of English but also calls for a high degree of pliable, correct, and appropriate usage. This demands a knowledge of English grammar.

 

ENGLISH GRAMMAR – MEANING, ORIGIN AND SCOPE

Grammar embodies rules deduced from the best literary works of the best speakers and writers of any language. It is sometimes referred to as the approved custom or the established usage adopted by the majority of educated speakers and writers of a language. It may be Prescriptive or descriptive. Prescriptive grammar attempts to prescribe rules that we must obey to speak and write good or grammatically correct sentences. But descriptive grammar attempts to describe how people speak so as to enable us to discover for ourselves the organising principles of sentence structure.

A good knowledge of grammar is invaluable. Teachers, students, and other users of language agree that grammar helps them to say things the correct way and enables them to discover the do’s and don’ts of language. Besides, a mastery of grammar facilitates the flow of verbal communication and eliminates mistakes that could lead to misunderstanding, quarrels, business losses, diplomatic cracks, and academic failure. Hence, every language has its own grammar.

English language had no grammar up until 1600 when the first English grammarian Dr. Ben Jonson, an Elizabethan poet and dramatist, compiled the first English grammar, which he defined in his famous dictionary as the science of speaking correctly, the art which teaches the relation of words to each other. Today, contemporary grammarians describe English grammar as the study of a systematically organised body of English words that exhibit discernible regularity of structure (morphology) and arrangement into sentences (syntax), sometimes including such aspects of the language as pronunciation of words (phonology), the meaning of words (semantics), and the history of words (etymology). By implication, therefore, English grammar refers to the rules or study of the rules of English language.