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A language is a particular kind of system for encoding and decoding information. In its most common use, the term refers to so-called "natural languages" — the forms of communication considered peculiar to humankind. In linguistics the term is 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 symbol referring to linguistic concepts with semantic or logical or otherwise expressive meanings.

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.

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 of the properties that linguists use to define language in the strict sense.

When discussed more technically as a general phenomenon then, "language" always implies a particular type of human thought which 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 for example, 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 used as 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 discussed below.

Properties of language

A set of commonly accepted signs (indices, icons or symbols) is only one feature of language; all languages must define (1) the structural relationships between these signs in a system of grammar, (2) the context wherein the signs are used (pragmatics) and (3) dependent on their context the content specificity, i.e. its meaning (semantics). Rules of grammar are one of the characteristics sometimes said to distinguish language from other forms of communication. They allow a finite set of signs to be manipulated to create a potentially infinite number of grammatical utterances. However, this definition is self-circular. The structural relationships make sense only within language; the structure of language exists only in language. It is impossible to have a logically correct definition of a noun or verb. And logic itself concerns itself with propositions which are closely linked with content specificity i.e. semantics.

Another property of language is that its symbols are arbitrary. 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 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 other South Slavic languages, the sound combination carries the meaning of "hope", while in Indonesian, it means "tone".

This arbitrariness even applies to words 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, katydid) are derived from sounds the respective animal makes, 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 the animal makes. 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.

Origin of language

Even before the theory of evolution made discussion of more animal-like human ancestors commonplace, philosophical and scientific speculation casting doubt on the use of early language has been frequent throughout history. In modern Western philosophy, speculation by authors such as Thomas Hobbes and later Jean-Jacques Rousseau led to the Académie française declaring the subject off-limits.

The origin of language is of great interest to philosophers because language is such an essential characteristic of human life. In classical Greek philosophy such inquiry was approached by considering the nature of things, in this case human nature. Aristotle, for example, treated humans as creatures with reason and language by their intrinsic nature, related to their natural propensities to be "political," and dwell in city-state communities (Greek: poleis).

Hobbes, followed by John Locke and others, claimed that language is an extension of the "speech" which humans have within themselves, which in a sense takes the classical view that reason is one of the most primary characteristics of human nature. Others have argued the opposite - that reason developed out of the need for more complex communication. Rousseau, despite writing before the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution, claimed that there had once been humans who had no language or reason and 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, emphasizing that this coevolution depended upon the interactions of many individuals. He writes that:

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.

The specific causes of the natural selection that led to language are however still the subject of much speculation, but a common theme which goes right 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 has gone so far as to claim 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 completing an action and also when witnessing an actor performing the same action. Various studies have proposed a theory of mirror neurons related to language development .

Language May Have Evolved from Visual-Spatial Working Memory During the Evolution of Stone Tool Technology

Vandervert (2009a, 2009b; Vandervert, Schimpf & Liu, 2007) proposed a neuro-cognitive explanation of the evolutionary relationship between reason and language.According to this view, a new class of mental capacities evolved within human working memory which was selected in a step-by-step collaboration with evolving cognitive functions of the cerebellum. This new class of mental capacities evolved from visual-spatial working memory, which we share with animals, and came to constitute the articulatory speech loop of working memory (see working memory). Noting that the human cerebellum has experienced a fourfold increase in size in the last million years, Vandervert believes the main drivers of the evolutionary selection toward uniquely human mental and communicative capacities (of which language is only a portion) were the requirements of coordinated working memory-cerebellar control during 100’s of thousands of years of stone tool technology evolution. That is, over millennia the making of stone tools required progressively more complex blending between structured, planned intentions of the central executive of working memory and refined, repetitive composite series of perceptual/motor control by the cerebellum. The cerebellum constantly refined the processes of working memory on the one hand, and the repetitive execution of complex knapping (stone sculpting) movements on the other; thus this process formed a positive feedback loop between the two.

