Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 10.3: Language as a System


Chapter 10.3: Language as a System

This is the most important aspect of language. Every language is based on a set of structural elements, phonology, morphology, syntax, and
semantics. These structures combine with each other according to systematic rules. These rules can be established by observing and describing how native speakers of a language speak. Each language has a specific set of sounds that are combined in specific, systematic methods to create words, which are then combined in specific, systematic methods to form meaningful utterances. If these methods were not systematic, then all utterances would be random and therefore meaningless. No one would be able to learn the rules, and thus no one would be able to understand what anyone else was saying.

This description of language as a system applies to all languages and all varieties of languages, whether the language of the most literate and wealthy members of societies, or the language of illiterate hunter-gatherers, or of any poor or lower-class speakers dwelling in impoverished areas throughout the world. We know this because all languages are equally capable of being understood by their speakers. Some people think that certain languages, or certain varieties of a single language, are somehow better at communication than others, more elegant, precise, or romantic, or that some language varieties are sloppier, simpler, less emotional, or more violent, etc. than other languages. None of this is true. All languages are equally systematic and thus all are equally able to express the concepts needed by its community of speakers.


This is the study of the sounds, or phones, used by the speakers of a language. When someone speaks, their speech is uttered in a continuous stream; this continuous stream can be broken up into discrete segments of meaning. These segments are called phonemes. A phoneme is “the smallest meaningful unit
of sound in a language.”

Perhaps the most important word in this definition is meaningful. People can make a vast number of sounds with their mouths, but only some of these have meaning in any particular language. General American only uses about 39 specific and distinguishable sounds (this number might vary depending on the specific dialect; many who speak Western American English probably use only 38). Other languages have their own set of phonemes which may differ drastically from those used in English, and some sounds are only used in a few languages. For example, very few languages have the “th” sounds found in English. Some languages, like Xhosa¬†and Khoekhoe, use clicks as phonemes (similar to the tsk tsk sound). Watch this very short video of
someone explaining the four clicks in the Nama dialect of Khoekhoe.

Although English speakers are able to make these sounds and can even use them to convey a meaning such as disapproval, they are not part of the phonemic system of English. They cannot be combined with other phonemes to create meaningful words.

There are also suprasegmental aspects of phonology, that is, features above the level of the segments. One such suprasegmental is accent or stress, which plays a major role in creating meaning. For example, say this sentence four times, each time with the stress on a different word, to see how the meaning of the sentence can change based entirely on the intonation pattern of the sentence:

  • DID you kill him?
  • Did YOU kill him?
  • Did you KILL him?
  • Did you kill HIM?

In summary, the phonemes used in English are a system: a set number of phonemes, about 39, that combine in certain ways and combinations, to form larger units. If English speakers did not agree which sounds are meaningful and which are meaningless, then the phoneme system of English would break down and become unsystematic, and communication with other English speakers would become impossible.


Morphology is the study of the forms (morph means “form”) of a language, the combination of phonemes into meaningful units, called morphemes. The definition of a morpheme is thus very similar to the definition of a phoneme: a morpheme is the smallest, meaningful unit of lexical or grammatical meaning. For example, the word walk is a morpheme. It cannot be made any smaller (such as *w and *alk) and retain any lexical or grammatical meaning. The word walks, on the other hand, can be divided into two smaller units, i.e., two smaller morphemes: walk and –s. The inflectional ending –s is not considered a word, but it has grammatical meaning and is therefore a morpheme: it means that the verb is 3rd person singular, and that it is present tense. Some morphemes, like walk can stand on their own as individual words, and are therefore called free morpheme, whereas –s is a bound morpheme, because it can only appear when bound to another morpheme. There are many other bound morphemes we can add to walk: walk-er, walk-ed, walk-ing, walk-athon. There are two types of bound morphemes. The ones like –s, -ed and –ing do not change the meaning of the word walk; instead, they only add grammatical information. These are called inflectional morphemes, because the grammatical syllables we put on the ends of words are called inflections. The morpheme –er that changes walk from a verb into a noun referring to “someone who performs the act of walking” is called a derivational morpheme, because an entirely new word with a new meaning is derived from it.


Syntax is “the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages” (Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, p. 11). It includes not only word order but also what types of words can be placed in which positions, the agreements between words (such as adjective and noun or noun and verb), and other related subjects.


One aspect of morphology is the study of the lexicon of a language. The lexicon is not only all the words of a language, but also all the prefixes or suffixes used in a language, that is, the lexicon of a language is all the morphemes of that language. Thus, luck is a member of the English lexicon, but so is the prefix un- and the suffix -y that you can use to create the word unlucky. Similarly, walk is a member of the English lexicon, but so are the suffixes -ed, -ing, and –s that you can use to create the words walked, walking, and walks. In the same way that phonology has phonemes and morphology has morphemes, the lexicon of a language has lexemes. A lexeme is a basic unit of lexical meaning, regardless of how many morphemes are used to create that meaning: Thus, walk, walks, walked, walking, and walker are all forms of the same lexeme WALK.

Semantics is the study of the meanings of these lexemes. Semantics deals with how words can mean, where they derive their meanings from (e.g., from mental images, from usage, etc), and how these meanings can shift or change over time. At the heart of this is the study of the sign, and how the signifier points to and is related to the signified.

Related Aspects of Language

Graphics refers to the writing system of a language. This is not technically one of the structural elements of language and is therefore often ignored by linguistics. Nevertheless, in literate societies, the writing system can have much influence on the parts of language discussed above. Graphics is composed of the types of writing (alphabet, hieroglyphs, etc.), the spelling (orthography), the system of punctuation, etc, as methods used to record language; in other words, it refers to a technology.