What is language? What are the main characteristics of language? If you are looking for answers, here we dive into those questions and more!
What is language?
According to the Britannica online encyclopedia:
“language is “a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves.”
There are currently over 7000 different languages in the world, yet these languages all share common characteristics.
Here, we look at 10 of the main characteristics of language.
Below you can find the 10 main characteristics of a langauge.
A language is a structured system of communication which consists of a set of sounds, signs and/or written symbols which are used by the people of a particular country, region or group for talking, writing or communicating.
Language is a system of communication that relies on verbal or non-verbal codes to transfer information. Language is a system of systems!
Sub-systems within language include phonetics and phonology (sounds), morphology and lexicology (words), syntax (grammar), discourse analysis (sentences) and semantics (meaning).
Almost every single language system ever used by humans is primarily made up of symbols. A symbol is something that stands in for or represents something else.
From Egyptian hieroglyphs to Bislama, a language spoken in Vanuatu, every drawing or sound is a symbol representing meaning.
Symbols can be communicated verbally (speaking the word hello), in writing (putting the letters H-E-L-L-O together), or nonverbally (waving your hand back and forth).
Language is a symbolic system of communication based on a complex system of rules relating to spoken, signed, or written symbols.
Although language is symbolic, its symbols are arranged in a particular system, not in random manners.
For example, If we regard a language as being made up of sounds, we find out that only certain sounds occur in any one language that these occur in certain regular and predictable patterns.
Certain sounds do not exist in certain languages. This makes a language mutually intelligible.
Language is social in that interaction with other persons is psychologically necessary to learn language.
We use language to be in a community, to communicate with others. We depend on others when learning language, and we constantly borrow one another’s uses of expression.
Language helps us perform various social functions, and many of its uses have become institutionalised. Language use is also part of social identity. I speak French therefore I share some characteristics, attitudes with other French speakers.
Swiss linguist De Saussure claimed that language is arbitrary because of the lack of a natural relationship between the signifier (language form) and the signified (referent).
The sounds of a word gives very little to no clue to the meaning of the word. When you say or write dog, it doesn’t really gives us any clue to what it means. The word doesn’t even sound like a barking dog. However, some linguists claim that is not entirely true.
There are cases where language is not arbitrary. Take onomatopoeias like woof-woof, for example. These words do give clues as to their meaning and, we, adults, use them to help children learn language.
Language is one of the most important parts of any culture. Culture as a whole is transmitted through language.
The fact that humankind has a history in the sense that animals do not is entirely the result of language. We learn about the culture of a new country, our own culture thanks to language.
Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture. As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, it has an important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and solidarity.
It is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared values may be conveyed and preserved.
The opposite is true also. Language is transmitted through culture: a language is passed on from one generation to the next in a community.
Language is dynamic because it is always changing, evolving, and adapting to the needs of its users.
The language we use today is different from the language our parents used and different from that used in Middle Ages.
New words appear regularly. Dictionaries change. Pronunciation differs. Even grammar rules evolve. As long as the needs of language users continue to change, so will the language.
Language is constantly adapting and changing to reflect our changing lives, experiences and cultures. Language change enables us to accommodate new ideas, inventions and technologies.
It’s not just the words themselves which change; the way in which we use them can shift too. But languages are also dynamic in the way that whole systems (a complete language) die.
Languages disappear every day as users/speakers die.
Language is variation. There is more than one way of saying the same thing. Speakers may vary pronunciation (accent), word choice (lexicon), or morphology and syntax (grammar).
Variation happens for many different reasons. Sociolinguistics, the study of social factors affecting language, is based on the ideas that language varies because of different social reasons such as age, race, gender, social-economic status, geography, etc.
A language signal/symbol always conveys meaning. In linguistic terms, all the symbols/signals of language have a semantic content.
The semantic content means each symbol is associated to something in the real world. Humans are able to give the same symbol a meaning, and very often, more than one meaning, and they’re still able to distinguish all of them.
Language is human as it differs from animal communication in several ways. The characteristics highlighted above set apart language from animal communication forms.
Some of these features may be part of animal communication; yet they do not form part of it in its entirety.
The Many Characteristics of a Language
These are not the only characteristics of language. There are many. Some are more arguable than others, according to linguistics theories.
Did any of these main characteristics surprise you? Did you ever think of language this way?
Want to learn more about language? See more posts: LANGUAGE