What is language?

What exactly is a language? The simplest definition of language would probably be, ‘a set of signals by which we communicate.’ “Language seems to be as old as our species.” Human beings are not the only species that can communicate through an elaborate system of communication. We know, for example, that many birds sing partly to establish a territory; that honey bees tell others in their hive where sources of food are located; that dolphins and chimpanzees use different vocalizations to convey their messages. But no species of animals can even approximate the properties of Homo sapiens in degree, if not in essence. Human language is uniquely human. We can make infinite use of finite means. Following are some of the properties of ‘language’:

  1. 1.      Language is verbal and vocal. It is an organization of sounds, words, symbols and phrases arranged in certain ways.
  2. 2.      Language is a flexible, comprehensive and perfect means of communication.
  3. 3.      It is a social phenomenon, a set of conventional communicative signals used in a community for interaction and for the nourishment and development of culture.
  4. 4.      It is non-instinctive. It can be acquired and mastered, but it cannot be born with. It is a gift of evolution instead of heritage. But it can be passed from one generation to the next through a phenomenon called cultural transmission. (Yule, 2004)
  5. 5.      It is unique with distinct features, is very productive, complex and modifiable. “Productivity is an aspect of language which is linked to the fact that the potential number of utterances in any human language is infinite.” (Yule,2004)

 Language as systems:

A language is a system of systems. “A linguistic system is determinate: we can say in principle exactly what it is and what lies outside it.” (Matthews, 2006)

The formula below, which was originally in French, sums up this insight perfectly.

A language forms a system . . . in which everything holds together.(Antoine Meillet, 1906)

Some linguists are of the view that while describing a language, we are describing the structures present in speech, in what people say and could say. (Matthews, 2006)

Noam Chomsky’s definition in the 1950s is a classic formulation, and in practice this view is still fruitful.

I will consider a language to be a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements . . .         (Noam Chomsky, 1957)


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