Bronze-level article


From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
We control what
you think with

Icon language.svg
Said and done
Jargon, buzzwords, slogans

Language is a method of communication that uses symbols, sounds, or gestures imparting shared meanings to convey ideas to other individuals. [note 1]

The term "language" has traditionally referred exclusively to human language.[1] However, some recent studies have focused on the realization that several non-human species clearly have advanced communications systems that might be indicative of a true proto-language.[2]

The study of language itself is important to understanding human evolution and perhaps human uniqueness; however, what is perhaps more important about language are the strengths and weaknesses of language itself, the cultural aspects that pose a question of "Can I really understand what he or she is saying, and does that precision of ideas even matter?" Since virtually every aspect of intellectual argument depends exclusively on language, understanding how language works adds a dimension to the quest for finding "truth".

Since the advent of MRI, cognitive linguists have better insights into happens in the brain during a language act, though the biological underpinnings of language itself remain a mystery. Almost everything about the study of language as a concept is steeped in debate.

Definition of language[edit]

Trying to define language sufficiently so that scholars can specify what they are studying, is much like trying to define religion, love, or any other abstract concept. Either the definitions are so precise that they exclude some languages, or so generalized that they do not really explain very much. The particular definition of language used by a scholar or writer is largely arbitrary, depending upon the point any particular person is trying to make. Perhaps the most general definition is: "a set of symbols and the rules controlling how those symbols are combined, that allows a community to convey a variety of ideas from one individual to another."

More specific definitions and studies focus on the biological aspects of language (for example, Chomsky's instance on a Universal Grammar), formal codification systems (generally favored by those studying particular languages), and a broad general sense more favored by biologists — "communication systems".

The study of any particular language, and therefore, the more theoretical study of how humans might have acquired language, begins by the assertion that all languages have three parts: the symbols, the meanings, and the code, and the study is how those three are learned, are communicated from generation to generation, and how they interact. The first two are simple mapping skills — creating symbols and assigning them to real world things, then being able to mentally retrieve them. (Without this, man does not make tools, does not become a successful group hunter, and cannot exploit his environment.) How man moves from simple mapping (i.e., *grunt* = danger. *grunt grunt* = run, therefore, shit there is a fire, get the hell out of here) to a complex frame that provides grammatical structure is where the real fun of human language development seems to reside.

Another key area in the study of language is defining semantics (study of encoded meaning) and pragmatics (study of contextual meaning).[3]:3 Scholars argue if meaning comes before man has language, or only as part of the development of language. Assuming the standard that mapping is a significant tool for proto-humans to become "humans", semantics must have emerged before fully-fledged modern language as we understand it now.[3]:4 Hurford believes that concepts and meaning were present in the form of concepts before language was fully developed, and he uses the term proto-concept to describe the time before concepts can justifiably be so named.[note 2]

There is a minority view that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world" illustrates an entirely different understanding of the nature of language.[4] However, this implies that a language-less creature has no world, no identity, and no complexity. It also implies that before one can really think of something, one must, in some way, name it. The only way to study this, as with most things in language, is to invent games to try and "catch" the brain thinking. You can offer a person a totally new thing, and see how quickly they find a "word" for that thing in their own heads. But catching the brain thinking — in this specific case, catching language being born — is as difficult as pinpointing a moment of evolution, or trapping it in your lap.[note 3]

Origin of language[edit]

The origin of language is a very theoretical field, as little about communication can actually be studied in bones, fire pits, and other ancient human relics. The only concrete studies of human language begin with written language, which is clearly well after humans evolved the ability to use language. Hence, the origin of language is a highly debated and often controversial field.

In animals[edit]

It is generally agreed that the sheer complexity of human language marks it as distinct from any method of communication found in other animal species that we know of. According to the neuroscientist Terrence Deacon, "languages evolved in only one species, in only one way, without precedent, except in the most general sense."[5] Acting on the assumption that language is simply evolved and formalized communication, one approach to the development of language, and the study of language in animals is to look at the gestures, body languages, and rituals as more than simply "evolved traits" of a given animal, but to see if they hold a standard set of communication patterns across a community. Are they attempts to simply "get your way" (ie., bullying and chest pounding of apes), or do they more precisely communicate a set of needs and desires understood by the community, and replied to in a consistent way? In theory, and in controversy to the holistic view, this removes the "interpretation" of what an utterance means, to the specific actions and reactions it generates. This tends to form the general underpinnings of the Universal Grammar theory as postulated by Chomsky.[note 4]

A separate theory holds that sounds produced by animals should be interpreted holistically rather than being compared to words.[6] This is termed the "holistic view" of utterances. The example most often used to illustrate this is the predator warning system of vervet monkeys. The monkeys have a different alarm call for snakes, leopards, and eagles and each cry leads to a different response from the collective. Wray believes that the warning for a snake should not be seen simply as crying out "snake!", but should be seen more along the lines of "there is a snake nearby, climb up into the trees for safety."

A few other biologists and linguists are becoming more and more convinced that language may exist in other species.[note 5] An example of the likelihood of at least a proto-language is a study out of Hawaii, in which a trainer would train a complex set of "tricks" (ie., flip once, two tail wags, and a flipper wave) to one dolphin, then with the sign for "train," he would introduce another dolphin to the tank. While underwater, the two dolphins "did something magical": both surfaced and did the same trick.[note 6] This experiment has been repeated over and over, and the second dolphin has surfaced always doing virtually the same set of tricks in the same order, though sometimes there are small errors.[note 7] However, until they can prove what is happening underwater, this idea of animal "language" remains intriguing but unproven.

In humans[edit]

Chomsky suggests that there are two equally likely paths that the origin of language can take. Sound/word driven language (sounds come first, without grammar), or grammar-driven language - the mapping skills and universal grammar pre-exist the specific sounds or gestures that will become the "words" for the language.[7]

Derek Bickerton believes that language stems from a proto-human language consisting of "words without grammar." According to Bickerton, the ancestors of modern humans could string together words, but only in a near-arbitrary fashion. Ray Jackendoff has suggested that perhaps simple rules, such as agent first, did exist. For example, "man kill bear" would mean a man killed a bear, greatly reducing ambiguity about who killed who.

However, cognitive archaelologist Steven Mithen takes great exception to this; he argues for a form of communication that is "holistic, multi-modal, manipulative and musical," which he names "hmmm."[8]:138, 253 In his book, The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen argues for a divergence from "hmmm" in neanderthals and anatomically modern humans whereby neanderthals retained a more musical mode of communication, but lacked any referential meaning between sounds or the sophistication required for symbolic representation, using the absence of symbolic depictions around neanderthal sites to make his point.[8]:252 However, this view has come under fire from recent findings in archaeology.[9][10]

Historical speculations[edit]

In 1861, historical linguist Max Müller published a list of speculative theories concerning the origins of spoken language:[11]

  • Bow-wow. The bow-wow or cuckoo theory, which Müller attributed to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, saw early words as imitations of the cries of beasts and birds.
  • Pooh-pooh. The Pooh-Pooh theory saw the first words as emotional interjections and exclamations triggered by pain, pleasure, surprise, and so on.
  • Ushi-dong. Müller suggested what he called the Ushi-Dong theory, which states that all things have a vibrating natural resonance, echoed somehow by man in his earliest words.
  • Yo-he-ho. The yo-he-ho theory saw language emerging out of collective rhythmic labour, the attempt to synchronise muscular effort resulting in sounds such as heave alternating with sounds such as ho.
  • Ta-ta. This did not feature in Max Müller's list, having been proposed in 1930 by Sir Richard Paget.[12] According to the ta-ta theory, humans made the earliest words by tongue movements that mimicked manual gestures, rendering them audible.

Most scholars today consider all such theories not so much wrong—they occasionally offer peripheral insights—as comically naïve and irrelevant.[13][14] The problem with these theories is that they are so narrowly mechanistic. They assume that language represents a sudden discovery or insight, which once understood, allows language to be created.

