What is language?
To ask What is language? is to start an argument. The definition of language - what counts as a language and what doesn't - is a difficult philosophical topic. This article explores the concept of language in a variety of aspects.
In a strictly technical sense, language could be said to be a system for encoding and decoding information. Determining what kinds of signals or symbols constitute language is not always a straightforward matter. Is language a matter of hearing only? It must not be, because people without hearing can use sign language. Is language a matter of sight or hearing? It must not be, because Helen Keller, who could neither hear nor see, was able to develop a language through the sense of touch. Can language be a matter of smell or taste? Does the blossoming of a flower, whose color or scent signals to bees or birds to come and pollinate it, constitute a form of language? Does a skunk spraying constitute language, since it can certainly be said to be a form of communication? Are communications that involve, say, chemicals or pheromones part of some kind of language? Can we say that signaling behavior that is learned, rather than wired in, is language, whereas signaling behavior that is instinctive is not language? If dogs inherently understand gestures such as pointing (as suggested by the Buddha long ago, and now backed by science), is the gesture of pointing a form of language, since it is an effective form of communicating information?
Does the medium by which communication occurs have any bearing whatsoever on whether the communication is considered language, or not?
It is easy to keep generating questions, and not so easy to obtain agreement about the answers.
If it's difficult to understand what is language, then--what is writing? If something is a language, even if there is no written form of it, is it always possible to make a written form of it? Is being able to be written down (even if it's not) a criterion for considering something a language? What is counting? Are counts recorded by knots in ropes a form of writing? Are counts made by cutting a slash in a stick writing? When does cutting slashes into materials become writing, as in runes?
Do all forms of what we would call communication have semantics, or meaning, associated with them? Does that make some forms of communications a language, and other forms not a language?
Linguistics has a field of study called language acquisition.
Humans communicate and signal meaning by various means other than speech or writing. Wearing of earrings a certain way, style of clothing, wearing of uniforms, hairstyles, and makeup may be used in ways systematically assumed to have meaning among groups. Do these signals constitute a form of language? People casually refer to body language; and is that a form of language?
Human languages (Natural languages)
Linguistics is the science of studying human languages. Human languages are also sometimes called natural languages, especially when there is a need to distinguish them from formal languages in mathematics or computer science. A key characteristic distinguishing natural language from formal languages is that formal languages must not allow for ambiguity, whereas natural languages seem to be unable to avoid some ambiguity. Linguistics is not the only scholarly area with an interest in human languages. The discovery of the oldest evidence of language, primarily via vestiges of early writing, falls under the pervue of archaeology or anthropology and also history. The mechanisms related to learning of human languages may be of interest in psychology and medicine due to its exercise of higher brain function. Computer scientists have been engaged in the study of human languages for the purpose of machine translation between different human languages.
Do animals have language?
Some animals communicate in a system which might be considered language, consisting either of calls or body postures used consistently for certain purposes. Such signals are learned behavior. Multiple signals may be used by one species, and signals are also sometimes recognized across species, such as when birds respond to chattering and tail waggles made by squirrels to warn of the presence of a predator.
The question of whether animals have the capacity for language to a similar degree that humans have (even sign language) is controversial.
Is birdsong a form of language? We know that birds sometimes sing to establish their territory, and they sometimes sing to attract a mate. Besides singing, many species of finches have different vocalizations, or calls: to warn of predator in the sky, to warn of a predator on the ground, to communicate that food has been found, or to attract a mate. Baby finches learn to articulate these sounds just as a human baby learns to talk. Male baby finches learn to sing an enticing call, often a very complex melody, by listening to the father sing the call. It will take a Java Rice Sparrow up to three weeks of sustained effort to master its enticing call, involving complex warbles made using both of its vocal cords at once. Each male's call is distinct, and yet recognizable as the enticing call. If no father is available, the male baby finches will learn the enticing call of a different species (and try to use it to attract a mate). For the first few weeks of its life, finches must learn the calls used by their local community of finches. Do the collection of calls within a given species of finch constitute a language?
Edmund Blair Bolles, author of Babel's Dawn: A Natural History of the Origins of Speech, asserts the following: “I call it language when a speaker and a listener exchange news about a topic. The closest thing in the animal kingdom to this kind of behavior is the waggle dance of the bee.”
Do plants have language?
Does the blossoming of a flower, whose color or scent signals to bees or birds to come and pollinate it, constitute a form of language? Does a skunk spraying constitute language, since it can certainly be said to be a form of communication? Are communications that involve, say, chemicals or pheromones part of some kind of language? Can we say that signaling behavior that is learned, rather than wired in, is language, whereas signaling behavior that is instinctive is not language?
Formal, mathematical, and computer languages
The activity of computer engineering has produced numerous computer programming languages, and in fact they have created several subfields of scholarly research relating to them, such as formal languages and compilers. Mathematicians have expressed various mathematical formalisms that they describe as languages.
Limitations of language
Because language is a symbolic system, it is necessarily simpler than the reality it refers to. Neither spoken nor written language can fully and accurately represent the rich canvas of perception of the speaker or writer. This is why sages have sometimes refered to the acquisition of language as a factor in limiting understanding.
To stretch the capabilities of language to evoke human experience, humans resort to the use of figures of speech. Poetry is another way in which humans try to stretch the capability of language to import meaning from source to target.
- Edmund Blair Bolles. (2014) How Can You Recognize Language?