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Cuneiform is one of the first known forms of written language, but spoken language is believed to predate writing by tens of thousands of years at least.

A language is a particular kind of system for encoding and decoding information. Since language and languages became an object of study (logos) by the ancient grammarians, the term has had many definitions. The English word derives from Latin lingua, "language, tongue," with a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root of *dnghû-, "tongue," a metaphor based on the use of the physical organ in speech.[1] The ability to use speech originated in remote prehistoric times, as did the language families in use at the beginning of writing. The processes by which they were acquired were for the most part unconscious.

In modern times, a large number of artificial languages have been devised, requiring a distinction between their consciously innovated type and natural language. The latter are forms of communication considered peculiar to humankind. Although some other animals make use of quite sophisticated communicative systems, and these are sometimes casually referred to as animal language, none of these are known to make use of all the properties that linguists use to define language.

The term “language” has branched by analogy into several meanings.[1] The most obvious manifestations are spoken languages such as English or Spoken Chinese. However, there are also written languages and other systems of visual symbols such as sign languages. In cognitive science the term is also sometimes extended to refer to the human cognitive facility of creating and using language. Essential to both meanings is the systematic creation and usage of systems of symbols, each pairing a specific sign with an intended meaning, established through social conventions.[2]

In the 20th century Charles Sanders Peirce called this pairing process semiosis and the study of it semiotics.[3] According to another founder of semiotics, Roman Jakobson, the latter portrays language as code in which sounds (signantia) signify concepts (signata).[4] Language is the process of encoding signata in the sounds forming the signantia and decoding from signantia to signata.

Concepts themselves are signantia for the objective reality being conceived. When discussed as a general phenomenon then, "language" may imply a particular type of human thought that can be present even when communication is not the result, and this way of thinking is also sometimes treated as indistinguishable from language itself. In Western philosophy, language has long been closely associated with reason, which is also a uniquely human way of using symbols. In Ancient Greek philosophical terminology, the same word, logos, was a term for both language or speech and reason, and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes used the English word "speech" so that it similarly could refer to reason, as presented below.


The properties of language

Arbitrary symbols

A key property of language is that its symbols are arbitrary.[5] Any concept or grammatical rule can be mapped onto a symbol. In other words, most languages make use of sound, but the combinations of sounds used do not have any necessary and inherent meaning; they are merely an agreed-upon convention to represent a certain thing by users of that language. For instance, the sound combination nada carries the meaning of "nothing" in the Spanish language and also the meaning "thread" in the Hindi language. There is nothing about the word nada itself that forces Hindi speakers to convey the idea of "thread", or the idea of "nothing" for Spanish speakers. Other sets of sounds (for example, the English words nothing and thread) could equally be used to represent the same concepts, but all Spanish and Hindi speakers have acquired or learned to correlate their own meanings for this particular sound pattern. Indeed, for speakers of Slovene and some other South Slavic languages, the sound combination carries the meaning of "hope", while in Indonesian, it means "tone".

This arbitrariness applies to words even with an onomatopoetic dimension (i.e. words that to some extent simulate the sound of the token referred to). For example, several animal names (e.g. cuckoo, whip-poor-will, and katydid) are derived from sounds made by the respective animal, but these forms did not have to be chosen for these meanings. Non-onomatopoetic words can stand just as easily for the same meaning. For instance, the katydid is called a "bush cricket" in British English, a term that bears no relation to the sound made by the animal. In time, onomatopoetic words can also change in form, losing their mimetic status. Onomatopoetic words may have an inherent relation to their referent, but this meaning is not inherent; thus they do not violate arbitrariness.

Related symbols

The meanings of signs may be arbitrary, but the process of assigning meaning is not; it is the activity of the entire society; individuals are not allowed to change them arbitrarily, even though they may contribute some new meanings. A continuous thread of socially recognized meaning requires that the allowed meanings of individual signs be related. The relatedness of signs was formally recognized by Charles W. Morris, who divided semiotics into three fields, based on "the three dimensions of semiosis:"[6]

"...syntactics studies the relation between a given sign vehicle and other sign vehicles, semantics studies the relations between sign vehicles and their designata, and pragmatics studies the relation between sign vehicles and their interpreters....

These types of relatedness allow a finite set of signs to be combined into a potentially infinite number of meaningful utterances.

