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Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication. The scientific study of language in any of its senses is called linguistics.
The approximately 3000–6000 languages that are spoken by humans today are the most salient examples, but natural languages can also be based on visual rather than auditory stimuli, for example in sign languages and written language. Codes and other kinds of artificially constructed communication systems such as those used for computer programming can also be called languages. A language in this sense is a system of signs for encoding and decoding information. The English word derives ultimately from Latin lingua, "language, tongue", via Old French. This metaphoric relation between language and the tongue exists in many languages and testifies to the historical prominence of spoken languages. When used as a general concept, "language" refers to the cognitive faculty that enables humans to learn and use systems of complex communication.
The human language faculty is thought to be fundamentally different from and of much higher complexity than those of other species. Human language is highly complex in that it is based on a set of rules relating symbols to their meanings, thereby forming an infinite number of possible innovative utterances from a finite number of elements. Language is thought to have originated when early hominids first started cooperating, adapting earlier systems of communication based on expressive signs to include a theory of other minds and shared intentionality. This development is thought to have coincided with an increase in brain volume. Language is processed in many different locations in the human brain, but especially in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Humans acquire language through social interaction in early childhood, and children generally speak fluently when they are around three years old. The use of language has become deeply entrenched in human culture and, apart from being used to communicate and share information, it also has social and cultural uses, such as signifying group identity, social stratification and for social grooming and entertainment. The word "language" can also be used to describe the set of rules that makes this possible, or the set of utterances that can be produced from those rules.
All languages rely on the process of semiosis to relate a sign with a particular meaning. Spoken and signed languages contain a phonological system that governs how sounds or visual symbols are used to form sequences known as words or morphemes, and a syntactic system that governs how words and morphemes are used to form phrases and utterances. Written languages use visual symbols to represent the sounds of the spoken languages, but they still require syntactic rules that govern the production of meaning from sequences of words. Languages evolve and diversify over time, and the history of their evolution can be reconstructed by comparing modern languages to determine which traits their ancestral languages must have had for the later stages to have occurred. A group of languages that descend from a common ancestor is known as a language family. The languages that are most spoken in the world today belong to the Indo-European family, which includes languages such as English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi; the Sino-Tibetan languages, which include Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese and many others; Semitic languages, which include Arabic and Hebrew; and the Bantu languages, which include Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa and hundreds of other languages spoken throughout Africa.
The word "language" has two meanings: language as a general concept, and "a language" (a specific linguistic system, e.g. "French"). Languages other than English often have two separate words for these distinct concepts. French for example uses the word langage for language as a concept and langue as the specific instance of language.
When speaking of language as a general concept, several different definitions can be used that stress different aspects of the phenomenon.
A mental faculty, organ or instinct
One definition sees language primarily as the mental faculty that allows humans to undertake linguistic behaviour: to learn languages and produce and understand utterances. This definition stresses the universality of language to all humans and the biological basis of the human capacity for language as a unique development of the human brain. This view often understands language to be largely innate, for example as in Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar or Jerry Fodor’s extreme innatist theory. These kinds of definitions are often applied by studies of language within a cognitive science framework and in neurolinguistics.
A formal symbolic system
Another definition sees language as a formal system of symbols governed by grammatical rules combining particular signs with particular meanings. This definition stresses the fact that human languages can be described as closed structural systems consisting of rules that relate particular signs to particular meanings. This structuralist view of language was first introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure. Some proponents of this view of language, such as Noam Chomsky, define language as a particular set of sentences that can be generated from a particular set of rules. The structuralist viewpoint is commonly used in formal logic, semiotics, and in formal and structural theories of grammar, the most commonly used theoretical frameworks in linguistic description. In the philosophy of language these views are associated with philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, early Wittgenstein, Alfred Tarski and Gottlob Frege.
A tool for communication
Yet another definition sees language as a system of communication that enables humans to cooperate. This definition stresses the social functions of language and the fact that humans use it to express themselves and to manipulate objects in their environment. This view of language is associated with the study of language in a functional or pragmatic framework, as well as in socio-linguistics and linguistic anthropology. In the Philosophy of language these views are often associated with Wittgenstein’s later works and with ordinary language philosophers such as G. E. Moore, Paul Grice, John Searle and J. L. Austin.
