Language: Real or Illusory Object?
It has often been supposed that the investigation of linguistic structure has to start with a definition of language, the object of investigation. This supposition meets with bad news and good news:
The things that we really want to investigate are real and easily identified:
- The bad news is that the concept of 'language', which we tend to take for granted, is actually based on some very elusive abstractions.
- The good news is that for a neurocognitive approach it is unnecessary to define this term. Our object of investigation is not languages but people; more precisely, the systems in people's brains that give them the ability to engage in linguistic activity.
- their organs of speech production (e.g. tongue, lips) and the operations of those organs;
- the linguistic productions of people, spoken (sound waves) and written marks (on paper or another surface), and recordings and transcriptions of spoken outputs;
- the processes of speaking and understanding and learning; and
- the mental information system that makes these processes possible, located mainly in our cerebral hemispheres. This may be called the linguistic system, and we have to recognize that each person's linguistic system is different from every other.
But whatever may lie behind the elusive term language is at best very abstract, at worst perhaps even illusory (depending on which of many meanings we assign to the term). Unlike the four bases of reality, is not only not observable, it is not a physical object of any kind. It can be regarded as a very abstract object or as a logical construct, or as an illusion. And belief in its existence as a real object tends to deny the fact that every person's linguistic system an object existing in that person's brain differs to varying degrees from that of every other person.
The word 'language' has come to us from a long tradition with various ill-defined meanings, and it has led to widespread confusion and to beliefs in things that are not real. Such a commonly occurring word naturally encourages people to form a conceptual object within their belief systems to go with it, and to imagine that it must have an existence as a definite object of some kind beyond the realities mentioned above. This process results in our natural tendency to assume that there are such things as 'languages', as real objects. But it is not so easy to state just what such an object might be. What is a language? Fortunately, we don't have to answer that question. Instead, we can just stick to things that are clearly real and easily identifiable.
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