Some preliminary remarks.
Linguistics is a relatively new domain. It is a ...door in our collective Western consciousness that our fathers opened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The constitution of linguistics as an area of study and investigation represents a... revolution in our way of thinking. The consequences of this revolution ON OUR CONSCIOUSNESS have largely escaped us.
How do we constitute an OBJECT of investigation ?
We do so by... extracting or expulsing that "object" from what was previously considered as... SUBJECT. Logical, right ? What is not object is subject. What is not subject is.. object.
This is pretty technical, I'll admit, and not easy going. Not poetical at all. Strictly philosophy.
But I'm going to illustrate it now, so that WE understand it better (I hope...)
About twenty years ago my brother told the following story about his experience as an English teacher in Japan.
He had an American friend who traveled through Japan, and passed through a small, secluded mountain village where he got to talking with an old Japanese man.... in Japanese...
At one point in the conversation, the old man told the young American "you know, it's really remarkable, here I am living in this little secluded village, never having gone to school and... I never would have guessed that I knew how to speak English until I met you."...
End of story...
Are you impressed ? WE are light years away from that little old man now, MOST OF US in our Western culture, living in the cities... (Who knows, maybe there are people living in some secluded little villages in Switzerland who are still capable of saying this...)
I am NOT making fun of the.. NAIVETE of this old man.
For him, language is NO OBJECT, and linguistics, as metalanguage, or TALKING ABOUT the object, language, does not exist (even if it looks like he is capable of talking about English, he doesn't know what "English" means...). Like for our ancestors. For them... a cow was a cow was a cow, and that was IT. Period.
Think for a minute...
Here I am talking about... language WITH words. Language.
Is that like.. taking interest on lending money, maybe ? Maybe. I haven't thought it through enough yet. And my illustration with the old man may be off. I'll wait for your comments.
Extracting OBJECT from what was previously subject is not an innocent occupation.
(Think about all the hype about "objectivity" for a minute.)
It is an occupation that has the advantage of at least THEORETICALLY getting something out and in front of your eyes where it can be seen...
But there is a price to be paid for getting that "something" under your eyes...
In a subtle way, it is no longer YOU, or part of you, as subject.
One way to think of this is what happened.. in the Garden.
End of preliminary.
Structural linguistics is based on the idea that our language, and EVERYTHING that our language organizes, and transmits, is an elaborate, and organized system. (Careful, a system is not necessarily a MECHANIC system. We could and DO say that our language is living. How can something live without..breathing ? I don't know, but we say that languages, like life, are born, live, change, and die. Like societies.)
The atoms : phonemes, sounds (oral language).
Understanding language means differentiating discrete elements against a backdrop of continuity. We do this by comparing. In the first two words, we immediately pick out the difference in the middle vowel sound. We see the difference because I have held constant the context, the initial and final consonant. In order to give meaning, we are constantly comparing our world for difference AND similarity, continuity.
All of the sounds cannot be found in all of the contexts. There is a code.
You differentiate the sounds by comparing what you hear in the PRESENT to the ABSENT elements of the code that are possible in that context, given that not all elements are possible in all contexts. Those present and absent elements are in dialectical (I think...) tension.
You know the code (for your mother tongue). You know the code without ever having opened a book to learn it.
You knew the code by the time you were...2 years old. Smart you...
You knew the code at this very elemental, atomic level. You knew it at the molecular level, which is that of words, what we call the lexic. (More later...)
More importantly... at two years old you knew HOW language works. (My two year old son when he understood HOW language works excitedly pointed at a horse on the TV screen, ran to find a picture of a horse in a board book, and ran to the direction of the window to point to the field where there was a.. horse he was in the habit of feeding carrots to on his daily walk. While saying HIS equivalent of the word "horse" which was part of a nursery rhyme where the word "horse" appeared...
All of this without ever having anyone TELL you anything ABOUT language or crack a book on the subject.
The fact that you know all of this without... knowing just exactly WHAT you know, or how you know it should indicate to you just how UNCONSCIOUS and automatic this knowledge is for you. Which basically means that... re one of my previous posts "what you receive", this knowledge that you don't know you know determines a lot of your behavior... without your knowing it, right ?
The BAD thing about not knowing ABOUT what you know is that it determines your behavior, in such a way as you are less free.
The.. GOOD thing is.. that you are less SELF conscious, right ?...