language, systematic communication by vocal symbols. It is a universal characteristic of the human species. Nothing is known of its origin, although scientists have identified a gene that clearly contributes to the human ability to use language. Scientists generally hold that it has been so long in use that the length of time writing is known to have existed (7,900 years at most) is short by comparison. Just as languages spoken now by peoples of the simplest cultures are as subtle and as intricate as those of the peoples of more complex civilizations, similarly the forms of languages known (or hypothetically reconstructed) from the earliest records show no trace of being more "primitive" than their modern forms.

Because language is a cultural system, individual languages may classify objects and ideas in completely different fashions. For example, the sex or age of the speaker may determine the use of certain grammatical forms or avoidance of taboo words. Many languages divide the color spectrum into completely different and unequal units of color. Terms of address may vary according to the age, sex, and status of speaker and hearer. Linguists also distinguish between registers, i.e., activities (such as a religious service or an athletic contest) with a characteristic vocabulary and level of diction.

Speech Communities

Every person belongs to a speech community, a group of people who speak the same language. Estimates of the number of speech communities range from 3,000 to 7,000 or more, with the number of speakers of a given language ranging from many millions of speakers down to a few dozen or even fewer. The following list probably includes (in approximate descending order) all languages spoken natively by groups of more than 100 million people: North Chinese vernacular (Mandarin), English, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi or Urdu, Portuguese, Bengali or Bangla, Russian, French, Japanese, German, and Malay or Bahasa Indonesia. Roughly 120 languages have at least a million speakers, and some 60% of the world's languages have 10,000 or fewer speakers.

Many persons speak more than one language; English is the most common auxiliary language in the world. When people learn a second language very well, they are said to be bilingual. They may abandon their native language entirely, because they have moved from the place where it is spoken or because of politico-economic and cultural pressure (as among Native Americans and speakers of the Celtic languages in Europe). Such factors may lead to the disappearance of languages. In the last several centuries, many languages have become extinct, especially in the Americas; more than 300 were near extinction at the end of the 20th cent.

The Basis of Language

The language first learned is called one's native language or mother tongue; both of these terms are figurative in that the knowledge of particular languages is not inherited but learned behavior. Nonetheless, since the mid-20th cent. linguists have shown increasing interest in the theory that, while no one is born with a predisposition toward any particular language, all human beings are genetically endowed with the ability to learn and use language in general.

According to transformational (or generative) grammar, introduced by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s, the idiosyncratic vocabulary and grammatical conventions of any natural language rest on a foundation of "deep structures," a universal grammar underlying all languages and corresponding to an innate capacity of the human brain. This theory implies not only that there are constraints on what may constitute an intelligible human language, but also that, however numerous or striking, the differences between any two languages are less fundamental than their similarities.

Comparative Linguistics

Interest in transformational grammar has led in turn to increased interest in comparative linguistics. The differences between languages are not uniform. When languages resemble each other in a systematic way, they are said to be genetically related. Such relationships have been established in many cases, but almost always on the basis of the sounds of the languages and the way the sounds are grouped in systematic patterns. It is more difficult to compare the grammatical structures of languages. Maximal groups of related languages are called families, or stocks. A language that does not appear genetically related to any existing language is termed a language isolate.

Languages of the Indo-European and Afroasiatic families have traditionally received vastly more scholarly attention than the others. These languages actually represent a very small part of the world linguistic spectrum. As a consequence, most generalized statements about language, grammar, and related matters made before 1920 are not valid. Few authorities agree on all points of language classification and analysis, and knowledge of the languages of some isolated regions (e.g., Australia, New Guinea, and E Siberia) is still too scanty to permit proper classification.

Variations in Language

Individuals differ in the manner in which they speak their native tongue, although usually not markedly within a small area. The differences among groups of speakers in the same speech community can, however, be considerable. These variations of a language constitute its dialects. All languages are continuously changing, but if there is a common direction of change it has never been convincingly described. Various factors, especially the use of written language, have led to the development of a standard language in most of the major speech communities—a special official dialect of a language that is theoretically maintained unchanged.

This official dialect is the school form of a language, and by a familiar fallacy has been considered the norm from which everyday language deviates. Rather, the standard language is actually a development of some local dialect that has been accorded prestige. The standard English of England is derived from London English and the standard Italian is that of Tuscany. Use of the standard language is often a mark of polite behavior. In the United States employing standard English, which largely entails the usage of approved grammar and pronunciation, marks a person as cultivated. Ordinary speech may be affected by the standard language. Thus, many forms of expression come to be considered ungrammatical and substandard and are regarded as badges of ignorance, such as you was in place of the standard you were.

As in other fields of etiquette, there is variation. Gotten is acceptable in the United States but not in England. The literary standard may differ from the colloquial standard of educated people, and the jargon of a trade may be unintelligible to outsiders. Such linguistic variations in English are mainly a matter of vocabulary. An auxiliary language is a nonnative language adopted for specific use; such languages include lingua franca, pidgin, and international language.

