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WHAT IS LANGUAGE

Session 2: What is language?


Try to imagine just for one moment a single aspect of your daily life that is not affected by how you or the people around you use language. While such areas do exist, basically any time we interact with each other it is extremely likely that language will be used to communicate, be it in spoken or written form. Language can be used to chat, complain, argue, promise, flirt and swear and from our earliest childhood onwards we use it on a daily basis for all of these activities and countless others. Not all communication is language for example, you can communicate that you are happy by smiling or that you disagree with something by shaking your head but whenever we want to communicate complex information we are bound to use words and sentences. Language is arguably a specialized and highly developed form of communication that is apparently unique to human beings. The question of what exactly language is and how it works has been relevant to mankind for thousands of years, yet compared to other areas of investigation quite a few things about language are still unknown or under fierce debate. Not only that, the term language can also mean a number of things, depending on the context it is used in. The very first distinction that we need to make when we talk about it is whether we mean

one concrete human language (such as English, German or Chinese) or the innate ability to learn and use language in general that all humans have.

Concrete languages have a history that allows us to explain the family relations between them and the origins of words for example, we can tell that the English word father and the German Vater have a common ancestry. We can track changes over hundreds and even thousands of years and get a fairly good idea of what English may have sounded like around 1,300 years ago. Youll learn everything about that in the Introduction to Medieval English Studies. But where does language as an ability come from and how does it work? The origin of our ability to use language lies in the brain, especially in those sections known as Brocas and Wernickes area.

Studies have shown that when these areas of the brain are damaged, an individual can lose her ability to form either coherent or meaningful sentences. Such a loss of language is referred to as aphasia (or, in cases of partial loss, dysphasia).

Language is a distinctly human trait. We cannot make any absolutely definite claims about the mental states of animals (whether or not they think in some sense of the word) but we can claim that only humans use language. That doesnt mean that animals dont communicate. When your cat meows, it can mean that it is hungry or wants to be cuddled. A bee can signal its hive about a food source and even communicate information such as distance and location (except for velocity). But as far as we know no animal can tell a joke, swear an oath or answer a question all perfectly common human activities that most of us engage in every day. In other words, while animals are quite capable ofcommunicating with each other and with us, they are not capable of learning or using language in the same that way we are. Language as an ability has specific properties that set it apart from sets of signs as bees, dolphins or other animals use them. The following design features of language are considered to be integral by most linguists: 1. Displacement. The ability to refer to things far removed in time and place. You can talk about what you did last summer or where youll live next year, but your cat can only communicate that it wants to fed right now. 2. Arbitrariness. Human language uses symbols. There is no inherent connection between the word dog and the animal that it stands for. Dog, Hund and chien all sound completely different, but refer to exactly the same creature an indicator that the symbols we use arearbitrary. Some words can be onomatopoetic like pop and cuckoo, but these are rare. 3. Productivity (also called openness or creativity). The ability to generate new utterances. We constantly make up new words and phrases, even though people are not always in agreement if and how they should be used. 4. Cultural transmission (also called tradition). Language is passed on from one generation to another. We all learn the language of our parents and of the people around us, regardless of our genetic origin. 5. Duality (also called double-articulation). Language has two layers a layer of sound and a layer of meaning. The sounds d, o and g have no meaning in isolation, but become meaningful when used in sequence (dog). Combining the same sounds in another sequence (e.g. g, o, d = god) would give you a different meaning, demonstrating that a limited repertoire of sounds makes a number of different meanings possible. Reference: Yule, George. The Study of Language (2006). This list is based on a longer one originally developed by Charles Hockett. What, then, is linguistics? While different academic schools of thought have slightly different definitions, most linguists would probably agree that linguistics can be described as the scientific inquiry into human language. This includes two aspects

how language works (structure) what we do with language (use)

