Skyscraper or Groundgrazer?
Skyscraper or Groundgrazer?

American architectural great Louis Sullivan adopted this now famous phrase in the 19th century to help bring about a revolution in building design.  A change was necessary in part because changing tastes of the time no longer called for the traditional ornamentation that had been habitually maintained.  While language certainly can possess its own form of ornamentation, such as flowery prose, lyrical cadences, and stylistic fiction, the language of communication owes its existence to function.  Anything that consistently exists in language exists to assist.

Take for example, the use of categories.  It is possible to form categories in a great many ways where words possess feature overlap.  We do this when it serves our purposes.  By classifying trees into deciduous and evergreen we can better understand and describe trees.  For instance,

          Husband:  “I planted a new tree in front of the house today.”

          Wife:  “What kind?”

          Husband:  “An arborvitae.  It’s an evergreen.”

          Wife:  “Good.  We’ll have something to screen our front window year round.”

There are two main ways of describing this aspect of the husband’s new tree.  If he didn’t understand the classification of trees into deciduous and evergreen, he could have said “I bought an arborvitae.  It does not lose its foliage for much of the year like some trees do.”  Here is one instance of where a category has saved time, effort and potential confusion.  Because any two words that share features can potentially be categorized, and that some words are and some aren’t, demonstrates our power over language.  We could categorize all tall buildings as skyscrapers, which we have done, but only recently.  This categorization was not helpful before the 19th century, and was not done even though “tall” buildings did exist.  We could just as easily give some label to short buildings (groundgrazer?) but we have not found it in our interests to do so. 

All of this has implications for where words come from, and consequently where language comes from.  The existance of language has been explained in a myriad of ways, from nativism, universal grammar, statistical computation, connection, behaviorism, and so on.  All of these explanations exclude a particularly human element, that of human ingenuity, creativity, and motivation.  These attempts to systematically explain language may touch upon key linguistic aspects, but any one that omits the human element, ignores something critical.

More on this topic can be found in this earlier post.

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