Related Articles

For general descriptive information see articles on individual languages, e.g., French language. See also creole language; dialect; dictionary; etymology; grammar; inflection; linguistics; part of speech; phonetics; phonology; semantics; sign language; slang.


See L. Bloomfield, Language (1933); E. Sapir, Language (1921, repr. 1949); S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (5th ed. 1990); H. Giles and N. Coupland, Language: Contexts and Consequences (1991); T. W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species (1997); N. M. and R. Dauenhauer, Endangered Languages (1998); S. Pinker, Words and Rules (1999).

A language is a dynamic set of visual, auditory, or tactile symbols of communication and the elements used to manipulate them. Language can also refer to the use of such systems as a general phenomenon. Language is considered to be an exclusively human mode of communication; although other animals make use of quite sophisticated communicative systems, none of these are known to make use of all of the properties that linguists use to define language.

In Western Philosophy, language has long been closely associated with reason, which is also a uniquely human way of using symbols. In Ancient Greek philosophical terminology, the same word, logos, was used as a term for both language or speech and reason, and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes used the English word "speech" so that it similarly could refer to reason, as will be discussed below. More commonly though, the English word "language", derived ultimately from lingua, Latin for tongue, typically refers only to expressions of reason which can be understood by other people, most obviously by speaking.

Properties of language

A set of commonly accepted symbols is only one feature of language; all languages must define the structural relationships between these symbols in a system of grammar. Rules of grammar are what distinguish language from other forms of communication. They allow a finite set of symbols to be manipulated to create a potentially infinite number of grammatical utterances.

Another property of language is that its symbols are arbitrary. Any concept or grammatical rule can be mapped onto a symbol. Most languages make use of sound, but the combinations of sounds used do not have any inherent meaning – they are merely an agreed-upon convention to represent a certain thing by users of that language. For instance, there is nothing about the Spanish word nada itself that forces Spanish speakers to convey the idea of "nothing". Another set of sounds (for example, the English word nothing) could equally be used to represent the same concept, but all Spanish speakers have acquired or learned to correlate this meaning for this particular sound pattern. For Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian speakers on the other hand, nada means something else; it means "hope".

This arbitrariness does not, however, apply to words with an onomatopoetic dimension (i.e. words that to some extent simulate the sound of the token referred to). For example, the bird cuckoo's name was indeed not given arbitrarily.

Origins of language

Even before the Theory of Evolution made discussion of more animal-like human ancestors common place, philosophical and scientific speculation concerning the origins of language, implying that human ancestors once had no language, have been frequent throughout history. In modern Western Philosophy, speculation by authors such as Thomas Hobbes, and later Jean Jacques Rousseau lead to the Académie Francaise even declaring the subject off bounds.

The subject is of such interest to philosophy because language is such an essential characteristic of humans. In Classical Greek Philosophy such questions were connected to the subject of the Natures of things, in this case "Human Nature". Therefore already in Aristotle we see language being mentioned in discussions of natural propensities of humans to be political and to dwell in city state types of communities, pair-bonding, poetical and so on.

Hobbes followed by John Locke and others claimed that language is an extension of the "speech" which humans have with themselves, which in a sense takes the classical view that reason is one of the most primary characteristics in humans. Others have argued the opposite - that reason developed out of the need for more complex communication. Rousseau, despite writing before the publication of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, shockingly claimed that there had once been humans who had no language or reason and who developed language first, rather than reason.

Since Darwin the subject has come to be treated more often than not by scientists rather than philosophers. For example neurologist Terrence Deacon, has argued that reason and language "co-evolved". Merlin Donald sees language as a later development building up what he refers to as mimetic culture, emphasizing that this co-evolution depended upon the interactions of many individuals. He writes that:

A shared communicative culture, with sharing of mental representations to some degree, must have come first, before language, creating a social environment in which language would have been useful and adaptive.

The specific causes of the natural selection that led to language are however still the subject of much speculation, but a common theme which goes right back to Aristotle is that many theories propose that the gains to be had from language and/or reason were probably mainly in the area of increasingly sophisticated social structures.

The study of language


Linguistics is the scientific study of language, encompassing a number of sub-fields. At the core of theoretical linguistics are the study of language structure (grammar) and the study of meaning (semantics). The first of these encompasses morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the rules that determine how words combine into phrases and sentences) and phonology (the study of sound systems and abstract sound units). Phonetics is a related branch of linguistics concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds (phones), non-speech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived.

Theoretical linguistics is mostly concerned with developing models of linguistic knowledge. The fields that are generally considered as the core of theoretical linguistics are syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics. Applied linguistics attempts to put linguistic theories into practice through areas like translation, stylistics, literary criticism and theory, discourse analysis, speech therapy, speech pathology and foreign language teaching.