It is important that by scientific inquiry we mean that our goal is to describe these things, not to tell people how to do them in the right way. Because linguistics is a science, it is descriptive it seeks to objectively describelanguage, not prescribe how it should be used. Telling people that slang is bad or that you shouldnt use foreign words is not what linguists do, because that would be like a physicist arguing that gravity is bad or a biologist claiming that chickens are evil. While general linguistics (Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft) tends to put a particularly strong emphasis on the innate ability that makes learning and understanding any language possible for us, English linguistics is concerned both with the specific description of English and with these underlying mechanics. Generally, when we say that someone is a linguist we mean that they are knowledgeable about those mechanics, not necessarily that they speak a dozen languages. Studying how languages change over time falls into the domain of diachroniclinguistics. For example, if you wanted to find out why the pronoun thou has been replaced by you in todays English, that would be a diachronic study. Conversely, if you wanted to study fuzzy grammar or the language of blogsthat would be a synchronic study you would be researching language at a specific point in time (today). The first of these two research questions (fuzzy grammar) is an example for examining language structure, while the second (teenage blogging) deals with language use. Those areas of linguistics dealing with solving concrete problems, such as writing dictionaries, improving language teaching or machine translation are applied, while those that are concerned purely with understanding the structure or use of language better for scientific curiositys sake are theoretical. Key Terms

language communication individual languages language as an innate ability language and the brain, Brocas and Wernickes areas design features of language: displacement, arbitrariness, productivity, cultural transmission, duality language structure language use linguistics o descriptive prescriptive o synchronic diachronic o applied theoretical

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Session 1: Thirteen questions about language

Remember the questions we talked about in class last week? Here are brief answers both to the questions that we discussed and to those that we didnt get to, based on your ideas and the linguistic viewpoint. Note that you arent expected to memorize the answers, but thinking about how the scientific approach often differs from the popular opinion will help you understand both language and linguistics a little better. 1. Q: The website languagemonitor.com claims that there are 995,112 words in the English language, but less than 100,000 in French. Do you think that this claim is realistic? A: Firstly, it is impossible to count the words in a language without first agreeing on what exactly a word is. Some languages have words that would equate to an entire sentence in English or German. Is something a word if we make a pause before and after it in speech? If it has an entry in the dictionary? You can easily make up new names for things (and this is done all the time in advertising), making it quite impossible to come up with a definite number of words for any language. While English has borrowed a lot of foreign terms throughout its history, speakers of French can certainly talk about the same things they might simply use a phrase instead of a single word to describe something, or come up with other communicative strategies. While its a fun idea, languagemonitor.coms numbers are essentially bogus. 2. Q: Would you describe the following lines from song lyrics as wrong or instances of bad English? I dunno why / I cant function (Blood Red Shoes, You Bring Me Down) Am I not always be wanting this? (Digitalism, I Want I Want) Hey boy / Why you didnt call me? (The Blow, Hey Boy) A: Again, it depends on how you define wrong and bad. The first sentence has a contraction (dont know -> dunno) that many people would consider non-standard, meaning that its not how we conventionally write in English. Note the word conventional here theres no higher power that makes dunno objectively wrong or incorrect. It is regarded as wrong only because people agree that one shouldnt use it and this is only true for written language. Native speakers use contractions all the time when they talk because it saves time (always remember: people are lazy!). In music, poetry and other forms of art language often doesnt adhere to the standard, both because it may not look or sound as good and because rebelling against conventions is what art is best at. (Just in case you are unsure about exactly whats wrong in the second and third example: Am I not always be wanting this makes unnecessary use of the auxiliary verb be and has an unusual occurrence of want in the progressive form. In example no. 3 the question is not inverted, i.e. it should be why didnt you call me instead of why you didnt call me.) 3. Q: There is a group on the social networking service StudiVZ called zank you for trevveling wiz deutsche bahn. good bye! What (if anything) is funny about the name? Do you think the correct spelling of the words is more logical? A: The spelling of the words mirrors their pronunciation by a German speaker

who doesnt speak English very well (which understandably holds true for many people at Deutsche Bahn). For example, zank makes us think of someone who cant pronounce a th. It is important to notice that we recognize this purely by the spelling, especially when you contrast it with the way words are correctly written in English (which is anything but logical see question 11). We constantly ascribe characteristics to people based on their dialect, accent and pronunciation and this is on top of things like vocabulary (think of how you perceive someone who uses a lot of Latin words in contrast to a person who ends every sentence with Alter). Many popular stereotypes relate to how people use language and we apply them virtually all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not. 4. Q: Linguist Ray Jackendoff makes a distinction between animal communication systems and language. Do you agree with him that only humans have language? A: Once more: it depends on your definition of language (notice a pattern?). Most linguists agree that there are certain properties of human language that set it apart from how animals communicate. For example, different human languages have different signs for the same thing (takeHund, dog and chien) whereas we can assume that cats dont meow differently in German, English and French. Furthermore, we assume that cats cant talk about future events (that party next weekend) or fictional characters (Santa Claus, Dumbledore, Jason Bourne). There also seem to be strict limits on how many signs they can combine (think about how long and complicated an English or German sentence can be) and how they learn new signs. And finally, cats dont need to learn how to meow, while an American child doesnt genetically inherit English from its parents it has to be exposed to the language in order to acquire it. 5. Q: Many people in this country and elsewhere think that importing words from other languages (especially English!) is bad and should be closely regulated by law, or even banned. Do you agree? A: Languages change all the time and have the nasty tendency not to stick to laws and regulations. Regulating what languages people are allowed to speak and how they should speak them has been a hot topic probably for as long as language itself has been around. Linguists look at language as it is, not as some people think it should be, therefore youll have a very hard time finding a serious linguist who is upset about the decline of the genitive in German or about Denglisch. 6. Q: I recently came across the suggestion that learning foreign languages is silly because eventually everyone will speak English anyway. Do you think that having just a single global language would be a good thing? A: Most people feel that language is an important part of a countrys culture (which is precisely why people get so upset about bad language, importing foreign words, swearing etc). While it certainly has advantages to have a lingua franca it does not mean that people are likely to give up their native

language. There is no objective answer to this question, but it is important to note that to most people the native tongue is an important part of their identity. 7. Q: A popular myth about the Inuit language family is that it has over 40 words for snow. This is not true. Most experts agree that there are reallyquite few words for snow in Inuit, but due to the structure of the language it is possible to form very long words (a bit likeBahntrassenhalterungstrgerschadenkontrolleursgattin in German). Where do you think does the idea come from that the Inuit have so many words for snow? A: When the idea that the Inuit have countless words for snow first arose, it was widely believe that language, perception and culture are extremely closely related, almost to the point of being identical. The line of thought was basically: the Inuits many words for snow demonstrate that they perceive that aspect of the world more keenly than we do. Today most linguists believe this to be false language and thought are assumed to be separate in the sense that while there are different words for describing the world, the mental concepts which exist between the words and the physical reality they describe are universal. In other words, the sounds, grammatical structure, or number of words in a language do not tell us anything about how its speakers think. At the same time it is certainly possible to find reflections of social or cultural aspects in a language its quite likely that the Inuit talk more about snow than we do. 8. Q: Some people argue that a double negative (as in I cant get nosatisfaction or I aint got no money) makes a positive, following the logic that if you dont not have something, you actually have it. What do you think about this claim? A: Languages dont follow rigorous mathematical logic but have a practical use: communication. When you want to express that something is not the case, you usually want to make sure the person you are talking to gets the difference (think about I love you vs. I dont love you or John is alive vs. John isnt alive). Multiple negation does exactly that and is perfect standard use in many languages (take something like the French Je nesait pas literally I no know not). In Black Vernacular English negative concord (I dont know nothing about nobody) is normal and Geoffrey Chaucer frequently used multiple negations in The Canterbury Tales at the time this simply wasnt considered wrong in English. 9. Q: A speaker of Warlpiri (spoken in northern Australia) once made the remark to a linguist that we dont really have grammar we just talk. What do you make of this description? A: Once more it depends of the definition of grammar. Linguists understand grammar as the mental set of rules that every native speaker has in his head and that allows him to form sentences that other speakers can understand. An example would be a sentence like eats popcorn Mike. In English, the order of words in that sentence is simply wrong, but inAustronesian languages such a sequence is perfectly correct (or, as a linguist would say, it

