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Atoms and elements

Although all languages have complex structure, the complexities vary from one language to another. And these variations have to be learnt. They lead to standards which are important to senses of identity, as by the story in the Bible about being able to say shibboleth – or not – with fatal consequences for those unable to pass the test in that particular case.

Children want to say the names of whatecver interests them. But for this they need to be aware of the principles by which names and words are built. This awareness is very subtle. It is largely unconscious. It is awareness of a special kind. It does not mean knowing any of the technical names, The principles go beyond a linear sequence of speech sounds. They include the rhythm of metricality and the components of syllables, and the structure of speech sounds. English just happens to be uncommonly rich in all of these respects.

The variation is not infinite. Some properties are universal across languages. One of these is intonation. In the English of older speakers, questions asking for particular sorts of information, beginning with one of the words, who, what, which, where, when, why, and how, all end with a rising intonation. And questions asking for just a yes or no end with a falling intonation. But the intonational difference is currently changing.

In all varieties of English, intonation is used to express uncounted shades of nuance. But in about half the languages of the world, that is to say most of the languages of sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, intonation is used to distinguish words and sometimes parts of words like the difference between fall and fell.

Whatever sort of language a child is learning, he or she has to work out what sort of language it is, and start doing this at the very beginning of learning the first words. And if the child learning English gets this wrong, the input will seem chaotically disorganised because the same word will seem to have an unlimited number of intonations – with the effect that words will not be learnt. So there will be no words to put together.

So speech and language development is partly a matter of knowing which aspects of the input to disregard – in the case of English, largely though not completely, disregarding intonation.

In a slightly less extreme way, if a child is sounding babyish or can’t be understood, it may be that the child is just failing to recognise one or more aspects of the structure, and collapsing things together in some inappropriate way, perhaps recognising words and one aspect of the sound strucure within them, but nothing else. Such speech can be profoundly unintelligible.

In normal development, the two year old may fail to distinguish between the syllable and the word, with the effect that words like pull and push are treated as having the same initial consonant and following vowel. On this analysis, it is not that the final consonant gets deleted, but there is nowhere for it to go.

Much of the philosophy and terminology here is from Ancient India, Greece and Rome, possibly one Etruscan insight, but with a massive updating over the past 500 years, including the pathbreaking scholarship of William Holder, in 1669, William Jones in 1788, Jacob Grimm, otherwise known as the collector of fairy tales, in 1822, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle in SPE in 1968, and many more. In other words the intellectual tradition is far older than sociology or psychology to name two areas of enquiry which are sometimes taken to call into question traditional and modern methodologies of linguistic research. Thus for instance, most linguists see no need to specify any circumstances of elicitation in relation to the contrast between ‘Something good’ and ‘Good food’ as meaningful English expressions and ‘Good something’ and ‘Food good’ as almost uninterpretable. The contrast would have seemed as unimpeachable to Panini in India 2,500 years ago as it does today, although maybe not to some trained in sociology or psychology.

What modern scholarship adds is the attempt to join up the different levels of structure. This, I contend, is nowhere more relevant than in relation to speech pathology.

The main categories of the structure are universal across languages. In all languages it is meaningful to ask, “What was the last word you said?” In languages like Turkish and Mohawk, that answer may seem more like an English sentence. But there is still a notion of a word, even though the definition of a word may seem to vary from language to language. In other words, the instantiations of the structures vary. This obviously represents a learnability challenge – more so for some children than others.