Of course a person can’t finish a master’s program in Linguistics without discussing language universals (I think): by either their presence or absence, language universals are nearly ubiquitous. 

The concept of language universals became so fundamentally entrenched in our fine field of linguistics thanks to one man, Noam Chomsky. 

A monolingual.

This always cracks me up, every time I think of the fact that it was a monolingual who was a key figure in putting forward these ideas of the features that all languages have in common. 

I guess that’s the difference between knowing language and knowing about language–between knowledge and metaknowledge. 

Anyway, Chomsky’s theories about language universals have influenced the linguistic approach toward studying language since the 1960s when they were put forward. Even now, in the backlash of Daniel Everett’s findings about the language of the Piraha (the Piraha being a small tribe in central Brazil whose language was found to lack recursion–

recursion being the ability to use your language to communicate large ideas using small phrases or clauses embedded into larger sentences. A dream housing a slightly smaller dream housing a slightly smaller dream ad nauseum. Instead of Inception, it could have been called Recursion.

According to the BBC’s teaching English blog (I admit, it’s not exactly The Journal of Applied Linguistics), Chomsky named recursion as a cornerstone of every language spoken on this earth. 

Although I am wary of anything that is the __________ of everything, especially when there are between 6000 and 7000 known languages on this earth and countless other unknown ones, I still like this idea of language universals because I am just a person who likes anything that can give solid proof that we as humans are all the same.

At the same time, though, the very program that educated me about Chomsky and language universals has taught me to be very aware of overgeneralizing.

I was fortunate that I was able to tailor my program to combine a heavy metalanguage approach with sociolinguistics, which is much more focused on language as it relates to power and society at large.

To me, sociolinguistics has always been easier to understand because it gives context to what we know about language. In my program, I sometimes felt that I was floating out in a sea of language knowledge, but there was nothing to anchor me and nothing to relate it to. The sea isn’t the sea unless there’s an island nearby, you know?

So sociolinguistics gave me my island: I could learn about language and then I could learn what my knowledge about language meant.

Yesterday, one of my friends posted this article on my facebook wall. It is about how black Americans and white Americans speak a different form of American Sign Language (ASL). Basically, how there is the standardized form of ASL that is signed (mostly) by white Americans, and then there is another form of ASL that is signed by black Americans. The form signed by black Americans has several different features and is claimed to be closer to the “original” French version.

Sound familiar?

To me, and to my friend, this sounds like dialect. And language change. 

And, following the story of the black ASL signer who found herself in school having to adjust the language she used to the standardized form (and then adjust back to black ASL once at home), it also sounds like code-switching.

And it occurred to me after reading this article: why aren’t we studying more sign language in search of language universals? Especially socially? Studying sign language could challenge so many of our assumptions about language by removing things that we take for granted now,

for example many of the nuances of different societies that I tend to gloss over in my mind when they speak the same language, like Canadians, people from the U.S. and Brits. Now I’ve learned that ASL is closer to French Sign Language than British Sign Language, and that in fact American and British signers cannot understand each other–what does that say about similarities and differences in these respective societies, if language and culture are intrinsically linked?

Studying sign language might be a way to deconstruct our language assumptions–to read language against itself–to uncover new meaning in our language studies. 

Or are linguists already studying sign language in this manner and I just didn’t know?