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).

or voice recognition

Ability of computer systems to accept speech input and act on it or transcribe it into written language. Current research efforts are directed toward applications of automatic speech recognition (ASR), where the goal is to transform the content of speech into knowledge that forms the basis for linguistic or cognitive tasks, such as translation into another language. Practical applications include database-query systems, information retrieval systems, and speaker identification and verification systems, as in telebanking. Speech recognition has promising applications in robotics, particularly development of robots that can “hear.” Seealso pattern recognition.

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Human communication through audible language. Speech sounds are made with air exhaled from the lungs, which passes between the vocal cords in the larynx and out through the vocal tract (pharynx and oral and nasal cavities). This airstream is shaped into different sounds by the articulators, mainly the tongue, palate, and lips (see articulation). Articulatory phonetics describes each sound in terms of the position and action of the articulators used to make it. Speech is also described in terms of syntax, lexicon (inventory of words or morphemes), and phonology (sounds).

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Form of expression used to convey meaning or heighten effect, often by comparing or identifying one thing with another that has a meaning or connotation familiar to the reader or listener. An integral part of language, figures of speech are found in oral literatures as well as in polished poetry and prose and in everyday speech. Common figures of speech include simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, irony, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and puns.

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The alphabet and the numbers 0–10 in Amer. Sign Language.

Any means of communication through bodily movements, especially of the hands and arms, rather than through speech. It has long been used by speakers of mutually unintelligible languages—for example, various Plains Indian tribes in 19th-century North America communicated via a sign language—and is widely used for communication by the deaf. Charles-Michel, abbé de l'Épée (1712–89), developed the first sign language for the deaf in the mid-18th century; his system developed into French Sign Language (FSL), still used in France. Transported to the U.S. in 1816 by Thomas Gallaudet (1787–1851), it evolved into American Sign Language (ASL, or Ameslan), now used by more than half a million people. These and other national sign languages generally express concepts rather than elements of words and thus have more in common with each other than with their countries' spoken languages.

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Language in which a computer programmer writes instructions for a computer to execute. Some languages, such as COBOL, FORTRAN, Pascal, and C, are known as procedural languages because they use a sequence of commands to specify how the machine is to solve a problem. Others, such as LISP, are functional, in that programming is done by invoking procedures (sections of code executed within a program). Languages that support object-oriented programming take the data to be manipulated as their point of departure. Programming languages can also be classified as high-level or low-level. Low-level languages address the computer in a way that it can understand directly, but they are very far from human language. High-level languages deal in concepts that humans devise and can understand, but they must be translated by means of a compiler into language the computer understands.

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Philosophical study of the nature and use of natural languages and the relations between language, language users, and the world. It encompasses the philosophical study of linguistic meaning (see semantics), the philosophical study of language use in communication (see pragmatics), and philosophical reflection on the nature and scientific status of linguistic theories, known as the philosophy of linguistics. Major areas of investigation have included the theory of reference and the theory of truth. It was the dominant field in analytic philosophy for most the 20th century.

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System of conventional spoken or written symbols used by people in a shared culture to communicate with each other. A language both reflects and affects a culture's way of thinking, and changes in a culture influence the development of its language. Related languages become more differentiated when their speakers are isolated from each other. When speech communities come into contact (e.g., through trade or conquest), their languages influence each other. Most existing languages are grouped with other languages descended “genetically” from a common ancestral language (see historical linguistics). The broadest grouping of languages is the language family. For example, all the Romance languages are derived from Latin, which in turn belongs to the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family, descended from the ancient parent language, Proto-Indo-European. Other major families include, in Asia, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, Dravidian, Altaic, and Austroasiatic; in Africa, Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic, and Nilo-Saharan; and in the Americas, Uto-Aztecan, Maya, Otomanguean, and Tupian. Relationships between languages are traced by comparing grammar and syntax and especially by looking for cognates (related words) in different languages. Language has a complex structure that can be analyzed and systematically presented (see linguistics). All languages begin as speech, and many go on to develop writing systems. All can employ different sentence structures to convey mood. They use their resources differently for this but seem to be equally flexible structurally. The principal resources are word order, word form, syntactic structure, and, in speech, intonation. Different languages keep indicators of number, person, gender, tense, mood, and other categories separate from the root word or attach them to it. The innate human capacity to learn language fades with age, and languages learned after about age 10 are usually not spoken as well as those learned earlier. Seealso dialect.

