What is Language?
Table of Contents
Introduction to Language
Broadly speaking, language is a means of communication. It is through this means that the interaction between human beings takes place. Without language, says H.L. Smith, “there could be no culture, and man remained hominoid, with language and culture he became hominine.”
The gift of speech and a well-ordered language are characteristic of mankind and are the symbol and token of the boundary between man and a brute. For cultural propagation, man is privileged. Of all creatures on earth, he alone can talk and express himself through language.
“Man is a social animal,” remarked Aristotle long ago, and he is ‘a social animal’ by virtue of language. Society cannot exist without language any more than language can without society. Society and language are thus correlated. Language is, in fact, the index of the progress of a society from its primitive stage to an advanced one.
There are, however, other means of expressing our mind to others. Gesture (using certain signs and symbols) is one of these means. Thus we nod our heads instead of saying “yes”, ladies express their feigned disapproval with a slight twist of their lips and nose. The deaf and dumb communicate with the world outside only by the help of gestures. The gestures are universal, because the same gestures are for the most part understood in the same sense among all the manifold races of men. Though gesture supplements language but it is not a language in the true sense.
Again, all sounds are not language. The chirping of birds, the howling of dogs, the meaningless utterances of the jugglers are not language. Only that system of sounds which convey the meaning intended by the speakers to the hearers is language in the true sense of the term.
Definitions of Language by Linguists
Language as stated by Noam Chomsky is “a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements” (Chomsky 1957:13).
Language has been nicely defined by Edward Sapir as “a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.”
To a linguist, it is ‘the means of expression of human thought.’
Trench calls it ‘fossil poetry or history’.
Henry Sweet considers it as ‘the expression of thought by means of speech sounds’.
Tylor thinks of it in terms of ‘outward manifestations of inward workings of the mind’.
Sayce equates it with ‘significant sound, the outward embodiment and expression, however imperfect, of thought’.
Malinowski takes it as ‘the necessary means of communication…. without which social action is impossible’.
A.S.Diamond characterizes it as ‘the embodiment of all the advances in thought of all our human ancestors—a diary of their day-to-day thoughts’.
And lastly, M. Schlauch regards it as ‘a fundamental means of preserving, transmuting and continuously enriching the achievements of human culture.’
To study language, therefore, we must bear in mind a few important facts. The first is that language and culture are closely knitted and that it is a social product. The second is that it has no independent physical entity of its own, but consists merely of several types of sounds mutually exchanged by man living in a community. The third is that it is forever changing and dynamic.
Types of Language
There are three types of language. They are:
(1) monosyllabic or isolating,
(2) agglutinative, and
(3) inflectional or polysyllabic
The first kind of language has no prefixes or suffixes and no formally distinguished parts of speech. Chinese is its glaring example. In this language the same word may, without change, be used as a noun, as a verb, as an adjective, or as an adverb.
In the second kind of language, ideas are expressed by glueing words into compounds which are often cumbersome and lengthy. Each such compounded word has the force of a sentence, e.g. ‘Achichillacachocam’, which means the place where people weep because the water is red. Finish, Turkish and Hungarian and some most savage tongues usually contain such words.
The third kind of language has such roots as are generally modified by prefixes and suffixes. The variation of form which words undergo in order to adapt themselves to different relations is known as ‘inflection’. To this class belong Greek, Latin, German and English.
Functions of Language
“It is difficult to see adequately”, says E. Sapir, “the functions of language, because it is so deeply rooted in the whole of human behaviour that it may be suspected that there is little in the functional side of our conscious behaviour in which language does not play its part.”
The primary function of language is, as we have seen before, communication. Language is also a great force of socialization. A group of people is held together by the ties of common language.
The next function is the imparting of information of one or the other kind. Information includes propaganda of all kinds and even deliberate misinformation. It is said that language is mostly informative in character. All sciences are so because they unfold the truths to us.
