Post by Quinn C Post by Eric Walker
"Rules" are more or less arbitrary, whether rules of the road or
of language use; but that is not the point. The point is that for
effective communication (or for effective pretty much anything,
from chess to driving), there need to be _some_ rules that are just
that--rules, principles accepted by all.
But rules of traffic or chess are codified by an authoritative body,
and language "rules" aren't.
I think you're lacking a concept of collective and emergent
behavior, which language is.
A simile that WVO Quine used has stuck with me from when I read Word
and Object at age 16 or so, so it must have hit a nerve. I'll retell
it without having re-read it for decades, so it might differ.
Imagine a row of topiaries, bushes cut in the shape of elephants.
From a distance, they all look alike. But when you look close up,
you'll see that how the individual branches are arranged to create
the elephant shape is quite different for each bush.
Language is like that: on the surface, it looks like we all follow
the same rules, because the shape of sentences we produce is so much
alike. But in fact it differs from person to person how we actually
arrive at the sentences in our mind. Our understanding of individual
words also differs in many cases.
"A language" is a bundle of idiolects that are mutually
intelligible, but the degree of intelligibility varies. Some
expressions are truly idiosyncratic, some are understood within a
family, or a social circle, some in a small region or in a wide
region, and others across a country or multiple countries.
Every day, when we have difficulties communicating, we subtly adjust
our internal language system, unconsciously, by using one thing more
and another one less, so that we arrive at a state where
misunderstandings are down to a level we can manage. But this is a
continuous never-ending process in each individual.
The "rules of language" (or a grammar) are a model, a simplified and
normalized, and always incomplete, description of patterns that many
or most of the speakers of one language have arrived at by those
many subtle adjustments to each other, but they form a labile
equilibrium, and forces continually pull at it in various
Only in languages with writing and schools, and even then rarely, do
people consciously apply any of those model rules in order to produce
or interpret a sentence.
I believe you are mostly right about language in general. I have
be appealed to.
usefulness as a springboard. The rules are something one can play with