What makes human language unique
Human language is unique in comparison to other forms of communication, such as those used by other animals, because it allows humans to produce an infinite set of utterances from a finite set of elements, and because the symbols and grammatical rules of any particular language are largely arbitrary, so that the system can only be acquired through social interaction. The known systems of communication used by animals, on the other hand, can only express a finite number of utterances that are mostly genetically transmitted. Human language is also unique in that its complex structure has evolved to serve a much wider range of functions than any other kinds of communication system.
The study of language
The study of language, linguistics, has been developing into a science since the first grammatical descriptions of particular languages in India more than years ago. Today linguistics is a science that concerns itself with all aspects relating to language, examining it from all of the theoretical viewpoints described above.
Language can be studied from many angles and for many purposes: For example, Descriptive linguistics examines the grammar of single languages so that people can learn the languages; theoretical linguistics develops theories how best to conceptualize language as a faculty; sociolinguistics studies how languages are used for social purposes, such as differentiating regional or social groups from each other; neurolinguistics studies how language is processed in the human brain; computational linguistics builds computational models of language and constructs programmes to process natural language; and historical linguistics traces the histories of languages and language families by using the comparative method.
The formal study of language began in India with Pāṇini, the 5th century BC grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology. Pāṇini’s systematic classification of the sounds of Sanskrit into consonants and vowels, and word classes, such as nouns and verbs, was the first known instance of its kind. In the Middle East Sibawayh (سیبویه) made a detailed description of Arabic in 760 AD in his monumental work, Al-kitab fi al-nahw (الكتاب في النحو, The Book on Grammar), the first known author to distinguish between sounds and phonemes (sounds as units of a linguistic system).
Western interest in the study of languages began as early as in the East, but the grammarians of the classical languages did not use the same methods or reach the same conclusions as their contemporaries in the Indic world. Early interest in language in the West was a part of philosophy, not of grammatical description. The first insights into semantic theory were made by Plato in his Cratylus dialogue, where he argues that words denote concepts that are eternal and exist in the world of ideas. This work is the first to use the word etymology to describe the history of a word's meaning.
Around 280 BC one of Alexander the Great’s successors founded a university (see Musaeum) in Alexandria, where a school of philologists studied the ancient texts in and taught Greek to speakers of other languages. This school was the first to use the word "grammar" in its modern sense, Plato had used the word in its original meaning as "téchnē grammatikḗ" (Τέχνη Γραμματική), the "art of writing," which is also the title of one of the most important works of the Alexandrine school by Dionysius Thrax.
Throughout the Middle Ages the study of language was subsumed under the topic of philology, the study of ancient languages and texts, practiced by such educators as Roger Ascham, Wolfgang Ratke and John Amos Comenius.
In the 18th century, the first use of the comparative method by William Jones sparked the rise of comparative linguistics. Bloomfield attributes "the first great scientific linguistic work of the world" to Jacob Grimm, who wrote Deutsche Grammatik. It was soon followed by other authors writing similar comparative studies on other language groups of Europe. The scientific study of language was broadened from Indo-European to language in general by Wilhelm von Humboldt, of whom Bloomfield asserts:
"This study received its foundation at the hands of the Prussian statesman and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767—1835), especially in the first volume of his work on Kavi, the literary language of Java, entitled Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts (‘On the Variety of the Structure of Human Language and its Influence upon the Mental Development of the Human Race’)."
Early in the 20th century, de Saussure introduced the idea of language as a "semantic code." Substantial additional contributions similar to this came from Hjelmslev, Émile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson, which are characterized as being highly systematic.
Language and its parts
When described as a system of symbolic communication, language is traditionally seen as consisting of three parts: signs, meanings and a code connecting signs with their meanings. The study of how signs and meanings are combined, used and interpreted is called semiotics. Signs can be composed of sounds, gestures, letters or symbols, depending on whether the language is spoken, signed or written, and they can be combined into complex signs such as words and phrases. When used in communication a sign is encoded and transmitted by a sender through a channel to a receiver who decodes it (a signal).
Some of the properties that define human language as opposed to other communication systems are: the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, meaning that there is no predictable connection between a linguistic sign and its meaning; the duality of the linguistic system, meaning that linguistic structures are built by combining elements into larger structures that can be seen as layered, e.g. how sounds build words and words build phrases; the discreteness of the elements of language, meaning that the elements out of which linguistic signs are constructed are discrete units, e.g. sounds and words, that can be distinguished from each other and rearranged in different patterns; and the productivity of the linguistic system, meaning that the finite number of linguistic elements can be combined into a theoretically infinite number of combinations.
