What is language?


This flowing process that haunts one’s head, that slips through one’s lips, streams into the ear with stories and ideas - Language, we call it - what IS it?

    .........Let us start by saying what Language is not: it is not orthography - that is, the way Language is written. One would not think a cassette tape is Language, as it just records Language. In the same way, orthography just records Language. Just like any one cassette can be used by any language (lowercase “l” used for the non-general sense of “language”), any system of orthography can be used for any language. Consider: There are alphabet-based writing systems for Chinese; the Japanese make use of Chinese ideograms, as well as our alphabet, and additionally have two syllabaries (writing systems based on syllables, as opposed to letters or ideas). Think about this: You can make up a writing system for English right now - and that would not mean you are making a different language. For, Language existed before writing - indeed, before any dictionary.

    That brings us to another point. When a person spontaneously makes up a word, other people may think they are “correcting” him/her when they say, “That’s not a word, Bub!” And then, to “prove” their point, they go to the dictionary, and note the word’s absence therefrom. Now, if this argument held validity, then there could not possibly be any words to begin with, for the dictionary was made after the fact of Language coming into existence. Words and languages are phenomena - Language is an organism, subject to change, just like everything in nature, indeed, in the universe... {...except for Math and Logic??? Hmmm.........}

    Very often, what we really mean by “alphabet” is a particular language’s inventory of phonemes - which is a sort of list in the grammar of a language that indicates which phonemes (i.e, what we erroneously may think of as “letters”) are recognized. This topic gets into Feature Theory, which has to do with those features of a phoneme that are distinctive as opposed to purposely ignored by the grammar. To illustrate: a distinctive feature may be the use of both lips when you say the first letter of “but.” Also, a distinctive feature of that phoneme is the vocal cords vibrating; and another feature is that the sound was articulated with a complete stoppage of air before the air was let go. But what was not a distinctive feature was whether or not air continued to stream out of the mouth for a long time after the stoppage was let go. Yet in another language, e.g, Sanskrit, that last feature would have been distinctive!

    In a way, grammar* is a system of what the speaker is supposed to be cognizant of or to ignore. The baby is cognizant of all the sounds and features of Language (note the capital “L”), and then learns through trial and error what to ignore (i.e, learns one or more languages with a lowercase “l”). Think about this: the way we pronounce “t” in “atom” appears as phoneme “t” to us, but in Czech the way we pronounce that “t” would be perceived as  phoneme “r”! And think about this: A little first-grader might spell “truck” as “chruck” because s/he hears a certain feature of phoneme “t” in this context that grammatically is not supposed to be there. Indeed, sometimes the usual distinctive features of a phoneme are not even present, but actually projected into the sound through context! Sounds with the distinctive features projected into them are known as allophones. (But one allophone of a group of allophones is the one that sounds the way the phoneme is supposed to sound, i.e, it is ideal.)

    Before I continue, let it be known that when I said “supposed” (in regards to the sounds or features a grammar says you are supposed to ignore or recognize), I used that word rather figuratively, as a descriptive term to describe the constraints (not rules) one picks up in the course of learning a language, and picks up in a purely natural sense*. I speak from the point of view of descriptive grammar - which is Science; not prescriptive grammar - which is etiquette (or worse: such as classism or racism, in some cases). The difference between the two outlooks of grammar is even more than that of night and day (for those two are at least complementary): the difference is that of apples and oranges, hahaha! Here is a parallel: The difference between the two is as crucial as, and of the same species as, the difference between 1) making observations of animals and fossils and describing the variety among them with the theory of evolution; and 2) prescribing a belief in Creationism as a moral obligation, irrespective of what the facts suggest.


A mean old teacher beating grammar into the poor kids.

Site and contents* copyright 2010 by Francis M. Tokarski, Jr.

All rights reserved.

* Except for those images which are not my creations but are public domain.

Note: This page, like life, is an eternal work-in-progress. (^_^)

* The words  “grammar” and “language” (or “Language”) are used synonymously throughout, though each in two possible senses: 1) specific to one language, or 2) in general for the basic language instinct in our species. Sense 1 can be considered a real-time actual expression, or manifestation, of 2 - the avatar of the deity, if you wish (^_^) .

* Not all linguists agree that Language even has rules! Some say that with each utterance every grammatical or ungrammatical possibility is trying to happen at once - but of course only one or some things can happen at a time, and so there is an automatically ensuing process of constraining and prioritizing just so there can be any linguistic expression at all. Imagine everyone trying to go through a revolving door all at once. They would get stuck. So you have to figure out which people are more important, and let them go through. This is known as “Optimality Theory” [see works by John McCarthy and Alan Prince].

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Contents of this lecture:

1) Introduction (where you are)

  1. 2)Phonology

  1. 3)Lexemes

  1. 4)Morphology

  1. 5)Syntax

  1. 6)Conclusion

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language, linguistics, speech, words and meaning, semantics, logos, grammar, philosophy of language, verbal communication