The study of language

The history of linguistics

The historical record of linguistics begins in India with Pāṇini, the 5th century BC grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, known as the Aṣṭādhyāyī (अष्टाध्यायी) and with Tolkāppiyar, the 2nd century BC grammarian of the Tamil work Tolkāppiyam (தொல்காப்பியம்).[7] Pāṇini’s grammar is highly systematized and technical. Inherent in its analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root; Western linguists recognized the phoneme only some two millennia later.[8] Tolkāppiyar's work is perhaps the first to describe articulatory phonetics for a language. Its classification of the alphabet into consonants and vowels, and elements such as nouns, verbs, vowels, and consonants, which he put into classes, was also a breakthrough at the time. In the Middle East, the linguist Sibawayh (سیبویه) made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760 AD in his monumental work, Al-kitab fi al-nahw (الكتاب في النحو, The Book on Grammar), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book, he distinguished phonetics from phonology.

In the west, interest in the study of languages was equally as ancient as it was in the east,[9] but the grammarians of the classical languages did not utilize the same methods or reach the same conclusions as did their unknown contemporaries in the Indic world. By the 16th century, the study of language was subsumed under the topic of philology, practiced by such educators as Roger Ascham, Wolfgang Ratke and John Amos Comenius.[10] Substantial progress was not made in linguistics until Sanskrit literature became available to western scholars through the window of British India in the 18th century. The combination of eastern and western linguistics resulted in the rise of Indo-European linguistics and the first use of the comparative method by William Jones, Friedrich Schlegel, Franz Bopp, August Friedrich Pott, August Schleicher and others.[11] Bloomfield attributes "the first great scientific linguistic work of the world" to Jacob Grimm, who wrote Deutsche Grammatik.[12] It was soon followed by other authors writing similar comparative studies on other language groups of Europe. The scientific study of language was broadened from Indo-European to language in general by Wilhelm von Humboldt, of whom Bloomfield asserts:[13]

"This study received its foundation at the hands of the Prussian statesman and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767—1835), especially in the first volume of his work on Kavi, the literary language of Java, entitled Über die Verschiedenheit desmenschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts ('On the Variety of the Structure of Language and its Influence upon the Mental Development of the Human Race')."

Early in the 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure introduced the idea of language as a "semantic code".[14] Substantial additional contributions similar to this came from Hjelmslev, Émile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson,[15] which are characterized as being highly systematic.[15]

Language and culture

The connection between the human capacities for culture and language has been noted as far back as classical antiquity. As language and culture are both in essence symbolic systems, 20th century cultural theorists have applied the methods of analyzing language developed in the science of linguistics to also analyze culture.

History of concepts of the origin of language

Ancient Tamil inscription at the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur

Even before the theory of evolution made discussion of more animal-like human ancestors commonplace, philosophical and scientific speculation on the function of language in man was frequent throughout history. Aristotle, for example, believed that language was part of the intrinsic nature of man, related to their natural propensities to be "political," which in Greek meant to dwell in city-state communities (Greek: poleis):[16]

"Hence it is evident that the state is a creature of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal ... man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the power of speech ... the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, ... and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state."

Thomas Hobbes, followed by John Locke and others, said that language is an extension of the "speech" that humans have within themselves as part of reason, one of the most primary characteristics of human nature. Hobbes in Leviathan while postulating as did Aristotle that language is a prerequisite for society, attributed it to innovation and learning after an initial impulse by God:[17]

But the most noble and profitable invention of all others was that of speech ... whereby men register their thoughts, recall them when they are past, and also declare them to one another for mutual utility and conversation; without which there had been amongst men neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears and wolves. The first author of speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as He presented to his sight; for the Scripture goeth no further in this matter."

In Hobbes, man proceeds to learn on his own initiative all the words not taught by God: "figures, numbers, measures, colours ...." which are taught by "need, the mother of all inventions." Hobbes, one of the first rationalists of the Age of Reason, identifies the ability of self-instruction as reason:[18]

"For reason, in this sense, is nothing but reckoning ... of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts; ...."

Others have argued the opposite, that reason developed out of the need for more complex communication. Rousseau, despite writing[19] before the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution, said that there had once been humans with no language or reason who developed language first, rather than reason, the development of which he explicitly described as a mixed blessing, with many negative characteristics.