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Language of Ashkenazic Jews and their descendants (see Ashkenazi), written in the Hebrew alphabet. Yiddish developed from southeastern dialects of Middle High German carried into central and eastern Europe beginning in the 12th century; it has been strongly influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic, from which it draws 12–20percnt of its lexicon. The isolation of eastern European speakers from High German and their exposure to Slavic languages, particularly Polish and Ukrainian, led to a primary distinction between West and East Yiddish dialects. From the late 18th century most Jews remaining in central Europe gave up Yiddish in favour of German; it has now virtually died out. East Yiddish dialects differ markedly in realization of vowels; there are central, northeastern, and southeastern dialects. A flourishing literary language in the 19th and early 20th century, Yiddish declined dramatically due to suppression, massive migration, assimilation, and Nazi genocide. The language nevertheless continues to flourish among the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim in numerous countries and among secular students of Yiddish at leading universities, including Columbia University (New York), Hebrew University (Jerusalem), McGill University (Montreal), the University of Oxford, and the University of Paris. Yiddish is spoken by three million people worldwide.

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Celtic language of Wales. Besieged for centuries by the English language, Welsh continues to be spoken by 18–20percnt of the population of Wales, or more than half a million people, though estimates of the actual number of first-language speakers vary widely. Welsh is traditionally divided into three periods: Old Welsh (circa 800–1150), attested mainly in glosses and short textual passages; Middle Welsh (circa 1150–1500), with a rich medieval literature including poetic texts originally composed much earlier; and Modern Welsh (from circa 1500). Modern literary Welsh was largely fixed by William Salesbury's Bible translation. Vernacular Welsh, split along dialectal lines, has long been diverging from literary Welsh; many modern speakers cannot write or easily understand the traditional written language. The issue of an acceptable modern standard remains unresolved.

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formerly Ruthenian language

Slavic language spoken by about 41 million people in Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Russia, and in enclaves around the world. Only about three-quarters of Ukrainians are first-language speakers of Ukrainian, but there are millions of first-language speakers in Russia, Belarus, and the Central Asian republics. Ukraine's premodern literary language was Church Slavonic (see Old Church Slavonic language). Ukrainian was one component in the chancery language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which also mixed Church Slavonic, Belarusian, and Polish. With the fall of the Zaporizhzhya Cossacks in the 18th century, Ukrainian speakers were stateless and the status of the language, thought of as peasant speech by the nobility, was low. The language and orthography (using a form of the Cyrillic alphabet) were gradually standardized in the 19th century.

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Turkic language of Turkey, spoken by about 90percnt of its population. Turkish has about 59 million speakers, with many enclaves in the Balkans and Cyprus (dating from Ottoman times) and in western Europe. Turkish was introduced into Anatolia with the invasion of Turkmen tribes in the 13th–14th centuries. Anatolian Turkish, written in the Arabic alphabet, is first attested in the 13th century. Ottoman Turkish was so heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic that it lost some of its Turkic characteristics and was incomprehensible to lower social strata. Efforts to re-Turkicize the language began in the 18th century but did not make serious gains until the 20th century and the founding of the Turkish republic. Much Perso-Arabic vocabulary was removed, and the Latin alphabet was adopted with the addition of diacritics to symbolize sounds peculiar to Turkish.

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Sino-Tibetan language spoken by more than five million people in Tibet (Xizang), Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu provinces in China; Bhutan; northern Nepal; and the Kashmir region of India and Pakistan. Since 1960, enclaves of Tibetan speakers have dispersed to India and other parts of the world. Spoken Tibetan comprises a very diverse range of dialects, conventionally divided into several groups: Western, including Balti and Ladakhi in Jammu and Kashmir; Central, including the speech of Lhasa and most of the Nepalese dialects (including Sherpa); Southern, including the dialects of Sikkim and Bhutan; Khams, or Southeastern, including the dialects of the interior plateau, southern Qinghai, eastern Tibet, and parts of western Sichuan; and Amdo or Northeastern, including the dialects of northern Qinghai, southern Gansu, and northern Sichuan. Most Tibetans share a common literary language, written in a distinctive script of disputed origin first attested in the 8th century AD.

