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What is Language? (let’s talk linguistics!)

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Welcome to “How Language Works”, where we break down everything you need to know about this amazing, intricate -- and at times, TOTALLY bizarre -- thing we call Language.

Imagine your life without language
How would you spend your time? How would you think? Take collective action? Communicate your ideas? Pursue your dreams? Work? The truth is, language is inextricably tied up with who we are and how we navigate the world. Every sentence you ever utter, each word you use -- says something about you. And what’s more -- just by reading these reads right now, you’re taking part of humanity’s biggest miracles: the ability to use language. You use language every day - but how much do you really know about it?

 

The story of human language is quite a fascinating one
So, where else to start but at the very beginning? In this article, we’re talking about what language is and why it matters. By the end, you’ll:

  • understand why there isn’t one “perfect” definition for language

  • discover what we call the scientists who study language

  • learn that there’s more to language than just understanding what we say

 

Why it’s amazing we can understand each other at all

Enter “linguistics”
Linguistics is the name for the fascinating field of study dedicated to studying, describing, and understanding language. The scientists who study linguistics are called linguists. Linguistics is a relatively young field of study, and it’s very interdisciplinary in nature. Sometimes it is considered part of the humanities, sometimes part of social sciences. And with ever-increasing frequency, linguistics research is being conducted in collaboration with tools and methodologies from STEM fields. In other words, there’s a lot of overlap between linguistics and other fields of study. For example, human speech sounds are madHLW-Braine up of sound waves with acoustic properties. Because of this, there’s a good degree of overlap between linguistics and acoustical engineering. Additionally, language is processed in the brain, so there’s a lot of really interesting overlap between linguistics and fields like neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. Other sister fields to linguistics include anthropology, sociology, education, and computer science. We’ll dive into the main building blocks of language in our future articles -- but for now, just get excited at how many offshoots to language study there really are. Now, let’s back up for a second. What have we learned so far? Well, we’ve learned that language plays an important (and ubiquitous) role in our everyday lives and that there’s an entire field of study dedicated to understanding human language (called linguistics). But what is the actual definition of language?

 

Get this - even linguists can’t agree on a definition for language!
Here’s why. Language is such a pervasive phenomenon serving so many different functions, that there’s really not one “true” definition to encompass all aspects of it. Recognizing this, the solution that linguists have come up with is to outline several different definitions, each of which clarifies the specific function, nature, and aspect of language being described. While there doesn't exist one “perfect” definition for Language, there are 4 main things you need to know about language in order to really understand it:

1.   It’s about more than just communicating to others 

This is one of the common misconceptions about language. Even Merriam Webster got it wrong. At the time of writing, their current definition for language is “the system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other.” Is it true that all languages incorporate words? Yes. Is it true that we use language to express our thoughts and feelings to one another? Yes. But that’s not all language is. It’s also a powerful piece of human cognition that allows us to organize our inner thoughts. It also serves as a vehicle for expressing our personal identities and group affiliations. For proof of concept, just think about how much of your inner monologue relies on language -- or reflect on why you change the way you speak with different groups of people. When we begin to look at Language as more than just a means of communication, we start to realize that it paints a much bigger picture about who we are. We start to see that it’s not just about what we say -- but how we say it -- and what we use language for in the first place.

2. There’s a difference between “Language” and “language” 

Pinning down a definition for language requires making an important distinction between what linguists call “Capital L Language” and “lowercase language.” Here’s the difference between the two. “Capital L Language” is used to describe the general, overall phenomenon (e.g. With the exception of developmental disorders, all humans acquire Language). “Lowercase language,” on the other hand, represents all the specific instantiations of human languages (e.g. Vincenzo’s native languages are English and Italian). Of course, in everyday writing, we don’t tend to make this distinction between the capital “L” vs. the lowercase “l.” The lowercase “l” is typically used as default, and the meaning is constructed via context. (that’s how we handle it in this article!). However, in order to avoid ambiguity in conversations about human Language, it’s worth noting that there is such a distinction at the conceptual level -- and that they are accompanied by their respective terms of art.

3. The key is that symbols get used to make meaning

This is one of the defining characteristics of language. With this “symbols map to meaning” relationship in mind, it’s most helpful to think of language as a code. In order to use and decipher the code for a given language, you need to learn how specific symbols map to meaning. Note that by symbols, we are referring not only to letters in the alphabet, but all the implementations of linguistic communication that we have at our disposal: speech, writing, hand signs, gestures, facial expressions, body language, braille, the mental representations of speech...etc. All the symbols that we rely on to make meaning are implementations of language.

4. Language is an inherently dynamic system 

It’s one that changes over time and place. Just as culture changes, so does our Language. While some may find it comforting to think of language as a static thing that stays the same, it’s important to recognize that it never has been that way -- and it never will be. Old languages will die out, new ways of speaking will emerge, new words get created along with every cultural or technological innovation. Even the accents we carry will change slightly with the next generation. Remember this: when it comes to language, change is the only constant.


Well, there you have it!
You now have everything you need to get started on your exploration of language. And we have only scratched the surface. There is so much exciting stuff to explore about language and linguistics. For example...What’s the origin of human language? How many Englishes are there around the world? Where does grammar come from? What are Whistled languages? How do kids seem to learn languages so effortlessly? Where does language live in the brain? Do other species use language? Why can we be superstitious but not a little stituous? We’ll get to all of that -- and more -- in this, Mango’s foundational series, “How Language Works.”


Recap time!

  1. There’s an entire field of study dedicated to language -- and it’s called linguistics. 

  2. There isn’t one “perfect” definition for language, but remember: symbols ←→ meaning.  

  3. Language is more than a means of communication. It’s also a tool for inner thought.

  4. Language is an inherently dynamic system. They’re always changing.

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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