Language has the function of cultural accumulation and historical transmission. Proverbs, medicine formulae, standardized prayers, folk tales, standardized speeches, song texts, genealogies are some of the more overt forms which language takes as a culture preserving instrument.
Language is also the most potent indicator of personality. The personality of a man is revealed in the character and range of the vocabulary, the length and build of the sentences, the fundamental quality of his voice, the phonetic patterns of his speech and the speed and slowness of articulation.
Approaches to Language
There are different approaches to language. But there are two approaches which are fruitful, and they are known as 1) diachronic and 2) synchronic. Diachronic approach is concerned with the historical development of a language: synchronic with the state of a language at a given time.
The approach to language in the 19th century was mainly diachronic, where today synchronic study is attracting an increasing amount of attention. The reason why the synchronic study is now preferred to the diachronic is the in recent years more attention has been paid to the languages of whose history little or nothing is known. Languages like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German and English provide ample historical material to a serious student.
Both these approaches are necessary. Just as the history of a language explains many of the puzzling features of a language, so also by observing the linguistic habits of living people, we can have a better idea of the true nature of linguistic change.
Another recent approach to the study of language has sought to divide it into `indicative’ and ’emotive’. Indicative approach assumes that it seeks to arouse feeling or suggest an emotional attitude . “Emotive’ language is often held to have no real meaning as an expression of truth. The following lines from Shelley’s Adonais (Stanza LII):
“Life, like a dome of many -coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity”
are held to have no meaning except for their emotional suggestion.
Characteristics of English Language
The English language is spoken or read today by the largest number of people in the world for historical, political and economic reasons. But it owes something of its wide appeal to its inherent qualities and characteristics too. Now, let us take into account its salient features that give it distinct individuality and world-wide significance.
The first and foremost feature of the English language is its extraordinary receptive and adaptable heterogeneousness the varied ease and readiness with which it has accepted material from almost everywhere in the world and has digested it. In the initial stages, English was almost a ‘pure’ or unmixed language, but in due course of time it became the most ‘mixed’ of languages, having received all kinds of foreign elements with ease throughout its history. This has made its vocabulary very copious and heterogeneous. Even a cursory glance at The Oxford English Dictionary would convince the reader. This voluminous dictionary occupies 15,487 pages and treats 240,165 main words. The amazing variety of the English language is really striking. Its general receptiveness of fresh elements has made it the most suitable and appealing medium of expression in the world of today.
A second salient feature of the English language is its simplicity of inflection. It has the capability of showing the relationship of words in a sentence with great ease. No doubt, Chinese has surpassed this language in the matter of reducing inflections to the bare minimum, but among European languages it remains matchless in this matter. Need we remind the reader of the fact that Old English was highly inflected? The loss of inflections by reduction has led to the natural consequence of finding new ways to show the relationship of words.
One such way is to have a relatively fixed word-order. And this is a third distinctive feature of English. An inflected language like Latin or Russian can afford to be fairly free in the arrangement of words, since the inflections clearly indicate the relationship in the sentence without any ambiguity. But in a language like English which is not inflected, the order of words is likely to be relatively fixed. The fixed word-order takes the place of the immense freedom enjoyed by inflected languages. This sort of freedom is not allowed in English. Perhaps one or two examples can best illustrate it. Take a sentence like this: ‘I live in a lady’s apartment with attached bath-room’. The word-order of this sentence can hardly be changed to: ‘I live in an apartment with a lady attached to the bath-room.’ If it is changed, the result would be ludicrous. Similarly, one can hardly replace a sentence like ‘She is my wife’s sister’ by ‘She is my sister’s wife’. That’s why we say that English has a fixed word-order.
Another feature of English related to the third is the growth of the use of periphrases or roundabout ways of saying things, and of the use of prepositions in place of the lost inflections. The English simplified verb uses, periphrases and compound tenses made with auxiliary verbs to replace the more elaborate system of tenses that once existed. Similarly, English has come to use prepositions instead of case-endings.