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Austronesian language of the Philippines, spoken as a first language by about 17 million people on the island of Luzon and by at least half a million immigrant Filipinos. As the language of Manila, the capital and chief city of the Philippines, Tagalog has long had an importance outside its own speech area. With vocabulary enrichment from other Philippine languages, it has been made the basis of Pilipino, the national language; widely used in education and the media, Pilipino is now understood by more than 60percnt of the Philippine population. Though a script ultimately of South Asian origin was in use for Tagalog in the 16th century (see Indic writing systems), all recent literature in the language has utilized adaptations of the Latin alphabet.

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National language of Sweden and one of two national languages of Finland, spoken by about nine million people. It belongs to the East Scandinavian group of the Germanic languages and is closely related to Norwegian and Danish. Its history from the Common Scandinavian period (600–1050) until circa 1225 is known chiefly from inscriptions in runic writing. Modern Swedish is usually dated from 1526, when a translation of the New Testament was first printed. The standard language began to emerge in the 17th century, based largely on the Svea dialects spoken in Stockholm. Swedish, like Norwegian, has two tonal word accents.

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Bantu language spoken in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Congo (Kinshasa). It is spoken as a first language by more than 2 million people and as a second language by some 60 million. Standard Swahili is based on the Unguja (kiUnguja) dialect of Zanzibar, which was spread far inland in the 19th century by entrepreneurs seeking ivory and slaves. Its use was perpetuated by the European colonial governments that occupied East Africa toward the end of the century. Modern Swahili is usually written in the Latin alphabet, though Swahili literature in Arabic script dates to the early 18th century. Among Bantu languages, Swahili is remarkable for the number of loanwords it has absorbed, especially from Arabic.

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Romance language spoken in Spain and in large parts of the New World. It has more than 358 million speakers, including more than 85 million in Mexico, more than 40 million in Colombia, more than 35 million in Argentina, and more than 31 million in the U.S. Its earliest written materials date from the 10th century, its first literary works from circa 1150. The Castilian dialect, the source of modern standard Spanish, arose in the 9th century in north-central Spain (Old Castile) and had spread to central Spain (New Castile) by the 11th century. In the late 15th century the kingdoms of Castile, León, and Aragon merged, and Castilian became the official language of all of Spain, with Catalan and Galician (effectively a dialect of Portuguese) becoming regional languages and Aragonese and Leonese reduced to a fraction of their original speech areas. Latin American regional dialects are derived from Castilian but differ from it in phonology.

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West Slavic language of Slovakia, spoken by about 5.6 million people there and in enclaves in the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Serbia, and North America. Slovak was virtually an unwritten language until the late 18th century, largely because of the long political domination of Slovakia by Hungary and the much earlier literary cultivation of Czech, Slovak's western linguistic neighbour. Present-day literary Slovak was effectively consolidated by the 1850s on the basis of Central Slovak dialects.

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East Slavic language spoken by about 170 million people in Russia, former republics of the Soviet Union, and émigré communities. For many non-Russian ethnic groups both within and outside contemporary Russia, it is a common second language and lingua franca. Since the Middle Ages, Russian has gradually expanded its speech area from its historical locus in the upper Volga and Dnieper River drainages northward and eastward. Russian speakers penetrated Siberia in the 16th century and reached the Pacific in the 17th century. Russian became a full-fledged literary language in the 18th century, when it finally displaced Church Slavonic (see Old Church Slavonic language). Dialect differences in Russian are not great, considering the enormous territory over which it is spoken, and the upheavals of the 20th century eroded such distinctions as exist.

