What is Language?

Many animal and even plant species communicate with each other.  Humans are not unique in this capability.  However, human language is unique in being a symbolic communication system that is learned instead of biologically inherited.  Symbols click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced are sounds or things which have meaning given to them by the users.  Originally, the meaning is arbitrarily assigned.  For instance, the English word "dog" does not in any way physically resemble the animal it stands for.  All symbols have a material form but the meaning can not be discovered by mere sensory examination of their forms.  They are abstractions.

Do the following words sound or look
like the animal shown here: canis click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced,
chien click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, hund click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, perro click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced

(They all are words for dog in
European languages.)

photo of a dog

A word is one or more sounds that in combination have a specific meaning assigned by a language.  The symbolic meaning of words can be so powerful that people are willing to risk their lives for them or take the lives of others.  For instance, words such as "queer" and "nigger" have symbolic meaning that is highly charged emotionally in America today for many people.  They are much more than just a sequence of sounds to us.

A major advantage of human language being a learned symbolic communication system is that it is infinitely flexible.  Meanings can be changed and new symbols created.  This is evidenced by the fact that new words are invented daily and the meaning of old ones change.  For example, the English word "nice" now generally means pleasing, agreeable, polite, and kind.  In the15th century it meant foolish, wanton, lascivious, and even wicked.   Languages evolve in response to changing historical and social conditions.  Some language transformations typically occur in a generation or less.  For instance, the slang words used by your parents were very likely different from those that you use today.  You also probably are familiar with many technical terms, such as "text messaging" and "high definition TV", that were not in general use even a decade ago. 

Language and speech are not the same thing.  Speech is a broad term simply referring to patterned verbal behavior.  In contrast, a language is a set of rules for generating speech.  A dialect click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced is a variant of a language.  If it is associated with a geographically isolated speech community, it is referred to as a regional dialect.  However, if it is spoken by a speech community that is merely socially isolated, it is called a social dialect.  These latter dialects are mostly based on class, ethnicity click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, gender click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, age, and particular social situations.  Black English (or Ebonics click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced) in the United States is an example of a social dialect.  Dialects may be both regional and social.  An example is the Chinese spoken dialect and written form called nushu.  It apparently was known and used only by women in the village of Jiang-yong in Hunan Province of South China.  Women taught nushu only to their daughters and used it to write memoirs, create songs, and share their thoughts with each other.  While women also knew and used the conventional Chinese dialect of their region, they used nushu to maintain female support networks in their male dominated societyNushu is essentially gone now due to its suppression during the 1950's and 1960's by the communist government of China.  The last speaker and writer of nushu was a woman named Yang Huanyi.  She died in 2004.  Not all societies have distinct dialects.  They are far more common in large-scale diverse societies than in small-scale homogenous ones.

Over the last few centuries, deaf people have developed sign languages that are complex visual-gestural forms of communicating with each other.  Since they are effective communication systems with standardized rules, they also must be considered languages in their own right even though they are not spoken.

click this icon in order to see the following video  Birth of a Language--the emergence of a new sign language among deaf children in Nicaragua.
This link takes you to a video at an external website.  To return here, you must click the "back"
        button on your browser program.               (length = 4 mins, 57 secs) 

Photo of 4 Papua New Guinea women selling and talking in a market place

Women in Papua New Guinea
conversing in Pidgin English 

A pidgin click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced is a simplified, makeshift language that develops to fulfill the communication needs of people who have no language in common but who need to occasionally interact for commercial and other reasons.  Pidgins combine a limited amount of the vocabulary and grammar of the different languages.  People who use pidgin languages also speak their own native language.  Over the last several centuries, dozens of pidgin languages developed as Europeans expanded out into the rest of the world for colonization and trade.  The most well known one is Pidgin English in New Guinea.  However, several forms of Pidgin English and Pidgin French also developed in West Africa and the Caribbean.  There have been pidgins developed by non-European cultures as well, including the Zulus in South Africa, the Malays in Southeast Asia, the Arabs in North Africa, and several American Indian societies.  The most well known pidgin developed by American Indians is Chinook, which was used on the Northwest Coast of North America.

At times, a pidgin language becomes the mother tongue of a population.  When that happens, it is called a creole click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced language.  As pidgins change into creoles over several generations, their vocabularies enlarge.  In the small island nation of Haiti, a French-African pidgin became the creole language.  It is still spoken there by the majority of the population as their principle or only language.  The same thing happened among some of the peoples of Papua New Guinea click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, the Pacific Islands of Vanuatu click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and Sierra Leone click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced in West Africa, where different versions of Pidgin English became creoles.  Similarly, on the outer banks of Georgia and South Carolina in the United States, isolated former African slaves made another version of Pidgin English into a creole known as Gullah click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced or Geechee click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Creoles also developed in Louisiana, Jamaica, and the Netherlands Antilles click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.

It is common for creole speakers to also speak another "standard" language as well.  In Haiti, for instance, the more educated and affluent people also speak French among themselves.  Their creole language is used on the street in dealing with poor Haitians.  The Gullah speakers of Georgia and South Carolina speak English when dealing with outsiders.  Which language is spoken depends on the social situation.  This same phenomenon is often found in societies with different dialects of the same language.  People may quickly switch back and forth between dialects, depending on the person they are talking to at the time.   This pattern is referred to as diglossia click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced or "code switching."  The African American situational use of standard and Black English is a prime example.  Black English is usually reserved for talking with other African Americans.  North American reporters and announcers on national television programs are often diglossic.  They must learn to speak with a Midwestern, European American dialect regardless of the region or social class they came from originally.  We become so accustomed to this that it is usually a shocking surprise to hear them speak in their own dialects.

Typically, the dialects of a society are ranked relative to each other in terms of social status.  In the London area of England, the upper class speak "public school" English, while the lower class often use a Cockney click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced dialect.  Because of the stigma against the latter, upwardly mobile Cockneys in the business world may take language lessons to acquire the "public school" speech patterns.


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This page was last updated on Thursday, August 31, 2006.
Copyright 1998-2006 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits