when is a language a language?

Dan Parvaz dparvaz at MAC.COM
Tue Jul 8 13:40:20 UTC 2003

The argument does get tiring, but you're in good company. When in
Europe, folks moved from writing in Latin to writing in the
"vernacular," that choice had to be similarly defended. In the case of
English, the best-known defense comes from the pen of Sir Thomas More,
who defended Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English in A
Dialogue Concerning Heresies:

"To call our tongue barbarous is but a fantasy. For so, as every
learned man knows, is every strange language to others who do not speak
it. And if they would say that         English is barren of words, it
is rich enough to allow us to express our minds on any topic. As for
the difficulties which a translator finds in expressing well the
meaning of the author, this point was also faced by those who have
already translated the Scriptures either out of Greek into Latin, or
out of Hebrew into them both. When they touch on the harm that some
take when they busy themselves in reading the Bible in English, the
harm comes from their own lewdness, not from the translation. The
Scriptures were first written in a vulgar tongue, such as the whole
people understood. For Hebrew, Greek,         and Latin were all once
languages spoken by the common people."

James has it right, of course. The question of whether or not ASL is a
"real" language rests on whether one can say all the things one must be
able to say in any other language, and not on whether or not it strikes
us as odd. Hockett came up with what he called "design features" for
human languages:


And ASL seems to fit the description quite nicely, thank you. This
position is accepted by nearly all serious linguists; the few who cling
to old prejudices are mostly in the twilight of their careers.

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