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Indo-Aryan language of the Roma (see Rom), spoken in many countries of the world, with its greatest concentration of speakers in eastern Europe. Romany is believed to have separated from the northern Indian languages circa AD 1000. Its dialects, which include many loanwords from languages where the Roma have lived, are classified according to the languages that influenced them: Greek, Romanian, Hungarian, Czecho-Slovak, German, Polish, Russian, Finnish, Scandinavian, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Welsh, and Spanish. Romany has no tradition of writing but a rich oral tradition. In the 20th century some collections of Romany poems and folktales were published in eastern Europe.

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Romance language spoken mainly in Romania and Moldova. The name Romanian is usually identified with Daco-Romanian, one of the four major dialects of Balkan Romance. Other dialects are Aromanian (Macedo-Romanian), spoken in scattered communities in Greece, Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria; the nearly extinct Megleno-Romanian, spoken in northern Greece; and Istro-Romanian, spoken on Croatia's Istrian Peninsula. The earliest known continuous text in Romanian dates from 1521. Romanian's phonology, grammar, and vocabulary reflect its relative isolation from other Romance languages and its close contact with the Slavic languages. Written in the Cyrillic alphabet until the 19th century, Romanian now uses the Latin alphabet.

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Romance language spoken by about 170 million people in Portugal, Brazil, and other former Portuguese colonies. The first literary works in Portuguese date from the 13th–14th century. Standard Portuguese is based on the dialect of Lisbon. Dialectal variation in Portugal is limited, but the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese are more extensive, including changes in phonology, verb conjugation, and syntax. The four major dialect groups are Northern (Galician, spoken in northwestern Spain), Central, Southern (including the Lisbon dialect), and Insular (including Brazilian and Madeiran) Portuguese.

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West Slavic language of Poland, spoken by more than 41 million people, including 2–3 million in North America and perhaps 1.5 million in the former Soviet Union. The earliest continuous text in Polish dates from the 14th century. The standard language, formulated in the 16th century, combines features of western and southeastern dialects. Polish is written in the Latin alphabet and utilizes both digraphs (combinations of letters) and diacritics to distinguish its fairly elaborate repertory of consonants. Stress is fixed on the next-to-last syllable.

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or Farsi language

Iranian language spoken by more than 25 million people in Iran as a first language, and by millions more as a second. Modern Persian is a koine developed from southwestern dialects in the 7th–9th centuries, after the introduction of Islam brought a massive infusion of loanwords from Arabic. Its standardization and literary cultivation took place in northeastern Persia and Central Asia in the 11th–12th centuries. Polities outside Persia itself (e.g., Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey) have at times been major literary centres. Its status in those countries led to a very strong Persian influence on Urdu and Ottoman Turkish. Other Turkic and Indo-Aryan languages, Caucasian languages, and Iranian languages have also borrowed heavily from Persian. It is written in a slightly modified form of the Arabic alphabet.

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North Germanic language of the West Scandinavian branch, spoken by some five million people in Norway and the U.S. Old Norwegian became a separate language by the end of the 12th century. Middle Norwegian became the tongue of most native speakers about the 15th century. Modern Norwegian has two rival forms. Dano-Norwegian (Bokmål, or Riksmål), the more popular, stems from written Danish used during the union of Denmark and Norway (1380–1814; see Kalmar Union). It is used in national newspapers and most literary works. New Norwegian (Nynorsk), based on western rural dialects, was created by Ivar Aasen (1813–96) in the mid-19th century to carry on the tradition of Old Norse. Both languages are used in government and education. Plans to unite them gradually in a common language, Samnorsk, were officially abandoned in 2002.

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Austronesian language with some 33 million first-language speakers in the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo, and other parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. Because Malay was spoken on both sides of the Strait of Malacca, a crucial trade route between India and China, Malay-speaking groups were drawn into international commerce centuries before European penetration of the region, and Malay became a lingua franca in Indonesian ports, giving rise to a range of pidgins and creoles known as Bazaar Malay (Melayu Pasar). In 20th-century Indonesia, a standardized form of Malay was adopted as the national language, Indonesian; written in Latin letters, it is now spoken or understood by about 70percnt of the population. Similar standardizations of Malay comprise the national languages of Malaysia and Brunei. The oldest known Malay texts are 7th-century inscriptions from southern Sumatra in an Indic script (see Indic writing system); a continuous Malay literary tradition did not begin until the Islamization of the Malay Peninsula in the 14th century.

