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A language is a system of visual, auditory, or tactile symbols of communication and the rules used to manipulate them. Language can also refer to the use of such systems as a general phenomenon. Though commonly used as a means of communication among people, human language is only one instance of this phenomenon.

Properties of language

Languages are made up of more than sets of symbols. They also contain grammar, or system of rules, used to manipulate the symbols. While a set of symbols may be used for expression or communication, it is primitive and relatively inexpressive, because there are no clear or regular relationships between the symbols. Because languages also include grammar, it can manipulate its symbols to express clear and regular relationships between them.

Another property of language is the arbitrariness of the symbols. Any symbol can be mapped onto any concept (or even onto one of the rules of the grammar). For instance, there is nothing about the Spanish word nada itself that forces Spanish speakers to use it to mean "nothing". All Spanish speakers have memorized that meaning for that sound pattern. But for Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian speakers, nada means, "hope".

However, it must be understood that just because in principle the symbols are arbitrary does not mean that a language cannot have symbols that are iconic of what they stand for. Words such as "meow" sound similar to what they represent (see Onomatopoeia), but they could be replaced with words such as "jarn", and as long as everyone memorized the new word, the same concepts could be expressed with it.

Human languages

Some of the areas of the brain involved in language processing: Broca's area, Wernicke's area, Supramarginal gyrus, Angular gyrus, Primary Auditory Cortex

Human languages are usually referred to as natural languages, and the science of studying them is linguistics. Languages are first spoken, then written, and then an understanding and explanation of their grammar (according to speech) is attempted.

Languages live, die, move from place to place, and change with time. Any language that stops changing begins to die[citation needed]; any language that is a living language is a language in a state of continuous change.

Making a principled distinction between one language and another is usually impossible.[1] 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 always 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

International auxiliary languages

Some languages are meant specifically for communication between people of different nationalities or language groups. An individual or group, as noted below has constructed several of these languages. Others are seen as natural, pre-existing languages. 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. Another, Occidental, was drawn from several Western languages.

To date, the most successful auxiliary language is Esperanto, invented by the Polish ophthalmologist Zamenhof, which has about 2 million speakers over the world and which has hundreds of songs sung in it, and a vast amount of literature written in it. The Stone City, for example, was originally written in Esperanto. Other auxiliary languages with an important group of speakers are Interlingua and Ido (however, the latter is believed to have only a few hundred speakers).

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.

Constructed languages

Some individuals and groups have constructed their own artificial languages, for practical, experimental, personal, or ideological reasons. For example, one prominent artificial language, Esperanto, was created by L. L. Zamenhof as a compilation of various elements of different languages, and is supposed to be an easy-to-learn language for people familiar with similar, mostly Indo-European, languages. Other constructed languages strive to be more logical ("loglangs") than natural languages; a prominent example of this is Lojban. Both of these languages are meant as international auxiliary languages.

Some writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, have created fantasy languages, for literary, artistic or personal reasons.

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

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 some combination of formal grammar and semantics of arbitrary complexity.

Programming languages

A programming language is an artificial language that can be used to control the behavior of a machine, particularly a computer to perform specific tasks.[2] Programming languages, like human languages, are defined using syntactic and semantic rules, to determine structure and meaning respectively.

Programming languages are used 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 used for artificial languages that are more limited.

The study of language

The historical record of linguistics begins in India with Pāṇini, the 5th century BCE grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, known as the Aṣṭādhyāyī (अष्टाध्यायी) and with Tolkāppiyar the 3rd century BCE grammarian of the Tamil work Tolkāppiyam. 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 some two millennia only recognized the phoneme later. Tolkāppiyar's work is perhaps the first one to describe articulatory phonetics for a language. Its classification of the alphabet into consonants and vowels, and elements like nouns, verbs, vowels, and consonants which he put into classes, were also breakthroughs at the time.

In the Middle East, the Persian linguist Sibawayh(سیبویه) made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760 CE 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.

Later in the West, the success of science, mathematics, and other formal systems in the 20th century led many to attempt a formalization of the study of language as a "semantic code". This resulted in the academic discipline of linguistics, the founding of which is attributed to Ferdinand de Saussure.[citation needed] In the 20th century substantial contribution to the understanding of language came from Ferdinand de Saussure, Hjelmslev, Émile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson;[3] they were all characterized as being highly systematic.[3]

Animal language

The term "animal languages" is often used for nonhuman languages. Linguists do not consider these to be language, but describe them as animal communication, because such communication is fundamentally different in its underlying principles from true language, which has been found in humans only.

In several publicized instances, nonhuman 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; however, they have never been successfully taught grammar. In 2003, a saved Bonobo ape named Kanzi allegedly independently created some words to convey certain concepts, however the careful examination of other apes raised in a similar manner (Washoe, Koko, and Nim Chimpsky) shows a greater degree of anthropormorphism and selective observation on the part of trainers and a lack of initiative and high levels of simple imimative behaviour with the subjects. 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 begin to comprehend some of the speech it mimics. Most species of parrot, despite expert mimicry, are believed to have no linguistic comprehension at all.

While proponents of animal communication systems have debated levels of semantics, these systems have not been found to have anything approaching human language syntax. The situation with dolphins and whales presents a special case in that there is some evidence that spontaneous development of complex vocal language is occurring, but it certainly has not been proven.

Some researchers argue that a continuum exists among the communication methods of all social animals, pointing to the fundamental requirements of group behavior and the existence of "mirror cells" in primates. This, however, is still a scientific question. What exactly is the definition of the word "language"? Most researchers agree that, although human and more primitive languages have analogous features, they are not homologous.

See also

See also (Lists)


  1. "Language". The New Encyclopædia Britannica: MACROPÆDIA. 22. Encyclopædia Britannica,Inc. 2005. pp. 548 2b.
  2. "What is programming language?". Webopedia. Retrieved 2007-11-23.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Holquist 1981, xvii-xviii


  • Crystal, David (1997). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Crystal, David (2001). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Chakrabarti, Byomkes (1994). A comparative study of Santali and Bengali. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi & Co. ISBN 8170741289
  • Gode, Alexander (1951). Interlingua-English Dictionary. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company.
  • Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM. Principles of Neural Science, fourth edition, 1173 pages. McGraw-Hill, New York (2000). ISBN 0-8385-7701-6
  • Katzner, K. (1999). The Languages of the World. New York, Routledge.
  • Holquist, Michael. (1981) Introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin and London: University of Texas Press. xv-xxxiv
  • McArthur, T. (1996). The Concise Companion to the English Language. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Further reading

  • Deacon, Terrence. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. Norton.
  • International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (Frawley 2003)
  • The World's Major Languages (Comrie 1987)
  • The Atlas of Languages (Comrie, Matthews, & Polinsky 1997)

External links

Look up language in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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