The historical record of linguistics begins in India with Pāṇini, the 5th century BCE grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, known as the (अष्टाध्यायी) and with Tolkāppiyar, the 3rd century BCE grammarian of the Tamil work Tolkāppiyam. Pāṇini’s grammar is highly systematized and technical. Inherent in its analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root; Western linguists only recognized the phoneme some two millennia later. Tolkāppiyar's work is perhaps the first to describe articulatory phonetics for a language. Its classification of the alphabet into consonants and vowels, and elements like nouns, verbs, vowels, and consonants, which he put into classes, were also breakthroughs at the time. In the Middle East, the Persian linguist Sibawayh (سیبویه) made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760 CE in his monumental work, Al-kitab fi al-nahw (الكتاب في النحو, The Book on Grammar), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book, he distinguished phonetics from phonology.

Later in the West, the success of science, mathematics, and other formal systems in the 20th century led many to attempt a formalization of the study of language as a "semantic code". This resulted in the academic discipline of linguistics, the founding of which is attributed to Ferdinand de Saussure. In the 20th century, substantial contributions to the understanding of language came from Ferdinand de Saussure, Hjelmslev, Émile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson, which are characterized as being highly systematic.

Human languages

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, then written, and then an understanding and explanation of their grammar is attempted.

Languages live, die, 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.

Making a principled distinction between one language and another is usually 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.

Artificial languages

Constructed languages

Some individuals and groups have constructed their own artificial languages, for practical, experimental, personal, or ideological reasons. International auxiliary languages are generally constructed languages that strive to be easier to learn than natural languages; other constructed languages strive to be more logical ("loglangs") than natural languages; a prominent example of this is Lojban.

Some writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, have created fantasy languages, for literary, artistic or personal reasons. The fantasy language of the Klingon race has in recent years been developed by fans of the Star Trek series, including a vocabulary and grammar.

Constructed languages are not necessarily restricted to the properties shared by natural languages.

This part of ISO 639 also includes identifiers that denote constructed (or artificial) languages. In order to qualify for inclusion the language must have a literature and it must be designed for the purpose of human communication. Specifically excluded are reconstructed languages and computer programming languages.

International auxiliary languages

Some languages, most constructed, are meant specifically for communication between people of different nationalities or language groups as an easy-to-learn second language. Several of these languages have been constructed by individuals or groups. Natural, pre-existing languages may also be used in this way - their developers merely catalogued and standardized their vocabulary and identified their grammatical rules. These languages are called naturalistic. One such language, Latino Sine Flexione, is a simplified form of Latin. Two others, Occidental and Novial, were drawn from several Western languages.

To date, the most successful auxiliary language is Esperanto, invented by Polish ophthalmologist Zamenhof. It has a relatively large community roughly estimated at about 2 million speakers worldwide, with a large body of literature, songs, and is the only known constructed language to have native speakers, such as the Hungarian-born American businessman George Soros. Other auxiliary languages with a relatively large number of speakers and literature are Interlingua and Ido.

Controlled languages

Controlled natural languages are subsets of natural languages whose grammars and dictionaries have been restricted in order to reduce or eliminate both ambiguity and complexity. The purpose behind the development and implementation of a controlled natural language typically is to aid non-native speakers of a natural language in understanding it, or to ease computer processing of a natural language. An example of a widely used controlled natural language is Simplified English, which was originally developed for aerospace industry maintenance manuals.

Formal languages

Mathematics 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.

Programming languages

A programming language is an extreme case of a formal language that can be used 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 used 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 used for artificial languages that are more limited.

Animal communication

The term "animal languages" is often used for non-human languages. Linguists do not consider these to be "language", but describe them as animal communication, because the interaction between animals in such communication is fundamentally different in its underlying principles from human language. Nevertheless, some scholars have tried to disprove this mainstream premise through experiments on training chimpanzees to talk. Karl von Frisch received the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his proof of the language and dialects of the bees.

In several publicized instances, non-human animals have been taught to understand certain features of human language. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have been taught hand signs based on American Sign Language. The African Grey Parrot, 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. Most species of parrot, despite expert mimicry, are believed to have no linguistic comprehension at all.

While proponents of animal communication systems have debated levels of semantics, these systems have not been found to have anything approaching human language syntax.

See also




  • Chakrabarti, Byomkes (1994). A comparative study of Santali and Bengali. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi & Co. ISBN 8170741289
  • Crystal, David (1997). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Crystal, David (2001). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Gode, Alexander (1951). Interlingua-English Dictionary. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company.
  • Holquist, Michael. (1981) Introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin and London: University of Texas Press. xv-xxxiv
  • Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM. Principles of Neural Science, fourth edition, 1173 pages. McGraw-Hill, New York (2000). ISBN 0-8385-7701-6
  • Katzner, K. (1999). The Languages of the World. New York, Routledge.
  • McArthur, T. (1996). The Concise Companion to the English Language. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Further reading

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