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What is Language? The Five Basic Elements of Language Defined
Where communication can be any action, language must have particular limits placed within its meaning to protect what may constitute a proper language....
Definition of Language
Language can be defined as a form of communication that allows intercourse between multiple people, that is arbitrary (in words individually), generative (in word placement), and constantly evolving.
Many may dispute the meaning of language because some may equate language to communication in general. Where communication can be any action, language must have particular limits placed within its meaning to protect what may constitute a proper language—that is to distinguish between noises or grunts and communicative utterances in languages.
The Lexicon of a language or the words used to form a language provides the opportunity for multiple combinations of words virtually to never say the same group of words the same way.
Language cannot be described as a behavior because of its changing nature—its unpredictability. There are small variations in tone that portray a different meaning for words when uttered that prove processes beyond physical biochemical reactions affect speech. Tens of thousands of words exist in the English lexicon. Though the words are defined and have a specific meaning, the nature of the lexicon changes as the generations change.
There are five basic elements that compose a language
First (1) Language is Communicative
Communicative by definition is a willingness to dispense information. The ancient Roman society preserved records and instructed their progeny in the form and vocabulary, the lexicon of their language. Because of its communicative nature, that ancient language, Latin, existed for centuries perpetuating generational culture which sustained that society.
Number Two ( 2) Language is Arbitrary in Nature
One word describing an object may very well be another—such as the word door could as easily have been assigned to a window.
The arbitrary nature of language can be called into question since objects have names based on whatever they were used for initially; however, for this brief treatment, it stands as a ruler for language.
The evidence that language is arbitrary is overwhelming. The fact that there are literally thousands of languages attests that anything can be called anything! Take the word Yes. In English, yes, means to agree or answer in the affirmative. In Spanish, Si is to agree or answer in the affirmative. In French, Qui is to agree or answer in the affirmative. In Xhosa it is Ewe. Depending on what language a person uses, what English people call yes could be any sound.
Yes, in Klingon it is HIja. Even fictional languages must meet the five criteria to appear believable.
Three (3) Language is Structured
There is a pattern of organization that takes an identifiable shape. The patterns are familiar enough to be identifiable to all other users of that language. Language has basic building blocks that set it aside from other forms of communication.
It would be difficult to build a house without a blue print. Even it there is no written blueprint, there is a mental template that exists to reference so that others can fashion something similar to the first house. In other words, for those out there thinking that they can build a house without directions, it is not so. The directions are mental and/or physical.
Even languages that have no written form have building blocks in common with languages that are written. There is a certain way to put words together to make them intelligible to the hearers.
Four (4) Language is Generative
Language constantly creates new phrases, new structures--it generates more of itself. It is comparable to a living thing that reproduces, changes, and even dies. Even though Latin is a dead tongue, those who speak it keep it alive or generative by speaking and writing it. New ideas are communicated with language that could not be communicated well with gestures and grunts alone.
Without structure and generative ability, form, a language would have no framework from which or in which to work.
Latin has form and organization taught and understood to help perpetuate its use in Roman society by shaping the minds of Latin speakers to resemble the original group that introduced the language. The records of this society's writings help provide context for the meanings of words.
Number Five (5) Language is Dynamic
Language experiences augmentation and refinement (change) as time passes, which can be looked upon also with some question. But for this work, dynamic is a decent gauge for describing language. Dynamic in this cause means that language has the ability to evolve and never repeat the same phrase with the same meaning in the same way without doing so on purpose.
Language gives humanity the ability to be innovative, because of its dynamic nature. Cultures, religious systems, and political systems all use language to perpetuate hundreds of dogmas in written form or speech. Language is a very effective tool of persuasion because it is dynamic.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words can clearly express an idea with little room for misunderstanding.
In order to qualify as a language, all given attributes listed must be present, which calls into question the forms of signing that exist.
Is Sign Language really a language?
Four (4) Levels of Language
Delving deeper into the core of what defines language exist several basic levels. Not only does it have five qualifying characteristics, but it has four levels structure: Phonemes, Words, Sentences and Text.
Number one (1) Phonemes
Phonemes are the sounds that form the building blocks for the spoken word.
Phonemes are the short and long sounds of vowels and the consonants in. The language of the Xhosa people in South Africa, where the x, the c, and the q all make distinct clicking sounds, phonemes, differ from the phonemes of the English language
The X in Xhosa makes the sound of sucking air with the tongue at the roof of the mouth--a sound that horse jockeys may use to call a horse. The C makes the sound of sucking air with the teeth and tongue. The Q makes the sound sucking air with the tongue at the roof of the mouth pulling away forcefully from the said roof while sucking in air. These phonemes help to form the sounds for words for all Xhosa people to communicate.
Number Two (2) Words
Words are the next level of language. It would follow that phonemes build words, which represent a listing of sounds to describe items, situations, ideas, etc.... using nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.
Phonemes and words are building blocks for language whether written and spoken or spoken only. It is important to remember that ALL language must have structure. Words may be short or long in length with a combination of phonemes in prescribed fashion as described in the heading above for Xhosa.
Number Three (3) Sentences
Sentences are a number of words placed together to form a coherent thought. It is also the aspect of language that supports grammar rules. The language determines the structural type of the sentence. and how words are interpreted by the hearers. Sentences provide a description of a thing or things. usually containing a subject, a verb, and a predicate expressing a statement, question, instruction, or exclamation.
Sentences can be long or short, complex or simple--sentences help to provide the dynamic nature of language.
Number Four (4) is Text
This does not refer to an activity millions do with their mobile devices; though, that would be an appropriate definition. Any number of sentences form text, another level of language consisting of one or more sentences. Text provides information mainly to communicate in written form.
All together, these elements phonemes, words, sentences. and text work within a framework called grammar, which is a set of rules constructed so that groupings of words do not form an incoherent word-jumble.
Levels of Language
All Languages are not Created Equal But Equal Out
The phonemes, words, sentences, text and grammar of Latin differ from those of the English language, but the same end is reached: written and verbal communication.
The compelling thing about the Latin is it died but is still used within the context of today's society. Such a feat is of intriguing significance when considering that each word may or may not have a corresponding word in other languages.
All humans start out the same way—babbling. Human young start making noises that develop naturally from hearing around them the sounds of speaking, whatever the language.
Of course, the language that a person speaks effects his or her view of the world and ultimately the way he or she thinks. Language, however, does not necessarily make a French speaker think better or worse than a Xhosa speak.
One language may have a larger lexicon than another language may; but when a person who speaks French sees a danger, he thinks the same as a person who speaks Xhosa, run!
The same neurons fire in all human brains that help all to communicate in the multiple languages that allow humanity to interact by paper, digital screen, and voice.
Culture does influence a person’s view of the world—shaping his or her ideas and behavior--meaning that a person may respond differently depending on how the words leave his or her mouth because of the way he or she has to hold his or her tongue to say those words.
The human mind, however, processes language the same regardless of language differences. From Babbling to speaking, the mind associates things with words to provide perspective and understanding. Though a language may rise and fall as the ancient Roman society’s language Latin did in the past, another will take its place and expand the mind in the same way.
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Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ:Pearson/Allyn4 Bacon.
© 2010 Rodric Johnson