The rules under which signs can be combined to form words and phrases are called syntax or grammar. The meaning that is connected to individual signs, words and phrases is called semantics. The division of language into separate but connected systems of sign and meaning goes back to the first linguistic studies of de Saussure and is now used in almost all branches of linguistics.
Languages express meaning by relating a sign to a meaning. Thus languages must have a vocabulary of signs related to specific meaning—the English sign "dog" denotes, for example, a member of the genus Canis. In a language, the array of arbitrary signs connected to specific meanings is called the lexicon, and a single sign connected to a meaning is called a lexeme. Not all meanings in a language are represented by single words-often semantic concepts are embedded in the morphology or syntax of the language in the form of grammatical categories. All languages contain the semantic structure of predication—a structure that predicates a property, state or action that has truth value, i.e. it can be true or false about an entity, e.g. "[x [is y]]" or "[x [does y]]."
Sounds and symbols
The ways in which spoken languages use sounds to construct meaning is studied in phonology. The study of how humans produce and perceive vocal sounds is called phonetics. In spoken language meaning is constructed when sounds become part of a system in which some sounds can contribute to expressing meaning and others do not. In any given language only a limited number of the many distinct sounds that can be created by the human vocal apparatus contribute to constructing meaning
Sounds as part of a linguistic system are called phonemes. All spoken languages have phonemes of at least two different categories: vowels and consonants that can be combined into forming syllables. Apart from segments such as consonants and vowels, some languages also use sound in other ways to convey meaning. Many languages, for example, use stress, pitch, duration and tone to distinguish meaning. Because these phenomena operate outside of the level of single segments they are called suprasegmental.
Writing systems represent the sounds of human speech using visual symbols. The Latin alphabet (and those on which it is based or that have been derived from it) is based on the representation of single sounds, so that words are constructed from letters that generally denote a single consonant or vowel in the structure of the word.
In syllabic scripts, such as the Inuktitut syllabary, each sign represents a whole syllable
In logographic scripts each sign represents an entire word. Because all languages have a very large number of words, no purely logographic scripts are known to exist. In order to represent the sounds of the world’s languages in writing, linguists have developed an International Phonetic Alphabet, designed to represent all of the discrete sounds that are known to contribute to meaning in human languages.
Grammar is the study of how meaningful elements (morphemes) within a language can be combined into utterances. Morphemes can either be free or bound. If they are free to be moved around within an utterance, they are usually called words, and if they are bound to other words or morphemes, they are called affixes. The way in which meaningful elements can be combined within a language is governed by rules. In standard linguistic theory the rules of the internal structure of words is called morphology. The rules of the internal structure of the phrases and sentences is called syntax. In the generativist tradition of Chomsky morphology is seen as a part of syntax.
Grammar contributes to producing meaning by encoding semantic distinctions in forms that are systematic. The predictability resulting from systematization allows language users to produce and understand new words and meanings by applying their knowledge of the language’s grammatical categories.
Languages differ widely in whether categories are encoded through the use of categories or lexical units. However, several categories are so common as to be nearly universal. Such universal categories include the encoding of the grammatical relations of participants and predicates by grammatically distinguishing between their relations to a predicate, the encoding of temporal and spatial relations on predicates, and a system of grammatical person governing reference to and distinction between speakers and addressees and those about whom they are speaking.
Languages organize their parts of speech into classes according to their functions and positions relative to other parts. All languages, for instance, make a basic distinction between a group of words that prototypically denote things and concepts and a group of words that prototypically denote actions and events. The first group, which includes English words such as "dog" and "song," is usually called nouns. The second, which includes "run" and "sing," is called verbs.
The word classes also carry out differing functions in grammar. Prototypically verbs are used to construct predicates, while nouns are used as arguments of predicates. In a sentence such as "Sally runs," the predicate is "runs," because it is the word that predicates a specific state about its argument "Sally." Some verbs such as "curse" can take two arguments, e.g. "Sally cursed John." A predicate that can only take a single argument is called intransitive, while a predicate that can take two arguments is called transitive.
