Thursday, August 05, 2004

Language is bluffing

It strikes me that a huge number of insights into linguistic phenomena can be dervied from a few relatively simple propositions. One of these is the observation that language is a code employed only by code-breakers: that none of us knows the language we speak as a fully explicit system. Instead, we bluff our way through, filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the code with an inference here and a leap of logic there. This capacity to extrapolate from the known to the unknown is, in essense, grammar. If these inferences follow naturally enough from the parts of the code everyone around us agrees upon, they are incorporated into it. If they don't follow at all from shared knowledge of the code, we come off looking inarticulate. The interesting thing is that the parts of the code we all agree upon were, at some point in the past, somebody's bluff.


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