Replying to @davidadger How are languages formed? A wonderful question every linguist should have their own answer to. Here is my two cents in 16 tweets (probably not 100% suitable for kids):
01/16 Languages are formed by people exploiting linguistic conventions to get across meanings, get things done (ask for a request, give a promise), get across who they are or want to be seen as (boss, lover, mother), socialize, show solidarity (and distance), exert power …
02/16 What are linguistic conventions? They are regular ways of behaving that members of a community stick to because they expect others to stick to them, like meaning ‘dog’ when saying “dog”, or like combining “I regard this …” with “as” rather than “of” or “in”.
03/16 Where do these conventions come from? They have emerged over a very long period and keep changing. Today’s conventions have been formed by the generations before us. We refresh and reshape them for the current and next generations.
04/16 What is required for speakers’ to use language based on conventions? Speakers must know these conventions. They know them in a tacit, unconscious way, which means without being aware of the fact that they know them.
05/16 How do they acquire this knowledge? They extract it from the regularities they have observed, e.g. if you have heard speakers say “dog” when they meant ‘dog’, you create a symbolic association (“dog” -- ‘dog’) in your mind which is strengthened the more often you hear it.
06/16 How do they acquire this knowledge? (cont. I) When you have heard “as” being used after “regard” frequently enough, this combinatorial associations becomes more and more strengthened the more often you hear it.
07/16 How do they acquire this knowledge? (cont. II) When you have heard “what’s up” often enough from your friends and never from your grandma, the contextual associations to your friends (and folks like them) and your grandma (and folks like her) become strengthened.
08/16 Do all speakers of a language have the same knowledge? No, they don’t, because the network of associations representing their linguistic knowledge depends on their social and individual experience. Your linguistic knowledge depends on your social environment.
09/16 Are there any general principles behind the way languages are used, conventionalized and stored in people’s minds? Yes, there are: a) meaning, b) context, c) contrast, and d) combination.
10/16 a) Meaning: The point of language is to get across meaning, in the widest sense, i.e. to refer to things and ideas, express emotions, take a stance, show an identity, signal social relations etc. Combining linguistic forms with meanings in a regular way is THE principle.
11/16 b) Context: Meanings are relative to contexts. “Mouse” can refer to an animal in one context and to a computer thingy in another. “You” can refer to a thousand different people in different contexts. “Now” means ‘3pm’ now, but it means ‘3.10pm’ in ten minutes.
12/16 c) Contrast I: Meanings (in context) depend on contrasts in forms. If there was no difference in the spelling and pronunciation of “dog” and “dock”, how would we know what they mean? If “baking” and “baked” were the same, how would you know whether it’s happening or done?
13/16 c) Contrast II: Meanings themselves depend on contrasts: whether “good” actually means ‘good’ depends on whether it is the top of your scale or whether you also have “excellent” and “outstanding”, in which case it means ‘decent’.
14/16 d) Combination: Conventions, meanings and associations are based on combinations, sequencing and order. The verb “get” means entirely different things in “get up”, “get out”, “get something done” or “get lost”. “You have lost” is different from “Have you lost”.
15/16 So languages are formed and continually reshaped by speakers applying the knowledge of conventions they have extracted from use to get across a thousand types and shades of meanings. For this to work, language need what linguists call “structure”.
16/16 What linguists call the “structure” of language has been produced by this activity guided by the principles of meaning, context, contrast and combination in the use of language, in the conventions shared by a community and in the associations in the minds of its members.

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