is grammatical). A native speaker knows this rule (what is the basic word order in my language) and countless others subconsciously and applies them every single time he opens his mouth. In the linguistic sense, every language has grammar and something is onlyungrammatical when it violates these rules. 10. Q: Groucho Marx famously said that time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana. What (if anything) is funny about this sentence? A: Linguists call this structural ambiguity. In Grouchos sentence its caused by the fact that the words flies and like both have several meanings and can take on different roles. In the first part of the sentencetime flies like an arrow (meaning minutes, hours and days go by as fast as an arrow can fly) whereas in the second part fruit flies like bananas(little buzzing insects prefer to snack on a yellow, curved fruit). The fact that we are likely to misread the sentence at first and think the wrong parts belong together makes it funny, because bananas flying in the same way that fruit does is simply not plausible. We are able to identify the correct meaning because only one of the alternatives makes sense. 11. Q: Have a look at these word pairs: right site, buy high, cough scoff, tired tickled. Whats odd about English spelling? A: The first three pairs all end with the same corresponding sound (say them aloud together to test it for yourself). But the spelling doesnt reflect this its different inside each pair. In the case of high there simply is no sound at all associated with the gh at the end of the word. The last pair has a similar discrepancy regarding the letter i. English i can sound essentially like the German ei (as in heiter) or i (as in Himmel), but this finds no reflection in English spelling. In fact ei in English (as in their) is yet again pronounced differently. The thing to keep in mind: English spelling says everything about a words history and very little about how to pronounce it. 12. Q: Jewish linguist Max Weinreich is often cited for his observation that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Can you imagine what he meant? A: What Weinreich meant was that linguistic differences are not the only factors that decide whether we consider something a language or a dialect. For example, Scots can be considered a dialect of English or an language in its own right, depending on your point of view. Often political considerations play a role and language has been (and is) used as a symbol of national identity in countries around the world. There are often bitter conflicts that revolve around language and identity, for example with languages such as Kurdish or Basque. 13. Q: In his paper, Ray Jackendoff mentions the recently discovered language gene FOXP2. He asks: are individuals afflicted with this mutation [a damaged FOXP2 gene] really language-impaired or do they just have trouble speaking? What do you think is the difference between being languageimpaired and having trouble speaking? A: The crucial difference is where exactly we locate the source of the problem.

Only if it affects the brain itself would the result be true language impairment. By contrast, if the mutation just hampers speech, this would mean that an affected person has the necessary mental capacity for language, but trouble with physically producing speech sounds. People who are unable to produce or hear speech sounds are still capable of using sign language, which is structurally remarkably similar to spoken language (it also has grammar).

ABSTRACT: Language is highly complex but can be defined in terms of a number of key properties. Eight such properties are considered: arbitrariness, duality, systematicity, structuredependence, productivity, displacement, specialisation, and cultural transmission.

Selected Key Properties


Because language is multifaceted and complex, many attempts to define it are simplified to the construction of lists of language characteristics. This approach is not without its difficulties, however. For example, how many characteristics are minimally sufficient to describe language? Two? Four? Twenty? Having said this, an outline of essential characteristics can still be helpful in gaining an overview of the so-called key properties of language. I will discuss just eight of these, as follows.

Arbitrariness
Essentially, language is a symbol system. In broad terms, the symbols of language are words. By constructing words and stringing them together according to a set of rules the grammar of the language we are able to construct meaningful utterances. The choice of symbols used by a language is, however, said to be arbitrary. This is because there is no direct relationship between a particular word and its meaning. For example, in English we use the word cup to represent a physical object capable of holding liquids, which usually has a handle, and which humans use to drink from. Of course, there is no particular reason why we should use the word-symbol cup. We could just as easily choose to use the word form zarg, orpinkt, or any other word form we might think of. The point is that words are just an arbitrary set of symbols used to represent various meanings. In summary, if we know the form of a word it is impossible to predict the meaning and if we know the meaning it is impossible to predict the form. Each particular language (English, French, Russian, Chinese, and so on) uses a different set of symbols. So, for example, the word-symbol for cup in French is tasse but in Portuguese it is copo. Arbitrariness is a useful property because it increases the flexibility of language. The flexibility arises because language is not constrained by the need to match the form of a word and its meaning. Because of this it is possible to construct an almost infinite number of words from a limited set of speech sounds. Having made the point that linguistic symbols are arbitrary, there are some English words that appear to be less arbitrary than others. These are onomatopoeic words: words that imitate the sound associated with an object or an action. For example, in the utterance the bees were buzzing the word buzzing sounds similar to the noise bees make. Other examples include hiss and rasp. The features of such words are often exploited in the writing of poetry.

Duality
Language appears to be organized at least at two levels: 1. the primary level consisting of the units 2. the secondary level consisting of the elements The elements of the secondary level combine to form the units of the primary level. For our purposes, we can consider the elements of verbal language to be speech sounds, i.e. consonants and vowels. These speech sounds then combine to form units at the primary level, i.e. words. Consider, for example, how the word cat is formed by the combination of three speech sounds: the consonant c, the vowel a and the consonant t. These speech sounds at the primary level are meaningless if they are uttered in isolation. For example, if I just say the sound c this has no meaning. Similarly, a and t spoken on their own are meaningless. It is only when these secondary level elements are combined in a systematic way that they have the possibility of conveying meaning. Consequently, cat is meaningful, whereas c, a, and t are not.

