Wael Al-Mahdi (2010)
Today we understand much more about human language than did the philologists of past centuries, but there are still many questions that are yet to be answered. For example, we are still not certain how language originated. We also have the fact that many of our concepts about the external world (and the internal one too, i.e. physics and metaphysics) are intimately tied with our language instinct. In what framework can we understand this relationship between language and cognition?
Any person who has experience of language learning will tell you about the headaches of attempting to learn a new language. Maddening irregularities, wayward prepositions, complex semantics, twisted idioms. But perhaps most exasperating of all is what encompasses all these vagaries, namely usage. Theoretically, I can learn the grammar and vocabulary of a language perfectly, but all this is to no avail if even such a simple phrase as “I am hungry” turns out to dependong on usage, c’est-à-dire, upon me having heard this specific idiom being used in speech or writing. In other words, I cannot simply learn the grammar and vocabulary and then invent whatever phrases I need. I must learn every phrase separately, on its own terms, and with its own rules (what Arabic grammarians called samâ’, which means ‘having heard.’)
Returning to the phrase above, if I want to express a state of hunger in French, I must use the phrase J’ai faim, literally ‘I have hunger.’ What does it mean ‘to have hunger’? I certainly don’t ‘possess’ hunger. What’s more, I can think of many simpler ways of expressing the concept, not least of which is the English equivalent “I am hungry”, which uses a straight copula and adjective. I can go deeper into the metaphysics of language and discover that the French verb avoir ‘to have’ in this phrase expresses the concept of temporary state in this context, since my hunger is not a permanent state but will change when I eat. But then, this usage of the verb avoir is not consistent; we can come up with many phrases expressing a temporary state of being which uses other verbs, like être ‘to be’. Imagine the tens, maybe hundreds of rules attached to the usage of a verb like avoir, and all the interconnections between this verb and other verbs. Usage is a large complicated web of thousands of semantics relations; different words hold different fields, or several fields; some words overlap in fields; and these fields are determined not only by plain descriptions of the physical world but also by complicated layers of feeling-toned, cultural connotations. The most complex aspect of this web emerges when we take a diachronic, or historical view: how words and their semantic fields shift and replace each other over time, sometimes subtly and sometimes abruptly. All this is little solace to the investigator of language, still less to the learner: what is the meaning of all this? Why such arbitrariness, such fickleness (to use moralizing vocabulary), in language?
We know from designed languages like Esperanto that we need not use strong idioms and unexpected turns-of-phrase to express ourselves clearly and effectively. Logical languages like Lojban teach us that idioms are almost dispensable when it comes to expressing the niceties of human thought. This presents an important question: what is that keeps language together? What is the thread that runs through language and breathes life into it? It is not meaning as such, since meaning is ambiguous and can be expressed in many ways. It is not form, because form changes and can be even be artificially manufactured and maintained. Neither are morphology or phonology reliable.
Here I propose the coherence principle as the force that keeps language together, giving it consistency, continuity, congruity and substance. It gives it spirit, so to speak. The coherence principle is the imperative, operating unconsciously, that maintains linguistic forms (irregularities, prepositions, idioms, etc), regardless of meaning, grammar, conciseness, or logic. The principle keeps forms currently stable, and allows them to change gradually over time according to a specific ‘design’. This is not metaphysical principle; it is a mental instinct operating from the brain, of the same kind that prompts us to make and develop symbols in art and literature. According to coherence principle, what matters in language is not the form itself, but coherence of this form. This can explain irregularities, for what concerns us is not the irregularities themselves, but the question: why irregularities? Why are they important, even though they are in themselves without any meaning, either grammatically or semantically? The principle also explains prepositions and their irregularities, since it seems that maintaining the usage of the preposition is more important than any logical or semantic consideration, i.e. more important than any single rule. The coherence principles might also explain idioms; again, what matters is the conservation or the idiom itself, and not that the idiom in any way ‘makes sense’, or that it can be explained away. The coherence principle treats linguistic items as symbols in the psychological sense; we may have little idea (at least at the moment) where, why, how they originated, and we can barely pin down their potency and fraughtness of meaning, but we are certain that they are powerful units of meaning that maintain themselves in our language over long periods of time. This is similar to the biological view of animals; the importance of their survival and reproduction is paramount, but we don’t really know the meaning behind all this activity, i.e. we are learning how but are still foundering on the why.