What is language? – Defining “language” vs. “languages” — Linguistics 101


Here’s a friend of mine. She doesn’t talk
a lot, but when she does it’s usually about something interesting. This kind of suspicious character over here
is listening in. Now, he can make out what she’s saying, and he gets it. And when she
notices the lurker and turns around to chastise him, he knows exactly what she’s saying. Freeze.
This is an example of language in action. But what makes this language? Both of them are able to speak to and understand
each other using their mouths, ears and brains. That ability gets called “language”, and it’s
at the heart of a ton of things worth learning about humans, about communication, about science,
philosophy, logic and more. They’re using that general ability called
language. But they’re also using a specific language. They’re speaking and hearing English.
But we don’t think that this language over here – English – is the same thing as this
ability to speak and understand over here. After all, they could be speaking French or
Swahili or all different languages and still be using language. So, what is it that sets
“language” apart from all these “languages”? The characteristics of our human language
ability are the subject of intense debates. Think about it: is our ability to speak something
we learned or something we inherited? Does it fit snuggly in a wider context alongside
body signals, emotions, other social behaviors and even animal communication, or does human
language sit way up here, all distinct and elevated?
And how does language relate to thinking, like the kind of everyday thinking when we
do when we have a specific thought, like, “those flowers are really, really red”, and
also the abstract thinking we do in logic and mathematics? Which, by the way, drags
us into formal languages. Logic and math allow us humans to think about things more abstractly
and universally. Instead of just “those roses” I can think about all roses, or all x’s, or
even just the variable x! Whew, so it looks like language is a tricky
concept. But what about languages? Surely they’re clearer, at least.

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