What is language
There exist dozens of definitions of “language” (L.). This post focuses on what a good definition of L. should cover and formulates a new definition of the notion.
To begin with, what is the most important objective of L. from the linguistic perspective? Most objective of L. from the linguistic perspective is communication. L. is used to transmit, receive, and store (e.g. over time) information.
Another interesting thing about L. is that we communicate not only verbally, but also nonverbally – both verbal and nonverbal means (see the post on Types of nonverbal communication) contribute to the overall communicative message – sometimes nonverbal means contribute more, sometimes less (see the post on The importance of nonverbal communication). Therefore, a good definition of L. should include the nonverbal element or at least admit its potential contribution to communication.
One more important feature about L. is that it is a combination of symbols (e.g. letters, sounds, gestures, etc.) – in order to code (communicate/speak/write) and decode (get, hear, read) a message – it must consist of a certain system of symbols. For communication to be effective both parties (the sender and the recipient) should be familiar with this system (language).
Finally, what makes L. truly unique is that its symbols are optional. For example, an ‘apple’ is called an apple not because there is something in it that makes it be called that way, but rather because people who use this language have decided that this object should be called this way. An ‘apple’ in Ukrainian is ‘iabluko‘, in French it is ‘pomme‘ and the only reason why people who speak these languages know what is meant by ‘apple’, ‘iabluko‘ or ‘pomme‘ is because there is a convention that in this language this object should be referred to this way.
It is worth mentioning that certain words in a L. are indeed prompted by the nature of a given object or phenomenon. For example, dog’s “speech” can be referred to as ‘bow-bow’ in English because the combination of the sounds (resulting from reading these letters) resembles the actual sound that dogs produce. However, even here we talk about a convention. The same dog’s “speech” is described as ‘hav-hav‘ in Ukrainian. Again – this is based on the resemblance between the combination of the sounds resulting from reading these letters and the actual sound that dogs produce. The only difference is that according to the convention (tradition) in English – it should be ‘bow-bow’ and in Ukrainian, it is “hav-hav“. Another example, also related to the animal “speech” is ‘oink’ (pig “speech”) in English and ‘hru‘ in Ukrainian. These examples point to the fact that even though some words are created based on the resemblance to a certain object or phenomenon in the real world, L. still uses a certain convention (a voluntary/optional definition) to record it. This convention is different across languages.
An interesting definition that seems to cover the points above is the one suggested by Sapir:
Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols (E. Sapir).
This definition covers the communicative objective of L., its verbal and nonverbal nature, the fact that L. is based on symbols which are optional. In addition to this, the definition above underlines that L. is purely human and non-instinctive. While it is possible to agree that animals are unable to use L. in the same way that people do (see, for example, the post on whether animals can speak), animals do use their own system of symbols (e.g. singing of birds to attract other birds) which is sometimes referred to as “animal language”.
Moreover, in certain situations some words are used without a conscious effort – similar to an instinct. For instance, if a person touches a hot surface, s/he can pronounce “ouch”. The corresponding word in Ukrainian is “ai“. This example shows that L. can be used unconsciously. How we know that in the situation above, for instance, we are dealing with a L.? We know this because the words above can only be fully understood within the given languages – English and Ukrainian. Therefore, a more accurate definition of L. can be formulated in the following way:
L. is a system of voluntary symbols, both verbal and nonverbal, used for the purpose of communication.
In brief, this post has focused on the key features of L. that should be considered in defining the notion and suggested a new definition based on this discussion.