Saturday, January 21, 2006

language as a social contract

I've said this before, but I've never written it down. When a baby is about one (as one of mine is), he/she begins to listen carefully to everything, begin to put together the parts of a language, and get ready to speak. Fortunately, he/she doesn't really need to, unless there are other kids around and someone has grabbed his/her toy. But even then crying will usually suffice.

What the baby notices is that if certain words are said, certain things happen: it's like an agreement, a contract. If you do this, people will respond, but then, if they say things, you respond. The baby is eager to prove that he/she is part of this contract. The baby goes and gets the newspaper for you, long before he/she can tell you where it is.

The participation in a language is thus an agreement or contract that people enter into every time they speak, although it's somewhat tenuous, sometimes, say, in a bus station with someone who has a clearly different dialect, or perhaps from a far-flung corner of the empire. One assumes words will mean certain things and sometimes finds out they don't...but the contract is the same. The contract reads like this: I'll speak this and you see if you can speak back; then we'll carry on and try to understand each other for as long as it's useful.



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