Thursday, February 21, 2013

Some Thoughts on Language

Far From the Tree
An Essay that Compares Apples and Oranges
But is Really About Language

Most Americans have heard the old saying that one cannot compare apples to oranges. What it means is that one cannot expect to get anywhere by equating two essentially dissimilar things, but that’s not what it says, is it? It’s an idiom, a phrase that has meaning beyond its actual words. Such phrases are powerful tools because they draw upon cultural reference and history. While often imprecise, language is about communication and all its forms—dialect, slang, formal speech—are of equal value as long as they allow a speaker to converse with his or her audience. People speak in idiom and analogy, use simile to equate the familiar with the unfamiliar, and draw upon cultural experience to express difficult or elusive concepts. Though they are different, apples and oranges also have a lot in common, and comparing them can teach about more than just fruit.

For instance, both apples and oranges grow on trees and these fruits are the yearly-renewed product of a long and branching history. Like language, they have not always been as they are today. There are dozens of cultivars, dozens of variations that did not always exist. They change through grafting, hybridization and mutation. Sometimes a new variety of apple or orange springs up from the intermixing of two previously separate species, or one cultivar outcompetes and conquers another. All of these methods of evolution have their roots buried in the same place, all come from a common need to continue on, to communicate a particular set of genes to the next generation.

When that next generation comes is another matter, as different varieties of apples and oranges reach maturity at different times. Apples are largely harvested during the fall, while oranges have a fall/winter season. Good timing is important when judging both of these fruits. The grower must be aware of what each cultivar looks like in youth and in maturity, and must understand when it is appropriate to harvest each type, as well as when it is best to leave it on the tree. Language has its own cultivars, dialects and slang languages which are the product of their own environments. Just as one wouldn't use text speak in a business memo, one cannot expect an unripe orange to make good juice. To fully appreciate different cultivars, one needs to understand when they're harvestable.

Apples and oranges both strive to spread their genetic codes, and to this end they both contain seeds. While an orange's seeds are often spread throughout the fruit, and sometimes very small, an apple keeps them close to its core. These both represent different methods of accomplishing the same task, both suited to the environment in which the fruits originally evolved. Language, too, takes its genetic code from the past, building upon a foundation of words, slang, idiom, and analogy already laid down. The dialects people speak today sow the seeds for the cultivars of tomorrow.

However, these fruits certainly have differences as well. Apples and oranges look nothing alike, after all. But how a thing looks doesn't always speak to what a thing is. When looking at the elegant lines of Japanese kanji, one might be hard pressed to see the resemblance to the flowing scrawl of written English, but both serve the same purpose, the basic human need for communication. In the same way, apples and oranges both serve the needs of their respective trees. They may not look alike, but that’s because they have been shaped specifically to deal with the stresses, strains and pressures placed upon them. Different stresses create different fruits.

Just as apples and oranges look different, they also taste different. They both have their own distinct flavors, but often that flavor varies between cultivars. Just as with languages, and the dialects within those languages, each has a unique flavor shaped by their context, and each is a product of their time and purpose. Some apples are meant for cider, some oranges are meant for juice, and some of both are meant to be eaten out of hand. One cannot judge the taste of apples or oranges based upon an unknown specimen, and neither can one judge the taste of a dialect based upon hearing it spoken alone. Understanding the context of the fruit—its harvest times, its cultivar, and its eventual purpose—is the only way to judge it as a good example of a fruit meant to be eaten.

The evolutionary process has also made it necessary to eat apples and oranges in different ways. While one can bite right into an apple, one first has to peel an orange. While one can eat everything inside an orange's rind, one has to stop at an apple's core. Language is similar in that one must understand its context before one can enjoy it. Knowing the community from which a given dialect comes creates a resonance with the meaning behind the words. Slang and regional phrasing often have connotations that are not apparent until one knows the people who use them. Just as with fruit, enjoying language means knowing how to eat it, and not understanding can make it indigestibly bitter.

Apples and oranges are both healthy snacks, which provide essential vitamins and nutrients. They serve a function, much like language, in that they satisfy a basic need. The need to communicate with others is a natural requirement for any social species. The strength of the social species is its ability to protect its members, to provide strength in numbers, but that advantage falls apart without the ability to communicate. If one cannot say, "look out!" then one's friend doesn’t know to duck. Although the needs they satisfy are different—one biological and the other psychological—the fact that people seek out things that fill their needs should not surprise anyone.

Additionally, neither apples nor oranges last forever. If uneaten, fruit will rot, but in doing so will still accomplish its purpose. The same can be said for language. Words that are not used, wither. Grammar that does not give a gain, goes away. Dialects that are not spoken, die. Dead languages litter our history, but this is a product of the human natural progression. As each generation accepts or discards the message of the last, it fosters its own cultivars and mutations. The old words get left behind as cores and rinds discarded in the human wake.

Both apples and oranges have influenced language in their own ways. An apple doesn't fall far from the tree. One bad apple spoils the bunch. Orange you glad I didn't say banana? Oranges have even leant their name to define a color. Language often uses the familiar to communicate, and most people are familiar with apples and oranges. In their way, these fruits also both serve language by lending themselves to expression, by serving as a common experience from which one can extrapolate more complex concepts.

In the end, apples and oranges are more alike than different. Their contrasts are the result of differing environments, just as language is a product of its culture, context and time. Though different in taste and appearance, both fruits serve their trees, helping to continue their individual genetic lines, communicating their particular mutations to the next generation. Like fruit to its trees, language is about satisfying the basic human need to communicate. As long as it gets across the speaker's point, the linguistic cultivar is immaterial. Whether one uses formal speech, slang, or idiom need only be a matter of cultural convention, because all of these things serve human communication. They're tools to perform a given function, and we should use whichever makes the best juice.

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