Defining language

By Elaine Brown,2014-01-29 00:38
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Defining languageDefini

Assumptions and Approaches of Linguistics

    By Shaozhong Liu

    Guangxi Normal University, China

    2.3 To put it in your own words and in one sentence:

    Defining language

    How we understand and define language will largely determine how we are

    to teach and learn it. And how we are to teach and learn it

    will largely affect how well we can use it.

2.3.1 What is language?

This sounds like a naive question. Naive, because we used to taking things for granted.

    Our initial survey of Ni chi guo le? resulted in 16 answers. And similarly, our experiences reveal that given the question What is linguistics?, we are likely to

    encounter two kinds of situations. First, laymen do not even know how to give a

    definition. Second, professionals try to define it from their own point of view, hence

    none is satisfied with the other‟s definition.

So it is very necessary for us to raise and answer the question What is language? in

    a serious and systematic manner.

2.3.2 Laymens definitions

----Language is a what we do things with.

    ----Language is what I think with.

    ----Language is used for communication.

    ----Language is what I speak with.

    ----Language is what I write with.


2.3.3 Pedagogical definition of “language”

----Language is a medium of knowledge.

    ----Language is a medium of learning.

    ----Language is part of one‟s cultural quality.

    ----Language is part of the many requirements for a future citizen. ----Language is an element of quality education. ….


2.3.3. Lexicographical definition

     The word „language‟ means differently in different contexts:

    ; Language means what a person says or said. E.g.: What he says sounds

    reasonable enough, but he expressed himself in such bad language that many

    people misunderstood him. (= concrete act of speaking in a given situation)

    ; A consistent way of speaking or writing. E.g.: Shakespeare’s language,

    Faulkner’s language (= the whole of a person‟s language; an individual‟s

    personal dialect called idiolect!个人方言,

    ; A particular variety or level of speech or writing. E.g.: scientific language,

    language for specific purposes, English for specific purposes, trade language,

    formal language, colloquial language, computer language.

    ; The abstract system underlying the totality of the speech / writing behavior of a

    community. It includes everything in a language system (its pronunciation,

    vocabulary, grammar, writing, E.g.: the English language, the Chinese language,

    children’s language, second language. Do you know French?

    ; The common features of all human languages, or t be more exact, the defining

    feature of human language behavior as contrasted with animal language systems

    of communication, or any artificial language. E.g.: He studies language. (= He

    studies the universal properties of all speech / writing systems, not just one

    particular language.)

2.3.4 Linguists responses

; Hence, there have been dozens of definitions. We‟d like to cite some here.

    ----Language, as well as the faculty of speech, was the immediate gift of God. (Noah Webster, American Dictionary, 1828)

    ----Language is the highest and most amazing achievement of the symbolistic human mind. The power it bestows is almost inestimable, for without it anything properly called “thought” is impossible. The birth of language is the dawn of humanity. The

    line between man and beastbetween the highest ape and the lowest savageis the

    language line. Whether the primitive Neanderthal man was anthropoid or human depends less on his cranial capacity, his upright posture, or even his use of tools and fire, than on one issue we shall probably never be able to settlewhether or not he

    spoke. (Susanne K. Langer, “The Lord of Creation,” Fortune, January, 1944)

    ----In his whole life man achieves nothing so great and so wonderful as what he achieved when he learnt to talk. (Ascribed to “a Danish philosopher” in Otto Jespersen, Language, 1922)

    ----Most people, asked if they can think without speech, would probably answer, “Yes, but it is not easy for me to do so. Still I know it can be done.” Language is but a

    garment! But what if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove? It is, indeed, in the highest degree likely that language is an instrument originally put to uses lower than the conceptual plane and that thought arises as a refined


    interpretation of its content. The product grows, in other words, with the instrument, and thought may be no more conceivable, in its genesis and daily practice, without speech than is mathematical reasoning practicable without the lever of an appropriate mathematical symbolism. (Edward Sapir, Language, 1921) ----Language, in its most important and characteristic aspect, is the reverse of what it is generally supposed to be. Instead of consisting of a bundle of labels which name the thing to which they are attached; and these things, like all else in the world, are forever changing, and with them changes the meaning of the labels. (A. S. Diamond, The History ad Origin of Language, 1959)

    ---- Language is cognition.

    ----Language is what we perceive things with.

    ----Language is our minds.


2.3.5 Assessing definitions

; Language is a tool for human communication.

    Yes: it is for communication, and this tells the instrumental aspect or function of


    No: it doe snot say anything about the defining features or properties of language,

    and it does not exclude many other systems (secret codes, traffic signals, for

    example) performing the same function.

    Implications: Communication is basically verbal; and teaching means to teach

    speaking and fluency is the ultimate goal.

    ; Language is a set of rules.