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Indo-European language of the Italic group; ancestor of the modern Romance languages. Originally spoken by small groups of people living along the lower Tiber River, Latin spread with the growth of Roman political power, first throughout Italy and then through most of western and southern Europe and the central and western Mediterranean coastal regions of Africa. The earliest known Latin inscriptions date from the 7th century BC; Latin literature dates from the 3rd century BC. A gap soon appeared between literary (classical) Latin and the popular spoken language, Vulgar Latin. The Romance languages developed from dialects of the latter. During the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, Latin was the language most widely employed in the West for scholarly and literary purposes. Until the latter part of the 20th century, its use was required in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church.

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Romance language spoken in Italy (including Sicily and Sardinia) and in parts of Switzerland and France (including Corsica). Its 66 million speakers worldwide include many immigrants and their descendants in the Americas. Written Italian dates from the 10th century. The standard literary form is based on the dialect of Florence, but many Italians do not speak it, instead using regional dialects. These include Upper Italian (Gallo-Italian); Venetian in northeastern Italy; Tuscan; the dialects of Marche, Umbria, and Rome; of Abruzzi, Puglia, Naples, Campania, and Lucania; and of Calabria, Otranto, and Sicily. Seealso Italic languages.

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or Gaelic language

Celtic language of Ireland, written in the Latin alphabet introduced with Christianity in the 5th century. Irish is conventionally divided into three periods: Old Irish (600–circa 950), Middle Irish (circa 950–1200), and Modern Irish (from circa 1200). Ogham writing predates Old Irish. Old and Middle Irish are the vehicles of a rich literature of prose tales and verse. Classical Modern Irish was the exclusive literary medium in Ireland and Scottish Gaeldom into modern times (see Scottish Gaelic language). Literacy in Irish declined under English rule; by 1800 it was all but an unwritten language. The deaths and emigration resulting from the Irish Potato Famine and a massive shift to English afterward drastically reduced the number of Irish-speakers. Irish was revived as a literary language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and with Irish independence (1921) it was made official. Though it is a true community language only for a small number of people on Ireland's western coast in what are called Gaeltachts, hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens and people of Irish descent have some competence in Irish.

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National language of Iceland, one of the Germanic languages. It developed from the Norse speech brought to Iceland by settlers from western Norway in the 9th–10th centuries. Old Icelandic (see Old Norse) is the language of the sagas and other medieval poems. In grammar, vocabulary, and spelling, modern Icelandic is the most conservative of the Scandinavian languages; modern Icelanders can still read Old Norse sagas. Icelandic once borrowed words from Danish, Latin, and the Celtic and Romance languages, but a purist movement that began in the early 19th century has replaced most of these loanwords with words formed only from Icelandic elements.

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Finno-Ugric language of Hungary, with substantial minority populations in Slovakia, Transylvania in Romania, and northern Serbia. Hungarian has about 14.5 million speakers worldwide—more than any other Uralic language—including 400,000–500,000 in North America. The earliest known text in Hungarian dates from the late 12th century; a continuous literary tradition begins in the 15th century. Contact with Turkic, Iranian, and Slavic languages, and, more recently, High German dialects and Latin, has given Hungarian many loanwords.

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Semitic language that is both a sacred language of Judaism and a modern vernacular in Israel. Like Aramaic, to which it is closely related, Hebrew has a documented history of nearly 3,000 years. The earliest fully attested stage of the language is Biblical Hebrew: the earlier parts (“Standard Biblical Hebrew”) date before 500 BC and include even older poetic passages; the later parts (“Late Biblical Hebrew”) were composed circa 500–200 BC. Post-Biblical Hebrew, variously termed Rabbinic or Mishnaic Hebrew (see Mishna), is characterized by an early period when Hebrew was still probably to some degree a vernacular and a later period, after circa AD 200, when Aramaic became the everyday speech of Jews in the Middle East. The 6th and 7th centuries marked a transition to Medieval Hebrew. The resurrection of Hebrew as a vernacular is closely linked with the 18th-century Haskala movement and 20th-century Zionism. Contemporary Israeli Hebrew is spoken by about five million people in Israel and abroad. Seealso Ashkenazi; Sephardi; Hebrew alphabet.