Since the arrival of Darwin, the subject has been approached more often by scientists than philosophers. For example, neurologist Terrence Deacon in his Symbolic Species has argued that reason and language "coevolved." Merlin Donald sees language as a later development building upon what he refers to as mimetic culture,[20] emphasizing that this coevolution depended upon the interactions of many individuals. He writes:

A shared communicative culture, with sharing of mental representations to some degree, must have come first, before language, creating a social environment in which language would have been useful and adaptive.[21]

The specific causes of the natural selection that led to language are, however, still the subject of much speculation, but a common theme going back to Aristotle is that many theories propose that the gains to be had from language and/or reason were probably mainly in the area of increasingly sophisticated social structures.

In more recent times, a theory of mirror neurons has emerged in relation to language. Ramachandran[22] has gone so far as to argue that "mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments". Mirror neurons are located in the human inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe, and are unique in that they fire when one completes an action and also when one witnesses an actor performing the same action. Various studies have proposed a theory of mirror neurons related to language development.[23][24][25]

Natural languages

Some of the areas of the brain involved in language processing: Broca's area (Blue), Wernicke's area (Green), Supramarginal gyrus (Yellow), Angular gyrus (Orange), Primary Auditory Cortex (Pink)

Human languages are usually referred to as natural languages, and the science of studying them falls under the purview of linguistics. A common progression for natural languages is that they are considered to be first spoken and then written, and then an understanding and explanation of their grammar is attempted.

Languages live, die, move from place to place, and change with time. Any language that ceases to change or develop is categorized as a dead language. Conversely, any language that is in a continuous state of change is known as a living language or modern language.

Making a principled distinction between one language and another is sometimes nearly impossible.[26] For instance, there are a few dialects of German similar to some dialects of Dutch. The transition between languages within the same language family is sometimes gradual (see dialect continuum).

Some like to make parallels with biology, where it is not possible to make a well-defined distinction between one species and the next. In either case, the ultimate difficulty may stem from the interactions between languages and populations. (See Dialect or August Schleicher for a longer discussion.)

The concepts of Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache and Dachsprache are used to make finer distinctions about the degrees of difference between languages or dialects.

Artificial languages

Constructed languages

Some individuals and groups have constructed their own artificial languages, for practical, experimental, personal or ideological reasons. International auxiliary languages are generally constructed languages that strive to be easier to learn than natural languages; other constructed languages strive to be more logical ("loglangs") than natural languages; a prominent example of this is Lojban.

Some writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, have created fantasy languages, for literary, artistic or personal reasons. The fantasy language of the Klingon race has in recent years been developed by fans of the Star Trek series, including a vocabulary and grammar.

Constructed languages are not necessarily restricted to the properties shared by natural languages.

This part of ISO 639 also includes identifiers that denote constructed (or artificial) languages. In order to qualify for inclusion, the language must have a literature and be designed for the purpose of human communication. Specifically excluded are reconstructed languages and computer programming languages.

International auxiliary languages

Some languages, most constructed, are meant specifically for communication between people of different nationalities or language groups as an easy-to-learn second language. Several of these languages have been constructed by individuals or groups. Natural, pre-existing languages may also be used in this way; their developers merely catalogued and standardized their vocabulary and identified their grammatical rules. These languages are called naturalistic. One such language, Latino Sine Flexione, is a simplified form of Latin. Two others, Occidental and Novial, were drawn from several Western languages.

To date, the most successful auxiliary language is Esperanto, invented by Polish ophthalmologist Zamenhof. It has a relatively large community roughly estimated at about two million speakers worldwide, with a large body of literature, songs, and is the only known constructed language to have native speakers, such as the Hungarian-born American businessman George Soros. Other auxiliary languages with a relatively large number of speakers and literature are Interlingua and Ido.

Controlled languages

Controlled natural languages are subsets of natural languages whose grammars and dictionaries have been restricted in order to reduce or eliminate both ambiguity and complexity. The purpose behind the development and implementation of a controlled natural language typically is to aid non-native speakers of a natural language in understanding it, or to ease computer processing of a natural language. An example of a widely used controlled natural language is Simplified English, which was originally developed for aerospace industry maintenance manuals.

Formal languages

Mathematics and computer science use artificial entities called formal languages (including programming languages and markup languages, and some that are more theoretical in nature). These often take the form of character strings, produced by a combination of formal grammar and semantics of arbitrary complexity.

