Jump to content
GreaseSpot Cafe
Sign in to follow this  

What is language?

Recommended Posts


Communication and language are not necessarily synonymous. Yes, animals communicate, sometimes through sounds, sometimes through posturing, sometimes through pheromones, sometimes by altering physical surroundings. Loosely speaking, some might refer to that as language. It's not, it's communication. Among the many ways that humans communicate, one of them is speech. Speech has regimented structure, framework, syntax.


This is NOT a Doctrinal discussion.

It seems some people aren't aware that there's specific defintions about what a language IS,

what a language is NOT, and often it's used- incorrectly- synonymously with SIMILAR words

that are not synonyms (communication, code).


"Language is the ability to acquire and use complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so, and a language is any specific example of such a system. The scientific study of language is called linguistics."

To make basic distinctions, Communication experts have pointed out that humans

have 4 basic categories in how they communicate with each other. 2 are languages,

2 are not. The distinctions are whether they are VOCAL and whether they are VERBAL.

VOCAL indicates sound from the person's mouth and vocal cords.

VERBAL indicates whether or not actual WORDS are involved.

So, we can have communication that is

verbal and vocal (spoken speech),

verbal and non-vocal (writing, how we're communicating now),

non-verbal and vocal (using tone and sounds to pass simple concepts like blowing a whistle to signal "STOP!")

non-verbal and non-vocal (using hand-signals and body position to convey simple concepts like

"wait for my signal" and "you're not getting past me and this door without showing the required ID")

For all but the most simple concepts, it is required for humans to communicate,

in one form or another, using WORDS- thus, using a LANGUAGE.

Those of you who doubt the ability to convey SIMPLE concepts without words can see

lots of examples right now. Simply go to YouTube or another video-hosting site

and look for videos of "Shaun the Sheep" or "Timmy Time." All of those videos

are cartoons without any kind of WORDS. (The cinema full-length film of "Shaun the

Sheep" had a few words written, but almost none, and all the cartoons use NO words.)

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Wow. Thought-provoking topic.

The site is about The Way. Looks like a post came from an SIT discussion, which I haven't read all about.

I'd ask, "why is language"

Yes, we speak the same language, but are we communicating? Do we understand each other?

So what's supposed to be so amazing about SIT? . . . LOOK I can appear to communicate something to you and then . . . POOF . . . Magic decoder ring AKA Tongues with Interpretation . . . I'm actually telling it to you AGAIN. This time so you UNDERSTAND.

Didn't they teach that SIT was like Baby-Babble?

SIT will fall away one day and then . . . POOF . . . we will understand GOD.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

from Through the Looking Glass


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought–

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came wiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"

He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.


We don't know what it means. We do know, however, it has an organized structure.....verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives.

It may be a nonsense language, but it is, in the end, a language.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites


I've noticed that some people seem confused, and conflate all COMMUNICATION with LANGUAGE.

Let's look at an example I've studied-wolves.

Now, wolves are canines, social, and fairly intelligent (for animals.)

As they are social, they DO communicate, but there's no LANGUAGE and thus no VOCABULARY.

If an alpha wolf is present with his pack, he declares his status in the way he

stands, the position of his ears, and the position of his tail. Other pack members

will acknowledge this status relative to theirs with different stances and positions.

Furthermore, their interactions with each other will make that transparent for those

who actually observe animals with understanding. If one means to challenge the alpha,

he simply has to present an alpha stance and positions, and the current alpha will

either step aside (unlikely), or assume an aggressive stance and growl at the challenger,

acknowledging the challenge and escalating the situation-if the challenger wants to back

out, this is their only chance. Right after that is a fight to a submission, where the

loser submits to the authority of the winner, all through actions.

Wolves, furthermore, can resolve chords in their howls. They can call their pack together,

they can warn of danger, they can convey urgency. However, with no LANGUAGE and no

VOCABULARY, they are unable to have a DISCUSSION. There are no discussions about whether

or not it's a good idea to assemble at a certain discovered roadkill, or what it means to

the pack that human developers are considering construction across from their home,

or anything else. They can communicate SIGNALS but not conversations.