Many languages use the morphological processes of inflection to modify or elaborate on the meaning of words. In some languages words are built of several meaningful units called morphemes, the English word "unexpected" can be analyzed as being composed of the three morphemes "un-", "expect" and "-ed". Morphemes can be classified according to whether they are roots to which other bound morphemes called affixes are added, and bound morphemes can be classified according to their position in relation to the root: prefixes precede the root, suffixes follow the root and infixes are inserted in the middle of a root. Affixes serve to modify or elaborate the meaning of the root. Some languages change the meaning of words by changing the phonological structure of a word, for example the English word "run" which in the past tense is "ran". Furthermore morphology distinguishes between processes of inflection which modifies or elaborates on a word, and derivation which instead creates a new word from an existing one - for example in English "sing" which can become "singer" by adding the derivational morpheme -er which derives an agentive noun from a verb. Languages differ widely in how much they rely on morphology - some languages, traditionally called polysynthetic languages depend so much on morphology that they express the equivalent of an entire English sentence in a single word. For example the Greenlandic word "oqaatiginerluppaa" "(he/she) speaks badly about him/her" which consists of the root oqaa and six suffixes.
Languages that use inflection to convey meaning often do not have strict rules for word order in a sentence. For example in Latin both "dominus servos vituperabat" and "servos vituperabat dominus" mean "the master was cursing the slaves", because "servos" "slave" is in the accusative case showing that they are the grammatical object of the sentence and "dominus" "master" is in the nominative case showing that he is the subject. Other languages, however, use little or no inflectional processes and instead use the sequence of words in relation to each other to describe meaning. For example in English the two sentences "the slaves were cursing the master" and "the master was cursing the slaves" mean different things because the role of grammatical subject is encoded by the noun being in front of the verb and the role of object is encoded by the noun appearing after the verb.
Syntax then, has to do with the order of words in sentences, and specifically how complex sentences are structured by grouping words together in units, called phrases, that can occupy different places in a larger syntactic structure. Below is a graphic representation of the syntactic analysis of the sentence "the cat is on the mat". The sentence is analysed as being constituted by a noun phrase, a verb and a prepositional phrase, the prepositional phrase is further divided into a preposition and a noun phrase, and the noun phrases consist of an article and a noun.
Verb Phrase/Sentence / | \ / | \ / | Prepositional Phrase / | / \ Noun Phrase | / Noun Phrase / \ | / / \ Article Noun Verb Preposition Article Noun | | | | | | the cat is on the mat "The cat is on the mat"
Language and culture
As far back as the classical period the connection between human culture and language has been noted and probably long before. The ancient Greeks, for example, distinguished between civilized peoples and bárbaros "those who babble", i.e. those who speak unintelligible languages. The fact that different groups speak different, unintelligible languages is often considered more tangible evidence for cultural differences than other less obvious cultural traits.
Languages, understood as the particular set of speech norms of a particular community, are also a part of the larger culture of the community that speak them. Humans use language as a way of signalling identity with one cultural group and difference from others. Even among speakers of one language several different ways of using the language exist, and each is used to signal affiliation with particular subgroups within a larger culture. Linguists and anthropologists, particularly sociolinguists, ethnolinguists and linguistic anthropologists have specialized in studying how ways of speaking vary between speech communities.
A community's ways of using language is a part of the community's culture, just as other shared practices are, it is way of displaying group identity. Ways of speaking function not only to facilitate communication, but also to identify the social position of the speaker. Linguists use the term varieties, a term that encompasses geographically or socioculturally defined dialects as well as the jargons or styles of subcultures, to refer to the different ways of speaking a language. Linguistic anthropologists and sociologists of language define communicative style as the ways that language is used and understood within a particular culture.
Languages do not differ only in pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar, but also through having different "cultures of speaking". Some cultures for example have elaborate systems of "social deixis", systems of signalling social distance through linguistic means. In English, social deixis is shown mostly though distinguishing between addressing some people by first name and others by surname, but also in titles such as "Mrs.", "boy", "Doctor" or "Your Honor", but in other languages such systems may be highly complex and codified in the entire grammar and vocabulary of the language. For instance, in several languages of east Asia, such as Thai, Burmese and Javanese, different words are used according to whether a speaker is addressing someone of higher or lower rank than oneself in a ranking system with animals and children ranking the lowest and gods and members of royalty as the highest.