Programming languages

A programming language is a formal language endowed with semantics that can be utilized to control the behavior of a machine, particularly a computer, to perform specific tasks. Programming languages are defined using syntactic and semantic rules, to determine structure and meaning respectively.

Programming languages are employed to facilitate communication about the task of organizing and manipulating information, and to express algorithms precisely. Some authors restrict the term "programming language" to those languages that can express all possible algorithms; sometimes the term "computer language" is applied to artificial languages that are more limited.

Animal communication

The term "animal languages" is often used for non-human systems of communication. Linguists do not consider these to be "language", but describe them as animal communication, because the interaction between animals in such communication is fundamentally different in its underlying principles from human language.[citation needed] Nevertheless, some scholars have tried to disprove this mainstream premise through experiments on training chimpanzees to talk. Karl von Frisch received the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his proof of the language and dialects of the bees.[27] Current research indicates that signalling codes are the most fundamental precondition for every coordination within and between cells, tissues, organs and organisms of all organismic kingdoms. All of these signalling codes follow combinatorial (syntactic), context-sensitive (pragmatic) and content-specific (semantic) rules. In contrast to linguists, biolinguistics and biosemiotics consider these codes to be real languages.[28]

In several publicized instances, non-human animals have been taught to understand certain features of human language. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have been taught hand signs based on American Sign Language. The African Grey Parrot, which possesses the ability to mimic human speech with a high degree of accuracy, is suspected of having sufficient intelligence to comprehend some of the speech it mimics. Most species of parrot, despite expert mimicry, are believed to have no linguistic comprehension at all.[citation needed]

While proponents of animal communication systems have debated levels of semantics, these systems have not been found to have anything approaching human language syntax.


  1. ^ a b "language". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3rd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1992. 
  2. ^ Saussure 1983, p. 32.
  3. ^ Nöth 1995, pp. 13, 50.
  4. ^ Nöth 1995, p. 239
  5. ^ Saussure 1983, p. 67.
  6. ^ Nöth 1995, p. 50.
  7. ^ Zvelebil 1973, p. 40. Zvelebil dates the Ur-Tolkappiyam to the late 2nd BC.
  8. ^ Barton, David. Literacy: an introduction to the ecology of written language. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. p. 122. 
  9. ^ Bloomfield 1914, p. 307.
  10. ^ Bloomfield 1914, p. 308.
  11. ^ Bloomfield 1914, p. 310.
  12. ^ Bloomfield 1914, p. 311.
  13. ^ Bloomfield 1914, p. 311.
  14. ^ Clarke, David S. (1990). Sources of semiotic: readings with commentary from antiquity to the present. Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 143-144. 
  15. ^ a b Holquist 1981, pp. xvii-xviii.
  16. ^ Politics, 1253a lines 1-18 (Book I.2)
  17. ^ Hobbes 1651, pp. 16-17.
  18. ^ Hobbes 1651, p. 24.
  19. ^ Second Discourse
  20. ^ Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. In O. Vilarroya and F. F. i Argimon (eds.), Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Rodopi, 2007, 18: 215-222.
  21. ^ Imitation and Mimesis. In S. Hurley and N. Chater (eds.), Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science, Volume 2: Imitation, Human Development, and Culture. MIT Press, 2005, 14:282-300.
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ "Language". The New Encyclopædia Britannica: MACROPÆDIA. 22. Encyclopædia Britannica,Inc.. 2005. pp. 548 2b. 
  27. ^ Frisch, K.v. (1953). 'Sprache' oder 'Kommunikation' der Bienen? Psychologische Rundschau 4. Amsterdam.
  28. ^ Witzany, G. (2010). Biocommunication and Natural Genome Editing. Springer, Dordrecht


Further reading

  • Deacon, Terrence William (1998). The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31754-4. 
  • Polinsky, Maria; Comrie, Bernard; Matthews, Stephen (2003). The atlas of languages: the origin and development of languages throughout the world. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-5123-2. 
  • Luca Corchia, La logica dei processi culturali. Jürgen Habermas tra filosofia e sociologia, Genova, Edizioni ECIG, 2010, ISBN 978-88-7544-195-1.

See also

Study of language
Types of language and language relationships
Non-spoken forms of communication
Origins of language
Religion and mythology
Education and public policy
Language and culture
Communication with other species


External links

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