What's unique about humans?[edit]

Whatever definition one takes, human language seems to be much more sophisticated than anything found elsewhere in the animal kingdom, and biologists and linguists have invested considerable effort in understanding the genetic basis of the human capacity for language. For humans to develop linguistic abilities, they required a particular cognitive ability to map symbols and to organize them by rules. Chomsky, Hauser, and Fitch argued that "recursion [i.e., the ability to nest various phrases in a sentence and so generate an infinite range of utterances] is the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language," but the reality appears to be somewhat more complicated.[15]

While not yet understood, there is clearly a genetic component for language or aspects of language. FOXP2, for example, was dubbed "the language gene" in media reports.[16] Individuals with mutations to FOXP2 have normal cognitive abilities, but lack the motor control required for speech as well as a marked problem applying the rules of a particular language, including difficulties in comprehension.[17]

Evolution in languages[edit]

Language observably changes (our great-grandparents didn't use TXT-speakWikipedia in their day, for example, and early sound-recordings demonstrate older styles of pronunciation). "Populations" of sounds (phoneme inventories) and "populations" of words (vocabulary) come and go as culture changes/evolves,Wikipedia people migrate,Wikipedia and/or assimilateWikipedia "foreign" habits (see for example cultural appropriation); meanings change over time (semantic driftWikipedia). Thus we can talk about language evolving. Because language-speakers can readily generate new sentences and words and pronunciations, language evolution can occur more rapidly than biological evolution, which typically takes more time to produce each new generation of a species. Written texts can demonstrate changes from one period/region to another. We even have linguistic "missing links" - Middle English and Shakespearean English demonstrate stages and dialects of evolving English intermediate between Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and Modern English ("English as she is spoke").

Languages evolve on Lamarckian lines.[18]

What should be noted about language evolution is that somewhere out there someone is going to get their knickers panties in a twist about something not being proper language, such like the Académie française—founded by everyone's friend Armand Jean du Plessis[19] who determined that

the principal function of the Académie shall be to work with all possible care and diligence to give our language certain rules, and to render it pure, eloquent, and able to deal with the arts and sciences.

The Académie is not the only regulator of language on the globe, however,[20] but the Académie is one of the most reactionary and tradition-bound of them. They even have a uniform, which mostly consists of being a man in a black and green suit.[21]

For some more casual objections to language change, one only needs to visit the Twitter accounts of established dictionaries to find individuals who are screeching against[22] what dictionaries do (describing language) or just follow the news[23] to find proponents of acrolectsWikipedia[24] trying to say what is or isn't acceptable spoken language.

Language and creationists[edit]

Creationists absolutely love to bring up language. Since language is something that is, as far as we know, unique to humans and to God (in whose image someone created said humans — Genesis 1:26-27), it provides one of the more useful arguments for human exceptionalism. Naturally, creationists tend to prefer the more specific and rigid definitions available, and will claim that the evilutionists cannot explain language ability.[25] Any claim that animals might have a capacity similar to the proto-language of human ancestors will undoubtedly be flatly denied with claims that it does not meet their chosen criteria for language, which will only ever involve a fully structured modern language. Besides, everyone knows language (Ancient Hebrew, of course) was put in the mouths of Adam and Eve by God until he got pissed and decided to confuse this universal language because people decided to build a tower.

Language is, for creationists, inextricably tied to God, as his "Word" is Jesus, and his "Word" is pure truth. The Bible is a literal rendition of what God wants and can be "easily understood" by "anyone" who "simply tries". Of course, if you read the Bible, and have any interpretation other than the one they prefer, you have not tried hard enough or you do not have God in your hearts. The language, they will say again, is clear. This, of course, stands in direct opposition to anyone who has ever actually read the Bible and walked away saying "OK, I knew every single word in that verse, but have no damn idea what it means." It also stands in opposition to all the linguists and ancient-language experts who say that languages are not parallel. It is notoriously difficult to translate from one language to another (or, for that matter, to interpret texts in the "same" language from earlier periods in history), given that cultural conditions may be quite different.