Systematicity
Language is an orderly method of communicating ideas, thoughts, emotions, and so on. If language were random then there would be no way of ensuring that the intended meaning was conveyed. Regularity and order (i.e. systematicity) are essential for language to work properly. We have already seen an example of this above when considering duality. We noted that the combination of the secondary level elements c, a, and t may combine to form the primary level unit cat. These three elements may also be recombined to form the word act. However, the combination a + t + c to form atc is meaningless (in English). What this demonstrates is that language is governed by rules that define which combinations of elements are acceptable and which are not. There are also rules that govern the combination of primary level units. So, for example, we realize that the utterance the first snows of winter is appropriate, whereas the combination snows winter first the of is not.

Structure-dependence
Language appears to have an underlying patterned structure and humans appear to intuitively recognize these patterns. Consider the following utterance:

We intuitively realize that this utterance patterns into coherent segments. This is demonstrated by the fact that we are able to easily remove one segment and replace it with another, e.g.

As well as recognizing that we can substitute one segment with another, further evidence that we intuitively recognize patterns in language is demonstrated by our ability to readily rearrange segments. Consider again our opening utterance:

This utterance could be rearranged as follows.

Of course, the patterned structure of language allows us to both rearrange and substitute segments simultaneously, e.g.

Productivity
Many animals respond to stimuli in their environment in predictable ways. For example, the stimulus of seeing a collection of shiny objects in front of a small grass covert will stimulate a female Bowerbird to mate with the male bird who prepared the display. The sight of the objects stimulates the female to perform a particular behavior, in this case pairing and mating. Similarly, the stimulus of cold weather and reduced daylight hours stimulates the ground squirrel to perform a certain behavior hibernation. These behaviors, and others like them, are said to be stimulus bound. In other words, if we know what the stimulus is then we can predict the subsequent behavior. The behavior is invariant and always follows a specific stimulus.

If language were stimulus bound we would expect that each time a human was presented with the same stimulus he or she would utter exactly the same words. Clearly this is not so. If three people were all shown the painting of the Mona Lisa there is no guarantee that each would utter the same words. A variety of responses are available to these people. There is no sure way of predicting what they may say: What a beautiful picture, That reminds me of my sister, Oh, Ive forgotten to put the kettle on! The salient point is that it is not possible to predict that a particular stimulus will cause a human to use one, and only one, particular language construction. In this sense, language is said to be stimulus free and this explains why humans are able to use language creatively. Language is, therefore, flexible. The fact that language is stimulus-free and that it is flexible leads to the notion of productivity, i.e. that language can be used to construct an infinite set of new and meaningful utterances. These utterances are novel in that they may never have been spoken before and yet they are meaningful and readily interpretable by other people.

Displacement
Language also allows us to think of, and communicate about, something or someone that is not immediately present. So, for example, we can refer to our new car even though it is not actually in front of us. Similarly, we can discuss last nights football game even though it has passed. This property of language is known as displacement.

Specialization
This key property refers to the fact that language allows us to substitute an arbitrary word for a physical action. An example might be a child who instructs their friend to Stay away! This utterance means that the child does not then have to act out his or her message: for example, by physically pushing the friend away. Similarly, the police officer who instructs a crowd to Move along! has used language to substitute for the physical action of driving the crowd forwards. In both instances the language has substituted for a physical action.

Cultural transmission
Language is the means by which humans are able to teach the upcoming generation all that they have learnt to date. If we did not have the ability to use language then it would be largely impossible to transmit our knowledge and experiences to the next generation of humans and each successive generation would have to start afresh. However, because we have language we are able to communicate necessary knowledge and social norms of behaviour to the upcoming generation. One of the most obvious examples of this is the formal teaching in our schools, the majority of which is undertaken using spoken language. The child who sits on a parents lap and listens to stories of family traditions and events is also learning through language. This property of language is referred to as cultural transmission. The language of a particular society, therefore, forms part of the culture of that society.

References
This article is based on definitions of key properties of language drawn from the following texts. Aitchison, J. (2007) The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics (5 rev edn) London: Routledge. Yule, G. (2005) The Study of Language (3 rev edn) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.