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Afro-Asiatic language of northern Nigeria and southern Niger. Hausa, which is spoken by some 40–50 million people, belongs to the Chadic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language phylum. Outside of Hausaland, communities of Hausa merchants have stimulated the use of Hausa as a lingua franca across a broad area of the African Sahel and savanna region. Hausa is now customarily written in the Latin alphabet (introduced in the early 20th century), though writing in an adaptation of the Arabic alphabet (attested about a century earlier) continues in Qurhamzahānic schools and some other contexts.

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Indo-European language spoken mostly in Greece. Its history can be divided into four phases: Ancient Greek, Koine, Byzantine Greek, and Modern Greek. Ancient Greek is subdivided into Mycenaean Greek (14th–13th centuries BC) and Archaic and Classical Greek (8th–4th centuries BC). The language of the latter periods had numerous dialects (e.g., Ionic, Attic). The second phase, Koine (Hellenistic Greek), arose during the reign of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. A common language with simplified grammar, it spread throughout the Hellenized world. Purists who rejected Koine as a corruption of Attic Greek successfully advocated adoption of the Classical language for all writing. Thus, the written form, Byzantine Greek (5th–15th centuries AD), stayed rooted in the Attic tradition while the spoken language continued to develop. Modern Greek, dating from the 15th century, has many local dialects. Standard Modern Greek, Greece's official written and spoken language, is largely based on a form called Demotic (used in popular speech) but includes elements of Katharevusa, the written language formerly used in government and public life.

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Extinct Germanic language spoken by the Goths. Its records antedate those of other Germanic languages by about four centuries. Best known from a translation of the Bible into Gothic in AD 350, it died out among the Ostrogoths after the fall of their kingdom in Italy in the 6th century and among the Visigoths around the time of the Arab conquest in 711. It persisted longer in the Crimea, where a form of Gothic was spoken as late as the 16th century.

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Official language of Germany and Austria and one of the official languages of Switzerland, used by more than 100 million speakers. It belongs to the West Germanic group of the Germanic languages. German has four noun cases and masculine, feminine, and neuter genders. Its many dialects belong to either the High German (Hochdeutsch) or Low German (Plattdeutsch) groups. Modern High German, spoken in the central and southern highlands of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, is now standard written German, used in administration, higher education, literature, and the mass media in both High and Low German speech areas.

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Caucasian language of the Republic of Georgia, spoken by about 4.1 million people worldwide. Georgian is unique among Caucasian languages in having an ancient literary tradition. The earliest attestation of the language is an inscription of AD 430 in a church in Palestine, in a script ancestral to that used for Old Georgian (5th–11th centuries). The civil script used to write Modern Georgian, with 33 characters and no distinction between upper- and lowercase, was an offshoot of a script that first appeared in the 10th century. The origins of Georgian writing are uncertain, though it was presumably a free adaptation of the Greek alphabet, with new characters invented for the sounds peculiar to Georgian. Georgian has features typical of other Caucasian languages, including a large consonant inventory (with clusters of up to six consonants appearing at the beginning of a word).

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West Germanic language most closely related to English. Formerly spoken from the province of North Holland in The Netherlands to the province of Schleswig in northern Germany, Frisian is now spoken only in three small areas, each with its own dialect. West Frisian is spoken in the province of Friesland in The Netherlands, East Frisian in the Saterland west of Oldenburg, Ger., and North Frisian along the western coast of Schleswig on the Frisian Islands. Written records in Old Frisian date from the end of the 13th century. From the late 16th century to the late 19th century, written Frisian was seldom used. In modern times there has been a revival of West Frisian, and it is considered an official language by the Dutch government.