See also[edit]


Other linguistics stuff[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Particular students of language have studied the extent to which music and art can be considered language as well, adding a possible dimension to the definition.
  2. The theory of mind studies the concept of "identity", "ideas", "thought", and personality, and it is constantly struggling with the primary idea of "do humans need words to form ideas?" Without knowing or understanding that, we are just guessing about our early ancestors.
  3. An interesting discussion is the very idea of "nature" vs "nurture"/Sapir v. Chomsky (and pretty much everyone in the modern world). Why we think language is natural, and how that leads us to an evo view.
  4. Which has, of course, itself been the object of serious challenges in the post computational model/rMRI world, and the challenges that it is so generalized, anything can be a grammar if you just note it to be so, so the theory itself cannot be falisfied.
  5. R.A. Barton, M. Naguibe, and B. Diez Lopez are among the scholars who write at length about dolphin communication.
  6. It is exactly how the two communicate the new trick which is still not understood.
  7. Similar signs of more complex thinking and communication have been observed in elephants and crows.


  1. Language, Oxford Dictionaries definition.
  2. Marzluff, John; Angell, Tony (2008). "Communication and Culture". In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Paul R. Ehrlich. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300135268. Retrieved 27 March 2022. "Crow and raven vocal communication possesses the basic aspects linguists require of a language. [...] Not only do crows and ravens possess basic language skills, they also have large vocabularies." 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hurford, J. R. The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution
  4. Wittgenstein, L. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus 5.6
  5. Terrance William Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. ISBN 0393343022, p. 25.
  6. Alison Wray (2000). Holistic utterances in protolanguage: The link from primates to humans
  7. Chomsky, Language and Mind, 1968; Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch. Science (Nov. 22, 2002)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Mithen, S. The Singing Neanderthals.
  9. Colorful Neanderthals on the half shell., January 2010.
  10. Milliken, S. (2010). Neanderthals, Anatomically Modern Humans and Modern Human Behaviour in Italy
  11. Müller, F. M. 1996 [1861]. The theoretical stage, and the origin of language. Lecture 9 from Lectures on the Science of Language. Reprinted in R. Harris (ed.), The Origin of Language. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, pp. 7-41.
  12. Paget, R. 1930. Human speech: some observations, experimenrts, and conclusions as to the nature, origin, purpose and possible improvement of human speech. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  13. Firth, J. R. 1964. The Tongues of Men and Speech. London: Oxford University Press, pp. 25-6.
  14. Stam, J. H. 1976. Inquiries into the origins of language. New York: Harper and Row, p. 243-44.
  15. Marc D. Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch, The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve? Science 298:5598, 22 November 2002, p. 1569-1579.
  16. Trivedi, Bijal. "Scientists Identify a Language Gene." National Geographic.
  17. Vargha-Khadem F, Gadian DG, Copp A, Mishkin M (2005). "FOXP2 and the neuroanatomy of speech and language." Nature Reviews
  18. Studdert-Kennedy, Michael (2014) [1991]. "1: Language Development from an Evolutionary Perspective". In Krasnegor, Norman A.; Rumbaugh, Duane M.; Schiefelbusch, Richard L. et al.. Biological and Behavioral Determinants of Language Development. New York: Psychology Press. p. 6. ISBN 9781317783893. Retrieved 2016-12-27. "[...] biological evolution does not proceed by the transmission of acquired characters across generations, and this is precisely what an evolutionary model of language change requires. We therefore must distinguish the cultural, or Lamarckian, evolution of language, a concern of historical linguistics, from its biological, or neo-Darwinian, evolution, a concern of developmental biology." 
  19. An introduction to the Académie Française,, 19 January 2022.
  20. Is That Spelled Right? Or Spelt Right? The Role of Language Regulators. Responsive Translation, 14 September 2017.
  21. Gina Doggett, Purists alarmed over moves to make French less macho. AFP via Yahoo News, 12 November 2017.
  22. OED Word of the Day: bae, The OED on Twitter, 14 February 2020.
  23. Corbin Bolies, Olympic Commentator Torches Crusty Pol Who Didn’t Like Her Working Class Accent. The Daily Beast, 31 July 2021.
  24. Enough! I can’t stand it anymore! Lord Digby Jones, Twitter, 30 July 2021.
  25. Evolution doesn't explain language ability (Talk.Origins), CreationWiki.