They can use various sounds, and various movements of ears, tail, and so on, and

even limited pheromonal deposits, but there's no conversation.


Animals communicate simple signals to each other, and do NOT have conversations.

Some of these are NOT hard if someone's trying to understand. I've seen videos of

cute animals on YT where the animal is clearly expressing a signal, and the people

are either ignoring it, or don't care the animal is communicating-

whether fear, or aggression, or a general plea for help.

Edited by WordWolf

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

"A specific act of transferring intention from one being to another is communication. The means of doing so... ANY means... is a language."

No, actually, that's lumping a lot of things together into "language" that are NOT languages.

A dog growling at a human or another dog is not using a "language" but he IS communicating

aggression. If it were a language, it would be a LOT easier to determine if the growl was

meant in self-defense, or in guarding food or a cub, or a warning he wants to attack a

specific person, or so on. There would be no need to consult experts, just a study

of the animal's "language" and confusion would fade. It would be like Han Solo responding

to Chewbacca. Animal sounds, and a human responding with the other 1/2 of a conversation.

(Whether or not the animal understood our half.)

Every night, in bars and nightclubs around the world, there's singles all over who either

want company or don't want company, and non-singles who want the same. Before a stranger

approaches one, their body movements and positions- nicknamed "body language" by those who

have no knowledge of non-verbal communication-tell quite a bit, and the first few seconds

of contact tell even more. There's no "language" but certain signals will indicate whether

someone is welcome or intruding, or if neither is decided.

(When I say "body language" is a complete misnomer, I mean that actual studies of it do not

refer to it as "body language." In textbooks and classrooms, it's "non-verbal communication"

that's studied. There was a book that circulated, decades ago, with the name "Body Language."

It was VERY rudimentary as an introduction, and its author later wrote a book with some

substantial content called "Subtext." So, I can blame Julius Fast for people thinking the

subject was that easy and should also be called a "language" despite lacking the requirements

for a language. Then again, if a "hot dog" can also be called a "tube steak" even when it's

made of mystery meat and contains NO STEAK, then "body language" can be called that-

among those willing to be obviously inaccurate.)

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites


"Human language has the properties of productivity, recursivity, and displacement, and relies entirely on social convention and learning. Its complex structure affords a much wider range of expressions than any known system of animal communication."

All right, we were clear language wasn't as limited as animal communication.

As for the rest, let's get some plain English for the laymen.



"In linguistics, productivity is the degree to which native speakers use a particular grammatical process, especially in word formation."

"In standard English, the formation of preterite and past participle forms of verbs by means of ablaut (for example, sing–sang–sung) is no longer considered productive. Newly coined verbs in English overwhelmingly use the 'weak' (regular) ending -ed for the past tense and past participle (for example, spammed, e-mailed). Similarly, the only clearly productive plural ending is -(e)s; it is found on the vast majority of English count nouns and is used to form the plurals of neologisms, such as FAQs and Muggles. The ending -en, on the other hand, is no longer productive, being found only in oxen, children, and the now-rare brethren."




(Discussed as "recursion")

"Recursion is the process of repeating items in a self-similar way."

" A sentence can have a structure in which what follows the verb is another sentence: Dorothy thinks witches are dangerous, in which the sentence witches are dangerous occurs in the larger one. So a sentence can be defined recursively (very roughly) as something with a structure that includes a noun phrase, a verb, and optionally another sentence. This is really just a special case of the mathematical definition of recursion.

This provides a way of understanding the creativity of language—the unbounded number of grammatical sentences—because it immediately predicts that sentences can be of arbitrary length: Dorothy thinks that Toto suspects that Tin Man said that.... Of course, there are many structures apart from sentences that can be defined recursively, and therefore many ways in which a sentence can embed instances of one category inside another. Over the years, languages in general have proved amenable to this kind of analysis."

