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What is Language

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Lynn Gordon

on 24 August 2016

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Transcript of What is Language

What is language?
Language is an open-ended system of a finite number of
symbols that permits its users to convey/encode/communicate unlimited amounts and kinds of data, thought,
feelings, narratives--the whole range of ideas and emotions
and events that make up a person's mental life. A person
using a human language can talk about what happened
yesterday, today, tomorrow, a mythical past, a fictional present, and imaginary future. A human language can be used to pass on knowledge whose source is first-hand or not, stories which are entertaining or boring, statements which are true or false.
All languages are multilevel systems, with
different rules that operate simultaneously at
different levels.
Multilevel?
Languages have rules that organize (meaningless) sounds into meaningful units (roughly, morphemes) and rules that organize those meaningful units into more
complex meaningful units (phrases, clauses, sentences). Many of the rules that govern the organization of sounds
(phonological rules) seem to be entirely independent of the rules that organize meaningful units (morphological and syntactic rules)--yet they operate at the same time to the same strings. At least two systems are at work in creating and comprehending any utterance.
This gives us the beginning of an idea about what language is: a system of rules (phonological rules that organize sounds--usually independent of their meaning and morphological and syntactic rules that organize units that have meaning or function) and a collection of units on which those rules operate--units that have meaning and/or function, structural information and an associated sound (or more typically sequence of sounds).
When we study language, then we must study
the sounds the language uses and how they are organized (phonetics and phonology);
how words are formed (morphology);
how sentences are formed (syntax);
what meanings are available and conveyed (semantics);
what the actual most basic functional/meaning-bearing units are--their forms and their meanings (the lexicon).
Wherever there are people, there is language.
There is no group of people so "primitive" that they do not have a language. What do we mean by that? All that stuff we just talked about--most simply sets of linguistic units and rules to combine them.
All languages have grammars -- in fact all languages have highly complex grammars.
There are no 'primitive' languages. No structurally simple language has been found ever anywhere. Not all languages are complex in the same rules or rule systems--but all languages are complex. Everything we discover about ancient languages shows the same complexity; all modern languages that have been studied have turned out to be complex.
The medium of language is sound created by the upper respiratory system.
All other media in which language is found, with one class of exceptions, are derived from speech. The exceptions are the sign languages of the deaf.

Writing specifically is NOT the primary or real form of language of which speech is just a defective reflection. Writing is a way to encode language in a secondary medium. In the history of language, speech precedes writing (and many languages have never been written); in history of individuals, speech precedes writing (and many individuals are never literate).
We call the entire
set of rules that govern
the language its grammar.

The relationship between sounds and meaning is ARBITRARY.
There is no "natural" or "innate" relationship between the vast majority of the strings of sound asnd the meanings they convey. These relationships are learned conventions.
There is no "natural" or "innate" relationship between the vast majority of the strings of sound and the meanings they convey. These relationships are learned conventions.
Language is productive/creative and language is infinite.
New sentences never uttered before are constantly being produced or created. Both the speaker and the hearer(s) are capable of comprehending these new utterances. There is no limit to the number of sentences which can be produced, nor is there in principal any longest sentence.
All languages are complete.
Every language has built-in devices for expansion to cover new areas of discourse: coining, blending, compounding, derivation
All languages can be used to refer to things dissociated from the speech act in time and space.
No language constrains its speakers to talking only about the here and now; all languages have the mechanisms for talking about the past, the future and entirely unreal times and places (which allows its speakers to tell stories and lies). Contra George Orwell, no language can force its speakers to lie or to tell the truth.
All languages change over time
The phonology changes; the morphology changes; the syntax changes; the lexicon changes--everything about language is subject to change over time and every stage of the change has still got the properties of all other human languages. Language CHANGES. It doesn't become corrupt; it doesn't deteriorate; it changes.
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