Specifically, Vandervert (2009b) described the working memory/cerebellar feedback loop leading to language as follows:
In terms of cerebellar modeling architecture, it is proposed that the selective advantage of language evolution was that it enhanced the speed of control and the further decomposition and re-composition (Flanagan et al., 1999) of working memory’s flow of visuospatial imagery in socially and technologically (stone technology at first) adaptive ways. These are precisely the management properties of cerebellar models within the cerebellum’s hierarchical control architecture. Within this view it can be speculated that the selective evolution of language allowed visuospatial imagery (which we share to a great extent with other animals) to be analytically manipulated in working memory and to be directly communicated in finely articulated ways, a tremendous competitive advantage in any survival context—but this would also have greatly enhanced the internal silent speech dialogue necessary to learning. (p. 25)
Vandervert connects stone tool technology with the structural form and abstract qualities of language, art, music, and mathematics, by arguing that (a) stone tool-making selected working memory toward a structure capable of sequential composite tasks (much like following a recipe) involving considerable planning and social coordination, and (b) advances in stone tool-making, in itself, represented a huge selective shift toward new working memory processes which could envision/manipulate the environment into wholly new forms of tools which did not exist in nature. He contends this shift involved the selection of central executive functions in working memory that could compose abstract entities divorced from given concrete realities. In the transitional process from visual-spatial working memory to the abstractions of the articulatory speech loop, structured links evolved in working memory, and these constitute a universal grammar. In ontogeny, these links guide the development of speech language acquisition in the infant.


Flanagan, R., Nakano, E., Imamizu, H., Osu, R., Yoshioka, T., and Kawato, M. (1999). Composition and decomposition of internal models in learning under altered kinematic and dynamic environments. Journal of Neuroscience, 19, 1-5.

Vandervert, L. (2009a). Working memory, the cognitive functions of the cerebellum and the child prodigy. In L.V. Shavinina (Ed.), International handbook on giftedness (pp. 295-316). The Netherlands: Springer Science.

Vandervert, L. (2009b). The emergence of the child prodigy 10,000 years ago: An evolutionary and developmental explanation. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 30, 15-32.

Vandervert, L., Schimpf, P., and Liu, H. (2007). How working memory and the cerebellum collaborate to produce innovation and creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 19, 1-18.

The study of language


Linguistics is the scientific study of language, encompassing a number of sub-fields. At the core of theoretical linguistics are the study of language structure (grammar) and the study of meaning (semantics). The first of these encompasses morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the rules that determine how words combine into phrases and sentences) and phonology (the study of sound systems and abstract sound units). Phonetics is a related branch of linguistics concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds (phones), non-speech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived.

Theoretical linguistics is mostly concerned with developing models of linguistic knowledge. The fields that are generally considered as the core of theoretical linguistics are syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics. Applied linguistics attempts to put linguistic theories into practice through areas like translation, stylistics, literary criticism and theory, discourse analysis, speech therapy, speech pathology and foreign language teaching.


The historical record of linguistics begins in Indiamarker with Pāṇini, the 5th century BC grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, known as the (अष्टाध्यायी) and with Tolkāppiyar, the 2nd century BC grammarian of the Tamil work Tolkāppiyam(தொல்காப்பியம்). grammar is highly systematized and technical. Inherent in its analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root; Western linguists only recognized the phoneme some two millennia later. 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 like nouns, verbs, vowels, and consonants, which he put into classes, were also breakthroughs 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.

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. In the 20th century, substantial contributions to the understanding of language came from Ferdinand de Saussure, Hjelmslev, Émile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson, which are characterized as being highly systematic.

Human languages

[[Image:Brain Surface Gyri.SVG|thumb|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, 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 usually impossible. 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 it must 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 2 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 used 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 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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. Saussure, Ferdinand de (1983). Course in General Linguistics, eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court. ISBN 0-8126-9023-0
  2. Politics 1253a 1.2
  3. Second Discourse
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  10. Zvelebil, Kamil. 1973. The smile of Murugan on Tamil literature of South India. Leiden: Brill. - Zvelebil dates the Ur-Tolkappiyam to the 1st-2nd BC
  11. Holquist 1981, xvii-xviii
  12. Frisch, K.v. (1953). 'Sprache' oder 'Kommunikation' der Bienen? Psychologische Rundschau 4. Amsterdam.
  13. Witzany, G. (2007). The Logos of the Bios 2. Bio-Communication. Helsinki, Umweb

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




  • Chakrabarti, Byomkes (1994). A comparative study of Santali and Bengali. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi & Co. ISBN 81-7074-128-9
  • 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.
  • Gode, Alexander (1951). Interlingua-English Dictionary. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company.
  • Holquist, Michael. (1981) Introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin and London: University of Texas Press. xv-xxxiv
  • 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.
  • McArthur, T. (1996). The Concise Companion to the English Language. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Zvelebil, Kamil (1973). The mile of Murugan on Tamil literature of South India. Leiden: Brill.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1983). Course in General Linguistics, eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court. ISBN 0-8126-9023-0

Further reading

External links

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