"Recursion plays a crucial role not only in syntax, but also in natural language semantics. The word and, for example, can be construed as a function that can apply to sentence meanings to create new sentences, and likewise for noun phrase meanings, verb phrase meanings, and others. It can also apply to intransitive verbs, transitive verbs, or ditransitive verbs. In order to provide a single denotation for it that is suitably flexible, and is typically defined so that it can take any of these different types of meanings as arguments. This can be done by defining it for a simple case in which it combines sentences, and then defining the other cases recursively in terms of the simple one."




"In linguistics, displacement is the capability of language to communicate about things that are not immediately present (spatially or temporally); i.e., things that are either not here or are not here now.

In 1960, Charles F. Hockett proposed displacement as one of 13 design features of language that distinguish human language from animal communication systems (ACSs):

Man is apparently almost unique in being able to talk about things that are remote in space or time (or both) from where the talking goes on. This feature—"displacement"—seems to be definitely lacking in the vocal signaling of man's closest relatives, though it does occur in bee-dancing."

"Honeybees use the waggle dance to communicate the location of a patch of flowers suitable for foraging. The degree of displacement in this example remains limited when compared to human language. A bee can only communicate the location of the most recent food source it has visited. It cannot communicate an idea about a food source at a specific point in the past, nor can it speculate about food sources in the future.[2] In addition, displacement in the waggle dance is restricted by the language's lack of creativity and productivity. The bees can express direction and distance, but it has been experimentally determined that they lack a sign for "above". It is also doubtful that bees can communicate about non-existent nectar for the purpose of deception.[3] Consequently, in honeybee communication, the potential for displacement is limited, but it is there insofar as they have the ability to communicate about something not currently present (i.e., something that is spatially removed)."



"Human language is unique in comparison to other forms of communication, such as those used by non-human animals. Communication systems used by other animals such as bees or apes are closed systems that consist of a finite, usually very limited, number of possible ideas that can be expressed.[21]

In contrast, human language is open-ended and productive, meaning that it allows humans to produce a vast range of utterances from a finite set of elements, and to create new words and sentences. This is possible because human language is based on a dual code, in which a finite number of elements which are meaningless in themselves (e.g. sounds, letters or gestures) can be combined to form an almost infinite number of larger units of meaning (words and sentences).[22] Furthermore, the symbols and grammatical rules of any particular language are largely arbitrary, so that the system can only be acquired through social interaction.[23] The known systems of communication used by animals, on the other hand, can only express a finite number of utterances that are mostly genetically determined.[24]"

Human languages also differ from animal communication systems in that they employ grammatical and semantic categories, such as noun and verb, present and past, which may be used to express exceedingly complex meanings.[25] Human language is also unique in having the property of recursivity: for example, a noun phrase can contain another noun phrase (as in "[[the chimpanzee]'s lips]") or a clause can contain another clause (as in "]").[2] Human language is also the only known natural communication system whose adaptability may be referred to as modality independent. This means that it can be used not only for communication through one channel or medium, but through several. For example, spoken language uses the auditive modality, whereas sign languages and writing use the visual modality, and braille writing uses the tactile modality.[26]

Human language is also unique in being able to refer to abstract concepts and to imagined or hypothetical events as well as events that took place in the past or may happen in the future. This ability to refer to events that are not at the same time or place as the speech event is called displacement, and while some animal communication systems can use displacement (such as the communication of bees that can communicate the location of sources of nectar that are out of sight), the degree to which it is used in human language is also considered unique.[22]"


Edited by WordWolf

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Is anyone here old enough to remember being taught how to diagram a sentence? There is an abundance of material on YouTube for anyone who is interested in understanding what it is and how it works.

is one I found that explains the concept in a straightforward and easily understood manner. There are, of course, many, many more. A trained linguist could do this, using the principles of morphology and syntax, without any knowledge of the specific language. So, if a language is genuine, the capability exists to diagram it.

Side note: I'm not sure if this is off-topic but I find it interesting.

