By: Tom On: April 23, 2018 In: Language Comments: 0
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Lawyers use language every day. When it comes to language, lawyers are technicians. They are taught how to write grammatically and structure arguments in the most succinct manner possible. Better lawyers demonstrate a knack for crafting language into artful persuasion. But what do lawyers really know about language?

Below are several facts about language and its origins. How many of these facts did you know before reading this blog?

Spoken language is composed of vowels and consonants.

Vowels are produced by a continuous exhaled stream of air; whereas consonants are produced by the interruption of the exhaled air at one of three locations:

  1. Larynx (e., vocal cords)
  2. Pharynx (e.g., “upper throat”) , with or without tongue modulation
  3. Lips/teeth, with or without tongue modulation

Languages generally have approximately 25 distinct sounds.

Because of the physical constraints on how sounds are made, most languages are comprised of approximately 25 distinct sounds.

The ratio of vowels to consonants in a language affect it’s tonal quality.

For example, languages with a high ratio of vowels to consonants (g., Italian) are very conductive to the production of opera whereas languages with a low ratio of vowels to consonants (e.g. English, Polish) are less conductive to the production of opera.

The organs responsible for human voice leave no skeletal remains.

Because sound is created by air moving through the cartilaginous windpipe and soft tissue of the head and neck, the organs responsible for human voice have no skeletal remains. Absent such remains, there is controversy over whether voice suddenly appeared 50,000 to 100,000 years ago or whether it developed over a longer period of time.

There are approximately 6000 spoke languages in the world today.

Many languages (g., English, German) are syntax dependent – the arrangement of words is more critical than their pronunciation. On the other hand, many languages are tonal (g., Chinese, Japanese). In these languages pronunciation is critical.

For example, in Chinese “ma” has four different meanings depending on whether its pronunciation is

  • flat
  • rising
  • falling
  • starts to fall then rises

The first written language based on words was Cuneiform.

Cuneiform was invented by the Sumerians. Some of the characteristics of Cuneiform are:

  • It was written on clay tablets with a stylus that was pointed on one end and triangular at the other end. Hence many figures in Cuneiform tend to be either linear or triangular.
  • While Cuneiform script was used primarily for accounting, the first preserved piece of human literature, the Epic of Gilamesh, was written in Cuneiform. Additionally, the first preserved peace treaty –the Treaty of Kadesh – was also written (perhaps “memorialized” is a better word) in Cuneiform as well as Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

There is no such thing as a universal grammar.

While the concept of a “universal grammar” has been bandied about, the majority believe there is no such thing as a universal grammar. For example, in contrast to English, the Russian language does not use articles.

Similarly, while English, Russian, and the Romance languages have several different verb tenses, Arabic has only two verb tenses and Chinese has only one. In these latter two languages, the time of an action is generally inferred from the context of a sentence.

And lastly, Non- Indo-European languages function just fine without the verb “to be”.

Spoken Chinese has various forms that are mutually incomprehensible.

While there is only one written Chinese language, spoken Chinese is said to have a number of forms that are mutually incomprehensible. Accordingly, imagine that a man from Beijing, who speaks Mandarin, meets a man from Guangzhou, who speaks Cantonese, on a train. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, both men read Mao’s “Little Red Book” in Chinese. Yet, because the tonal differences between Mandarin and Cantonese are so great, the two men cannot verbally discuss Mao’s book.

Older forms of language become unrecognizable over time.

Major shifts in a written language (g., Old English and Middle English) are generally so radical that after a period of time the older form of the language becomes unrecognizable.

The usage of letters and words generally follows a power law distribution.

That is, some letters and words (g., the letter “e” and the word “the” in English) are used many times more frequently than other letters and words. Knowledge of the power law distribution is used to break cyphers based on word or letter substitutions.

So, how did you do? If you only knew a few of these facts, perhaps more leisure reading would be in order. If you knew most of these facts, congratulations on your high level of expertise. If you know all of these facts, you must have written this blog.

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