Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 10.1: What is Language


Chapter 10.1: What is Language

Although linguists usually agree that linguistics is the scientific study of human natural language, they do not often agree on a definition of language itself. Defining language meant something very different to the neogrammarians who studied linguistics in the nineteenth century than it did to structuralists like Ferdinand de Saussure or to cognitive linguists like Noam Chomsky. Indeed, the central question guiding the work of many of these scholars has been “what is language,” and the definition one gives largely depends on the type of linguistics one studies. 

One difficulty defining language in a way that encompasses all varieties that exist (or have existed) and that distinguishes it from other forms of communication. In an attempt to address this difficulty, Charles Hockett enumerated in several papers published between 1959 and 1968 16 “design features” that all languages share. Several of these can be found in different types of animal communication, about which more is being learned all the time (see this article from Jan 20, 2015, referring to this academic article). Only human language has all 16 features.

  1. Vocal-auditory channel
  2. Broadcast transmission and directional reception
  3. Transitoriness
  4. Interchangeability
  5. Total Feedback
  6. Specialization
  7. Semanticity
  8. Arbitrariness
  9. Discreteness
  10. Displacement
  11. Productivity
  12. Traditional Transmission
  13. Duality of Patterning
  14. Reflexiveness
  15. Learnability
  16. Blending

Only some of these will be relevant for studying the history of English. For a more in depth discussion of the rest, see the Wikipedia article.

1. Vocal-Auditory Channel. Language is produced in the vocal tract and processed by the ears. Although many who live in a heavily literate modern society tend to favor the written language over the spoken, language is primary a spoken phenomenon. For most of the history of English, the vast majority of people were unable to read and write and yet were able to communicate perfectly well. All languages must have a vocal-auditory method of communication, but there is no necessity for a language to be written. Therefore, linguistics focuses on the spoken language and considers written forms only secondarily or when necessary, as when studying past forms of the language.

7. Semanticity. Speech sounds in language convey specific meanings. To use Hockett’s own example, a dog’s panting produces sound and may indicate that the dog is hot, but this meaning is a side effect. The panting is a physical reaction to being hot, not an intentional communication of that hotness. A person may breath heavily to intentionally convey a certain meaning; however, it may also simply indicate that they are hot or have been physically exerting themselves. In other words, there is not a single specific meaning conveyed by this sound. To be part of language, the sounds produced by the vocal tract must carry specific meanings.

8. Arbitrariness. There is no direct connection between the auditory signal and the meaning given to it. The sounds we produce and the semanticity we ascribe to them have no intrinsic connection. This is perhaps the most crucial feature for studying how a language can change over time. It comprises two concepts: language is arbitrary and language is conventional. In his Course in General Linguistics Saussure presents the concept of the sign, a combination of the signifier, which is the sound in speech of a word, and the signified, the mental concept which the sound evokes. In the case of “tree,” the sound we make when we say the word is the signifier, which calls to mind the concept of a tree, which is the signified.

Linguistic Sign

The connection between the signifier and the signified, as Saussure stressed, is entirely arbitrary. In other words, we could use any combinations of sounds as the signifier for a tree. There is nothing in the sound pattern t-r-ee that connects it inherently to either actual, physical trees that exist in the visible world or to the mental concept of trees. So why do we use the signifier “tree” instead of some other group of sounds? Purely by convention, that is, by agreement. As a community of speakers of a language, we have all decided that the sound “tree” will signify the concept of trees. We could change this and use a different sound, as long as enough speakers “agreed” to it. In fact, a thousand years ago, many English speakers used the word beam to refer to trees, but over time we have “agreed” to stop using “beam” for entire trees and to use this sound pattern for just a specific part of a tree, or even simply a long piece of wood, or even now just anything that is long and straight, such as a beam of light. Since the connection between the word “tree” and trees is arbitrary, we may decide in the future to use the word “tree” solely for something else (such as kinship relations or file structures in computers) and use another word for trees. It should be emphasized here that the term “arbitrary” as used here should not be confused with the false notion that anything can mean anything in language. As described above, it is only the connection between signified and signifier that is arbitrary, but there is a connection, one that we have agreed upon by convention. The primary objection that can be brought up against the notion of convention is onomatopoeia, words whose sound pattern seems to mimic the actual sound it refers to. Such words rarely hold up to scrutiny, however. First, many of the words which speakers of one language consider an accurate phonic representation of a sound turn out to vary widely across languages. A good example is the crow of a rooster. For English speakers, roosters say “cock-a-doodle-do,” while for Spanish speakers they say ‘kikiriki” (according to this website which lists quite a number of Spanish animal sounds). It is clear that roosters do not actually crow differently in different countries, but our perceptions of them, or at least our attempts to mimic them fall into the sound patterns of our own particular language, and thus they belong to the same conventional connection between signified and signifier. Another possible refutation is that the sounds in these words change over time according to the same sound changes that other words undergo — if they truly represented the sound they signify, then they would presumably not be altered. For example, some might think that the word “fart” is an onomatopoeia of a sound, but this word in fact goes all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root *perd-. This root may itself be an onomatopoeia, but its descendants in multiple modern languages all sound quite different — again breaking the notion of an intrinsic connection between the sound of the word and the concept. An extract with Saussure’s own dismissal of onomatopoeia as an objection can be found on this page.

9. Discreteness. Each unit of communication can be separated and is unmistakable. When someone says the word pat we can separate it into three discrete or distinct segments, p, a, and t. These individual segments are recognizably distinct from other segments. They can also be used in different combinations and have unrelated meanings, such as tap or apt.

11. Productivity. Language can create an infinite number of new utterances with new meanings by combining already existing signs. In fact, every day each of us probably produces or comes across utterances that have never been made before in human history. Note that the ability to produce such new utterances and also to understand them means that language has a grammatical patterning or system. If there was no underlying grammatical system over which we could lay our signs in an understandable order, then we would only be able to reproduce sentences that we had previously memorized.

12. Traditional Transmission. Language is learned in social groups. We learn English because we grow up and are surrounded by other speakers of English. Furthermore, the variety of English we learn is determined by the social group in which we are speaking. Recognition of this fact will explain much of the “non-linguistic” material that we will here. For example, we have a vast amount of words in English that we borrowed from Scandinavian languages, due in large part to the Viking invasions of England in the ninth century. We also have a large amount of French words from the Norman invasion of the 11th century. Language is socially transmitted, not genetically transmitted.

13. Duality of Patterning. The infinite number of new meanings is created by a finite number of sound components. The continuous stream of speech that we hear can be divided into discrete segments (see discreteness above). These discrete segments are finite in number (in English we only use about 39 or 40 individual sounds) and on their own are meaningless, yet they can be combined in numerous ways to create an infinite number of meaningful statements.

These 7 features (out of the 16 total) are the most important for understanding how language works and how it can change over time. If we had to construct a definition out of them, we could say something like “Language is a conventional, socially-transmitted system of discrete vocal sounds which are combined to create an infinite number of signs used for human communication.”