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The scientific study of language is called linguistics. Sociolinguistics is the study of how people use language and how it changes over time. It examines all aspects of the interrelationship of language and society, how language varies among speakers, and the relationship of this variance to social factors. Sociolinguists focus on the social rules (norms) for opening and closing conversation; how to take turns speaking; and how, where, and when to tell stories and jokes.

Simply Psychology says the ability to perceive, produce, and use words to communicate develops in early childhood. It involves a complex interplay of genetic, cognitive, and social factors that are acquired through the processes of classical and operant conditioning.

The three most prominent theories for how language develops are Nativist, Behaviorist, and Interactionist

Nativists believe certain abilities are hard-wired into the brain at birth

All humans, they say, are born with an innate ability to learn language. To illustrate their point, Nativists ask us to look at how children create their own languages.

Behaviorists believe that language is learned the same way as anything else

They say people learn languages by listening to speakers around them. Evidence supporting this perspective includes the fact that it takes years to develop proper language skills, and even longer to develop mastery.

Interactionists are the mediators, saying language is both innate and learned

A prominent version holds that language exists for the purpose of communication, so it can only be learned through social interactions with linguistically knowledgeable adults who provide models for children, guiding them toward mature and correct language use.

The rules that allow us to create phrases and sentences that convey meeting are called grammar

Consider this sentence: “Store to the Mary went.” Why does this sound so wrong? Because the words were not sequenced according to the rule we use, which for English is basically subject-verb-object.

Changes in word position can convey very different thoughts: Take “Richard robbed the bank” and “The bank robbed Richard.” Same words, different syntax, different meaning. Either way, poor Richard.

Like so many other concepts, grammar is made up of several smaller parts

  • Phonemes. These are the smallest spoken sounds that are able to convey meaning. Most English speakers use 44 perceptually distinct units of sound. The Hawaiian language has the fewest phonemes (13) while Nemi and Norman each have the most (48). These sounds are combined to make syllables, words, and sentences.
  • Semantics. This is the study of meanings in a language, how they are communicated, and how they are interpreted. Most of us know that semantics is also used to refer to nuanced distinctions between words.
  • Syntax. This is the way linguistic elements are put together to form phrases. One example is subject-verb agreement, our grammatical rule that verbs must match the number, person, and gender of the subject. You may be more familiar with syntax in computer science, where they are the rules that define the correct sequence and structure of words, symbols, and punctuation.

Specialized languages


Any informal, nonstandard vocabulary is called slang, a kind of language more common in speech than in writing and made up of figures of speech that are deliberately substituted for standard terms. Dictionary.com says “Slang is sorta like the rebellious teen of our adult vocabulary.” Webster’s New World calls slang “The specialized vocabulary and idioms of criminals and tramps, the purpose of which was to disguise from outsiders the meaning of what was said.”

Members of in-groups prefer slang over common vocabulary

It’s one way to establish group identity and exclude outsiders. Wannabes adopt slang quickly as a way to try and pass themselves off as insiders.

Slang changes over time and the percentage of people using slang varies by age

USA Today says in the U.S., 65% of Baby Boomers use slang, rising to 77% for Gen Xers, 83% for millennials, and 92% for Gen Z.


Jargon is insider vocabulary used by a particular profession and is difficult for others to understand. Jargon is characterized by obscure and often pretentious language, big words, and using many words where only a few will do, especially in deliberate attempts to be evasive. Advertising genius David Ogilvy had a strong opinion about jargon:

The business world loves jargon

A.I., Big Data, core competencies, due diligence, best practices, benchmarking, and bank for the buck are only a few. Who doesn’t know enough to circle back, get their ducks in a row, and stay in their lane by pivoting and leaning in while marketers pick their brains for low-hanging fruit to push the envelope, move the needle, eliminate pain points, and impact the bottom line with actionable items learned from deep dives? Rebels might want to throw some shade and stick it to the man instead.

Pidgin speech

For hundreds of years, crews on sailing ships that went all over the world spoke different languages. Ship captains had to find ways to communicate with their crews, so they merged bits from dozens of their native tongues. The result is called pidgin, a simplified form of speech used for communication between people who speak different languages. Two examples are Cajuns in Louisiana and the Gullah in the coastal  Lowcountry from North Carolina to Florida.

Here are a few nautical terms that have evolved from their pidgin origins to become a part of standard English

Down the hatch, hand over fist, fly-by-night, off to a flying start, on the right track, pass with flying colors, pipe down, and under the weather.

Creole speech

Creole is a fusion of two or more languages. It is simplified by eliminating irregularities and making words and phrases as simple as possible. Cajuns spoke Creole in Louisiana, a mix of French, English, and several African languages. Most Creole languages have died out, but some are still alive in the Caribbean. The best known Creole is that spoken by Haitians.

Shades of meaning

Semantics are important for people where such distinctions provide real meaning. The Sami, from the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia, have 180 words for snow and ice. They also have more than 1,000 words for reindeer, 991 more than Santa if you count Rudolph.


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Cockney rhyming slang is a secret language developed to intentionally hide the subject of discussion from outsiders. It developed in open-air marketplaces as a way for vendors to talk among themselves without the customers knowing what they’re saying.

Linguists call such languages cryptolects, dialects purposely made impenetrable to outsiders. Closely related to rhyming slang is thieves’ cant, a cryptolect used by English thieves, rogues, beggars, and hustlers.

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