Theories about the origin of language can be divided according to their basic assumptions. Some theories are based on the idea that language is so complex that one can not imagine it simply appearing from nothing in its final form, but that it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among our pre-human ancestors. These theories can be called continuity based theories. The opposite viewpoint is that language is such a unique human trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans and that it must therefore have appeared fairly suddenly in the transition from pre-hominids to early man. These theories can be defined as discontinuity based. Similarly some theories see language mostly as an innate faculty that is largely genetically encoded, while others see it as a system that is largely cultural, that is learned through social interaction. Currently the only prominent proponent of a discontinuity theory of human language is Noam Chomsky who however does not present any scenario for how human language appeared. Continuity based theories are currently held by a majority of scholars, but they vary in how they envision this development. Those who see language as being mostly innate, for example Steven Pinker, hold the precedents to be animal cognition, whereas those who see language as a socially learned tool of communication, such as Michael Tomasello see it as having developed from animal communication, either primate gestural or vocalic communication. Other continuity based models see language as having developed from music.
Because the emergence of language is located in the early prehistory of man, the relevant developments have left no direct historical traces and no comparable processes can be observed today. Theories that stress continuity often look at animals to see if, for example, primates display any traits that can be seen as analogous to what pre-human language must have been like. Alternatively early human fossils can be inspected to look for traces of physical adaptation to language use or for traces of pre-linguistic forms of symbolic behaviour.
It is mostly undisputed that pre-human australopithecines did not have communication systems significantly different from those found in great apes in general, but scholarly opinions vary as to the developments since the appearance of Homo some 2.5 million years ago. Some scholars assume the development of primitive language-like systems (proto-language) as early as Homo habilis, while others place the development of primitive symbolic communication only with Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) or Homo heidelbergensis (0.6 million years ago) and the development of language proper with Homo sapiens sapiens less than 100,000 years ago.
Linguistic analysis, used by Johanna Nichols, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, to estimate the time required to achieve the current spread and diversity in modern languages today, indicates that vocal language arose at least 100,000 years ago.
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 and then written, and then an understanding and explanation of their grammar is attempted.
Languages live, die, polymorph, 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. It is for these reasons that the biggest challenge for a speaker of a foreign language is to remain immersed in that language in order to keep up with the changes of that language.
Making a principled distinction between one language and another is sometimes nearly 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.
A sign language (also signed language) is a language which, instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses visually transmitted sign patterns (manual communication, body language) to convey meaning—simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker's thoughts. Hundreds of sign languages are in use around the world and are at the cores of local Deaf cultures.
An artificial language is a language the phonology, grammar, and/or vocabulary of which have been consciously devised or modified by an individual or group, instead of having evolved naturally. There are many possible reasons to construct a language: to ease human communication (see international auxiliary language and code); to bring fiction or an associated constructed world to life; for linguistic experimentation; for artistic creation; and for language games.
The expression "planned language" is sometimes used to mean international auxiliary languages and other languages designed for actual use in human communication. Some prefer it to the term "artificial" which may have pejorative connotations in some languages. Outside the Esperanto community, the term language planning means the prescriptions given to a natural language to standardize it; in this regard, even "natural languages" may be artificial in some respects. Prescriptive grammars, which date to ancient times for classical languages such as Latin, Sanskrit, and Chinese are rule-based codifications of natural languages, such codifications being a middle ground between naive natural selection and development of language and its explicit construction.
Mathematics, Logics 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.
A programming language is a formal language endowed with semantics that can be utilized 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 employed 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 applied to artificial languages that are more limited.[cn]
The term "animal languages" is often used for non-human systems of communication. Linguists and semioticians do not consider these to be true "language", but describe them as animal communication on the basis on non-symbolic sign systems, because the interaction between animals in such communication is fundamentally different in its underlying principles from human language. According to this approach, since animals aren't born with the ability to reason the term "culture", when applied to animal communities, is understood to refer to something qualitatively different than in human communities. Language, communication and culture are more complex amongst humans. A dog may successfully communicate an aggressive emotional state with a growl, which may or may not cause another dog to keep away or back off. Similarly, when a human screams in fear, it may or may not alert other humans of impending danger. Both of these examples communicate, but both are not what would generally be called language.
In several publicized instances, non-human animals have been taught to understand certain features of human language. Karl von Frisch received the Nobel Prize in for his proof of the sign communication and its variants of the bees. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have been taught hand signs based on American Sign Language. The African Grey Parrot, Alex, 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. Though animals can be taught to understand parts of human language, they are unable to develop a language.
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- World Atlas of Language Structures: a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages
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