Language, a system of spoken conventional symbols, manuals (signed) or writings through which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative interpretation and emotional liberation.
Characteristics of Language
Many definitions of language have been proposed. Henry Sweet, a physiotherapist and English language scholar, said: “Language is the expression of ideas through the sounds of speech combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination responding to that of ideas into thoughts”. American linguists Bernard Bloch and George L. Trager formulated the following definition: “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols through which a social group cooperates. Any short definition of Language makes several assumptions and raises several questions. The former, for example, places excessive weight on “thinking”, and the latter uses “arbitrarily” in a specialized yet legitimate manner.
Several considerations (noted in italics below) enter into a proper understanding of Language as a subject:
Each physiologically and mentally typical person acquires in childhood the ability to make use, as sender and receiver, of a communication system which comprises a circumscribed set of symbols (e.g. sounds, gestures or written or typed characters). In oral language, this set of symbols consists of noises resulting from movements of specific organs within the throat and mouth. In signed languages, these symbols can be hand or body movements, gestures or facial expressions. Through these symbols, people can convey information, express feelings and emotions, influence the activities of others and behave with different degrees of sympathy or hostility towards people who use substantially the same set of symbols.
Different systems of communication are different languages; the degree of difference needed to establish a different language cannot be indicated precisely. No two people speak the same way; thus, one can recognize the voices of friends over the phone and keep several invisible speakers distinct in a radio broadcast. However, nobody would say that they speak different languages. Communication systems are generally recognized as separate languages if they cannot be understood without specific learning by both parties. However, the precise limits of mutual intelligibility are challenging to draw and belong to a scale rather than one side of a defined dividing line. Substantially different systems of communication which may prevent but do not impede mutual understanding are called dialects of a language. To describe in detail the different real language patterns of individuals, the term idiolect has been coined, which means the habits of expression of a single person.
Usually, people initially acquire only one language – their first language, or mother tongue, the language used by those with whom, or by whom, they are brought up from childhood. Subsequent ‘second’ languages are learned at different levels of competence under various conditions. Full mastery of two words is called bilingualism; in many cases – such as the education of parents using different languages at home or education in a multilingual community – children grow up to be bilingual. In traditionally monolingual cultures, learning a second or another style to any extent is an activity that overlaps the previous mastery of the first language and is an intellectually different process.
Language, as described above, is a species-specific to humans. Other members of the animal kingdom can communicate, through vocal noises or other means. Still, the essential characteristic that characterises human language (i.e. each word), against all known modes of animal communication, is its infinite productivity and creativity. Human beings have no restrictions on what they can communicate; no area of experience is accepted as necessarily incommunicado, although it may be necessary to adapt their language to face discoveries or new ways of thinking. Animal communication systems are, on the contrary, very circumscribed in what can be communicated. The displaced reference, the ability to talk about things outside of immediate temporal and spatial contiguity, which is fundamental to speech, is found elsewhere only in the so-called language of bees. Bees are able, by carrying out various conventional movements (called bee dances) in or near the hive, to indicate to others the locations and strengths of food sources. But food sources are the only known subject of this communication system. Surprisingly, however, this system, closer to the human language in function, belongs to a species distant from humanity in the animal kingdom.
On the other hand, animal performance is superficially more similar to human discourse, the mimicry of parrots and some other birds that have been kept in the company of human beings is derived and has no independent communicative function. The closest relatives of humanity among primates, although having vocal physiology similar to humans, have not developed anything like a spoken language. Attempts to teach sign language to chimpanzees and other apes through imitation have had limited success, although the interpretation of the meaning of the ape’s signature capacity remains controversial.
In most reports, the primary purpose of language is to facilitate communication, in the sense of transmitting information from one person to another. However, sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic studies have drawn attention to some other language functions. These include the use of language to express a national or local identity (a common source of conflict in multi-ethnic situations around the world, such as in Belgium, India and Quebec). Equally important is the “playful” function of language – found in phenomena such as puns, riddles and crossword puzzles – and the range of features seen in imaginative or symbolic contexts such as poetry, drama and religious expression.
Language interacts with all aspects of human life in society, and can only be understood if it is considered about society. This article attempts to survey language in this light and consider its various functions and the goals it can and has been made to serve. Since each language is both a functional communication system in the period and community in which it is used and also the product of its history and the source of its future development, any description of the language must consider it from these two points of view.
The science of language is known as linguistics. It includes what is generally distinguished as descriptive and historical linguistics. Linguistics is today a highly technical subject; it covers, in both graphic and historical terms, divisions as necessary as phonetics, grammar (including syntax and morphology), semantics and pragmatics, dealing in detail with these various aspects of language.