A fifth distinctive feature of English is the growth of new varieties of intonation to express shades of meaning which were previously expressed by varying the shapes of words. This feature is also to be witnessed in Chinese, but not in Hindustani. The wonderful variety of shades of meaning may be seen in the use of the word ‘do’, merely by varying the intonation that is, the pitch and intensity, the tone of the voice.
A sixth and last feature of the English language is its masculinity. It was Otto Jespersen who characterized it as “masculine” English is the language of a grown-up man and has very little childish or feminine about it. When Jespersen called it masculine’, he had in mind its phonetical grammatical and lexical considerations. Words and turns of expression prove its masculinity. As its vocabulary abounds in consonants, English gives the impression of being energetic and forceful. Most of its long vowels have been diphthongized, as ‘ale’, ‘whole’, ‘eel’, etc. Even the spoken words carry male energy with them. English words are best suited for military commands.
Jespersen has pointed out some other qualities of English, but they are all linked up with its masculinity. As this matter is of great importance for a student of philology, it would be desirable to dwell on these qualities at some length.
One of the qualities of the English language is its business-like shortness or brevity of expression. This quality is partly responsible for the end of superfluities in grammar like inflections and unstressed endings. Monosyllabism is due to it. English prefers the use of single words to long phrases or clauses, though it loses much of grace and elegance because of this preference. For this loss, however, it gathers greater force. To say “thanks’ is shorter but less elegant than ‘thank you’. Brevity of expression is to be witnessed in sentences like “First come first served’, ‘No cure, no pay’, ‘No risk, no gain’, and ‘No work, no pay’. This kind of economy results in a calculated strength and thrust of force. The absence of the definite articles in several contexts reduces further the weakness and prolixity of the language, such as in ‘Life is short’, ‘School is ours’, ‘Dinner over, he left the house’, and ‘heaven and earth rejoice’. These expressions remind one of the abbreviations used in telegrams.
The above-mentioned quality goes with a certain sobriety in expression. An Englishman does not want to use more words or more syllables than are strictly necessary that is his habit. He also dislikes strong or hyperbolical expressions of approval or disapproval. “That isn’t half bad’ or ‘She is rather good-looking’ are often the highest praises one can draw out of him. And when he disapproves of a girl or lady, he says: ‘She is not exactly beautiful’. On meeting someone, he simply exclaims : “Glad to see you’. This sobriety in expression, according to Jespersen, is a male trait.
The business-like, virile qualities of the English language also manifest themselves in such things as word-order”. Orderliness, especially in the arrangement and expression of ideas, is largely associated with men. Words in English do not play a hide-and-seek, as they often do in Latin or in German. English has a set of rigorous grammatical rules. In it an auxiliary verb does not stand far from its main verb, and an adjective nearly always stands before its noun (except in such cases as have a cluster of adjectives). The order generally followed in it is subject, verb, and then object. It makes use of inversions less than some other Teutonic or Scandinavian languages.
Logical consistency is another asset of the English tongue. Except for Chinese, which has been described as pure applied logic, there is perhaps no language in the civilized world that stands so high as English. The use of the tenses in it is quite logical. So is also the use of number in it. One may enjoy considerable liberty in this matter. English has given a good account of itself by shedding off grammatical gender in favour of natural gender. Gender has now become logical depending on meaning. Because of this single fact, English enjoys today what the celebrated historian, A.C. Baugh, called “an exceptional advantage over all other major European languages”. Logical consistency is generally associated with men, as Jespersen seems to suggest.
This renowned philologist links conciseness and terseness with ‘masculinity’, and points out that women as a rule are not such economizers of speech. Having discussed the ‘masculinity’ of English, Jespersen comes to the conclusion :
“The English language is a methodical, energetic, business-like and sober language, that does not care much for finery and elegance, but does care for logical consistency and is opposed to any attempt to narrow-in life by police regulations and strict rules either of grammar or of lexicon”