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Romance language spoken as a first language by about 72 million people in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada (mainly Quebec), and many other countries and regions formerly governed by France. French is an official language of more than 25 countries. Its earliest written materials date from the 9th century. Numerous regional dialects were eventually pushed aside by Francien, the dialect of Paris, adopted as the standard language in the mid-16th century. This largely replaced the dialects of northern and central France, known as the langue d'oïl (from oïl, the northern word for “yes”), and greatly reduced the use of the Occitan language of southern France, known as langue d'oc (from oc, Occitan for “yes”). Regional dialects survive mostly in uneducated rural speech. French grammar has been greatly simplified from Latin. Nouns do not have cases, and masculine and feminine gender are marked not in the noun but in its article or adjective. The verb is conjugated for three persons and for singular and plural; though spelled differently, several of these forms are pronounced identically.

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Finno-Ugric language of Finland, spoken by some six million people worldwide, including perhaps 200,000 speakers in North America. Finnish was an unwritten language until the 16th century, when Mikael Agricola (1509–57) produced an alphabet book (1543) and a translation of the New Testament (1548); he is regarded as the founder of the Finnish literary language. Finnish was accorded official status in 1809, when Finland entered the Russian Empire after six centuries of Swedish domination. The publication in 1835 of the national folk epic, the Kalevala, created from folk songs collected by Elias Lönnrot, gave increased impetus to the movement to forge a common national language encompassing all dialect areas. Finnish shares with other Baltic Finnic languages a stock of ancient loanwords from Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, and Sami.

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Language belonging to the Germanic languages branch of the Indo-European language family, widely spoken on six continents. The primary language of the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various Caribbean and Pacific island nations, it is also an official language of India, the Philippines, and many sub-Saharan African countries. It is the second most widely spoken native language in the world, the mother tongue of more than 350 million people, the most widely taught foreign language, and the international language of science and business. English relies mainly on word order (usually subject-verb-object) to indicate relationships between words (see syntax). Written in the Latin alphabet, it is most closely related to Frisian, German, and Dutch. Its history began with the migration of the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons from Germany and Denmark to Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought many French words into English. Greek and Latin words began to enter it in the 15th century, and Modern English is usually dated from 1500. English easily borrows words from other languages and has coined many new words to reflect advances in technology.

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Extinct Afro-Asiatic language of the Nile River valley. Its very long history comprises five periods: Old Egyptian (circa 3000–circa 2200 BCE), best exemplified by a corpus of religious inscriptions known as the Pyramid Texts and a group of autobiographical tomb inscriptions; Middle Egyptian (circa 2200–circa 1600 BCE), the classical literary language; Late Egyptian (1550–700 BCE), known mainly from manuscripts; Demotic (circa 700 BCEcirca 400 CE), used in the periods of Persian, Greek, and Roman dominance and differing from Late Egyptian chiefly in its graphic system; and Coptic (circa 150 CE–at least the 17th century), the language of Christian Egypt, gradually supplanted as a vernacular by Arabic from the 9th century on but still preserved to some degree in the liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Egyptian was originally written in hieroglyphs, out of which evolved hieratic, a cursive rendering of hieroglyphs, and demotic, a kind of shorthand reduction of hieratic. Coptic was written in a modified form of the Greek alphabet, with seven signs added from the demotic script for sounds that did not occur in Greek.

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Official language of Denmark, belonging to the Scandinavian (North) branch of the Germanic languages. It began to separate from the other Scandinavian languages circa AD 1000. Modern Danish is the Scandinavian language that has undergone the greatest amount of change from Old Scandinavian. A spelling reform in 1948 eliminated the capitalization of nouns and introduced the letter å for aa, thereby making the spelling more similar to that of Norwegian and Swedish. Evidence of Denmark's political influence can be seen in the stamp of the Danish language on the Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic languages. It is taught in the schools of the Faroe Islands, of Iceland, and of Greenland.

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formerly Bohemian language

West Slavic language spoken by some 12 million people in the historical regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and southwestern Silesia, all now in the Czech Republic, and in émigré communities, including perhaps a million speakers in North America. The earliest Old Czech texts date from the late 13th century. The distinctive orthographic system of Czech, which adds diacritics to letters of the Latin alphabet to denote consonants that did not exist in Latin and to mark vowel length, was introduced in the early 15th century and is associated with the religious reformer Jan Hus. The system was later adopted by other Slavic languages that use the Latin alphabet, including Slovak, Slovene, and Croatian (see Serbo-Croatian language). When Czech was revived as a literary language in the early 19th century, Josef Dobrovský based his codification of the language largely on the norms of 16th-century Czech, as exemplified in the Kralice Bible (1579–93), an authoritative translation. This decision has resulted in a wide gulf between Standard Czech, the literary language, and Common Czech, the spoken language.