    Yes: it is true that language contains rules

    No: it says nothing about the function of language, it does not exclude the other

    systems containing rules

    Implications: Teaching means to impart grammatical rules; and learning a

    language is for the sake of learning it (knowing as much knowledge as possible)

2.3.6 Recommended definitions

; 语言是人类特有的一种符号系统(当它作用于人与人的关系的时候(它是表





    信息的载体和容器的例子。!许国璋(《论语言》(1991, p.1

    ; Language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols used for human communication.

    (This is a definition that linguists seem to be in broad agreement about, because

    this definition reflects some of the important characteristics of human language)

    Yes: This definition does not appear to be very original at first sight, but each


    word in it has been chosen with great care to capture an important aspect of


     system: language must be a system, since elements in it are arranged according to certain rules; they can‟t be combined at will or deliberately; they can‟t be learned by parts; they must be studied through fragments and facts, rather than the system which is a relative and abstract concept that represents the totality of parts, but which does not come before the parts are thoroughly examined and understood. If language were not systematic, it could not be learned or used consistently. For instance, we don‟t hear people say the following in English:

     * bkli (as a possible word)

     * He table a green (as an acceptable sentence)

     arbitrary: Language is arbitrary in the sense that there is no intrinsic connection between the word pen and the thing we use to write with. The fact that different languages have different words for it (+pen) speak strongly for the arbitrary nature of language. E.g.: bi () in Chinese, plume (crayon) in French, plumo in Esperanto.

     symbolic: The symbolic nature of language means that words are associated with objects, actions, ideas by convention. Or what we can read from between the lines are only literal messages, and utterance meanings should be inferred from contexts. E.g.: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet (Shakespeare: Romeo

    and Juliet)

     vocalic: By this it is meant that language has the primary medium in sound no matter how well developed are their writing systems. (1) All evidence shows that

    writing systems came much later than the spoken forms and that they are only attempts to capture sounds and meaning on paper. 2)The fact that children acquire

    spoken language first before they can read or write also indicates that language is primarily vocal.)

     human: language is human-specific, very different from the communication systems other forms of life, such as bird song and animal cries, possess.

2.3.7 Significance in forming a self definition

    ; The purpose of scientific research is to perceive the underlying laws, adapt to and

    change the world. How can we possibly actualize the ultimate goal? We have to

    understand who we are, what capacity we have, and how we might utilize and

    enrich our capacity for that purpose. This is an other-and-self relationship. It‟s

    paradoxical that we have to, or we are proving this, that we depend on a

    preliminary understanding of other in order to see self. The study of language

    serves this direction.

    ; It is a fact that we fail to provide ready answers for things or events at hand. Here

    are two examples: Air is around us, no matter where we are and wherever we go.

    Without air, we will not survive. However, the importance of air is not felt

    because we do survive. I think if air is in want or it is polluted we are easily feel

    the change of it. And in accordance we begin to revolt and do something to

    maintain it.


    The same thing is true about our language. Just as air is all around us, we

    live in a world of words. Hardly any moment passes without someone talking,

    writing, or reading. Indeed, language is most essential to mankind.

    What is more, the significance of language becomes all the more evident

    with the raise of civilization. 1) Students are taught to learn another language

    apart from his own native tongue. That is why it is true in saying that none of us

    nowadays is merely a monolingual speaker. In other words, we are most

    bilingual speakers while polyglots are found very often among our pals

    (Larry-Smith, 1997). 2) Even machines are „learning‟ to use human language in

    order to facilitate or boost social development.

    Unfortunately, we are not able to explain many things about our language,

    not to say to give ready answers for it. For example, we do not for sure how we

    acquire language and how it is possible for us to perceive through language, nor

    do we understand precisely the relationships between language and thought,

    language and logic, or language and culture. Still less do we know how language


    One reason for our inadequate knowledge of language is that we as

    language users take too many things for granted. Language comes to every

    normal person so naturally that few of us need to stop and question what

    language is, much less do we feel the necessity to study it. As we shall see as our

    course goes on, language is far more complex than most people have probably

    imagined and the necessity to study it is far greater than some people may have


    ; A knowledge of things usually well suggests how we approach them. It is exactly

    the same thing, for instance, in language teaching and learning. How we

    understand language largely determines how we are to teach and learn it. It is

    imperative for language teachers to formulate, upgrade and update their own

    philosophy about language. It is never too much to emphasis the in-depth

    comprehension about the nature of language.

2.3.8 Conclusions

    The definition, the design features and functions of language all strongly imply that We must try to benefit from what we are capable of by language, and proceed with our practices (in teaching, learning, and research) in line with our findings about language. The new curriculum reform in China‟s foundational education, for instance,

    is advocating lots of ideas. We need to provide theoretical supports as well as experimental outcomes.


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