In Hangul, the written form of Korean, parts of speech are identified by their function, right in the written context. For example, the subject is followed by an identifying marker (such as 은 or 는). The marker has no meaning of its own other than to say "This is the subject". Likewise, the object has a marker (such as 을 or 를). It, too, has no meaning of its own other than to identify the object. In casual, informal conversation among peers, the markers are often dropped, as they are understood from the context. Other languages have unique properties, as well. For instance, in Spanish, the adjective is placed after the noun. rather than before as it is in English. (a "house red" as opposed to a "red house") These are the sorts of things a linguist is trained to recognize and identify. Again, a linguist would be able to construct a format (similar to diagramming sentences) for a genuine language if, indeed, it represented a viable model.

Edited by waysider

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Let's keep this thread as free of Doctrinal overlap as we can.

We can easily say

" A trained linguist could do this, using the principles of morphology and syntax, without any knowledge of the specific language. So, if a trained linguist is exposed to an actual language of any kind -verbal, vocal recordings of any actual language- they have the tools and training to diagram it."

We can also say

"A linguist would be able to construct a format (similar to diagramming sentences) for any language, whether or not he knew anything about it- if, indeed, it represented a viable language. An inability to do so (providing one didn't set him up to fail by giving him 2 seconds of a language, say)

would indicate it lacked the structures that verbal, vocal languages possess by virtue of being verbal, vocal languages."

(I am so specific because I'm aware that it's possible that less-honest posters could isolate a single

sentence, then find something that it didn't apply to and was never suggested to,

then claim the sentence was false rather than misapplied.)

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks, W.W.

I'm in agreement with your version. I've adjusted my original posting.

Edited by waysider

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

For the sake of argument, let's say a linguist was presented with four samples of utterances. They would have to be lengthy enough for him to draw a conclusion. You and I know the languages are French, Chinese, Hebrew and pseudolanguage (the product of free vocalization making no pretense at being an actual language). But our hypothetical linguist does not know that.

How would he go about identifying the languages?

The answer is not as difficult as it sounds. Each language has a unique phonemic inventory. This is the set of sounds that are produced when the language is spoken. An easy example is, in English, we do not have the "Ch" sound present in the Hebrew word "Chanukah." That sound just isn't present in our phonemic inventory.

Without knowing the languages at the outset, our hypothetical linguist can separate the utterance samples by cataloguing the sounds that are produced and keeping a chart of the four phonemic inventories.

The French utterance would match the phonemic inventory of the French language.

The Chinese utterance would match the phonemic inventory of Chinese.

The Hebrew utterance would match the phonemic inventory of Hebrew.

And the free vocalization would most likely match the phonemic inventory of the native language of whoever produced it. If the speaker in this case is familiar with more than one language, then it is conceivable that he will produce a phonemic inventory that blends several languages but in all likelihood doesn't actually match another one.

Phonemic inventories are not complicated.

Still assuming our linguist is not familiar with the languages in question, his next task would be to compare the samples with the actual languages for which the phonemic inventories match. It would not take long before he ascertains that the French utterance is indeed French, the Chinese is Chinese, and the Hebrew is Hebrew. But when he got to the fourth one, he'd hit a block. Is it English? The phonemic inventory would suggest it is, but the actual utterance doesn't match any English words or sentences. If it's a blend, he might not even know to compare it to English. It wouldn't match anything, or if by some chance it DID match another language's phonemic inventory (which would be a neat trick), it still wouldn't match the other language itself.

The fourth language would have to be labeled inconclusive (a linguist might go so far as to say it is indeed pseudolanguage, but for the purpose of our larger discussion, we are conceding that nothing can be demonstrated to be absolutely non-language).

There is a study underway by a professor at Rutger's University cataloguing the phonemic inventories of samples of glossolalia. The linguists working on that study should, hypothetically, be able to match the phonemic inventories that are produced with actual languages and compare the utterances to the languages they match. If a participant in that study is producing a known language, this is the most likely way to discover it.

Again, for the purpose of our broader discussion, a failure to match an utterance to a language would not prove the utterance is a language, but a success would be pretty hard to explain!

Edited by Raf

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

It should be noted that each sample would probably match more than one inventory unless the samples are large enough to rule out others. The principle would remain the same. Instead of matching the utterance to one phonemic inventory, it would be compared to all of them to see whether any of the languages are produced. The point is that the inventory narrows down the candidates.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this