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Romance language spoken in eastern and northeastern Spain, chiefly Catalonia and Valencia, and in Andorra, the Balearic Isles, and the Roussillon region of France. Its literary tradition dates from the 12th century, when it was the official language of the kingdom of Aragon. As Catalonia achieved greater autonomy in the late 20th century, Catalan revived as the language of politics and education there. Its dialects, divided into an Occidental and an Oriental group, remain mutually intelligible. Catalan is related to the Occitan language of southern France and to Spanish.

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South Slavic language spoken by about nine million people in Bulgaria and enclaves in Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, and Turkey. Closely related is Macedonian, spoken by two to three million people in Macedonia, adjacent parts of Albania and Greece, and enclaves elsewhere. Both languages differ from other major Slavic languages in several features. Both are direct descendants of Old Church Slavonic. Under Ottoman rule, literary production was solely in Church Slavonic. The Bulgarian vernacular became a literary language only in the mid-19th century; it was codified on the basis of northeastern Bulgarian dialects in 1899. Though efforts to create a literary Macedonian were underway before the Balkan Wars (1912–13), it was not formally recognized as a distinct language until the declaration of a Macedonian Republic within nascent communist Yugoslavia (1944).

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or Belarusan language

East Slavic language of Belarus, spoken by some 10.2 million people worldwide. Belarusian features begin to appear in Church Slavonic manuscripts from the 14th century (see Old Church Slavonic language). The chancery language of the grand duchy of Lithuania, used in the 15th–16th centuries, contains a substantial Belarusian element, mixed with Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, and Polish. Belarusian was not fully elaborated as a modern literary language until the early 20th century, when orthographic norms for writing it in Cyrillic were established. It has long struggled to maintain itself against Russian, particularly in Belarusian urban centres, where there is a high degree of Russification and Belarusian-Russian bilingualism.

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Language spoken by an estimated 1,000,000 Basque people living in the Basque Country of north-central Spain and southwestern France. About 200,000 Basques live in other parts of the world. The only remnant of the languages spoken in western Europe before incursions by Indo-European-speaking peoples, Basque has no known linguistic relatives; linguists call it a language isolate. Its grammar is markedly distinct from that of all other western European languages. Basque is sparsely attested before the 16th century, when the first book in the language was printed (1545), though it has maintained a continuous literary tradition since then.

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or Assyro-Babylonian language

Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia in the 3rd–1st millennia BC. It is known from a great many inscriptions, seals, and clay tablets in cuneiform writing. Akkadian supplanted Sumerian as the major spoken language of southern Mesopotamia by 2000 BC and about this time split into an Assyrian dialect spoken in the northeast and a Babylonian dialect spoken in the south. Akkadian died out as a vernacular in the first half of the 1st millennium BC, being effectively replaced by Aramaic in Mesopotamia, though it continued to be written until about the 1st century AD.

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Indo-European language of the Armenian people. It is spoken by some 6.7 million individuals worldwide. Its long history of contact with Iranian languages has resulted in the adoption of many Persian loanwords. According to tradition, the unique Armenian alphabet was created in AD 405 by the cleric Mesrop Mashtots, who based some letters on those in the Greek alphabet. Armenian of the 5th–7th centuries (Grabar, sometimes called Classical or Old Armenian) was employed as the literary language into modern times. A 19th-century cultural revival led to the formation of two new literary languages: Western Armenian, based on the speech of Istanbul Armenians, and Eastern Armenian, based on the speech of Transcaucasian Armenians. Because of a long tradition of emigration and the massacres and expulsions during the last decades of Ottoman rule, most speakers of Western Armenian live outside of Anatolia. Eastern Armenian is the language of the present-day Republic of Armenia.

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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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