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Language

Related subjects Language and literature; Languages

Image:Cuneiform tablet - Kirkor Minassian collection - Library of Congress.jpg
Cuneiform was the first known form of written language, but spoken language is believed to predate writing by tens of thousands of years at least.

A language is a system of visual, auditory, or tactile symbols of communication and the rules used to manipulate them. Language can also refer to the use of such systems as a general phenomenon. Language is considered to be an exclusively human mode of communication; although other animals make use of quite sophisticated communicative systems, none of these are known to make use of all of the properties that linguists use to define language.

Properties of language

A set of agreed-upon symbols is only one feature of written language; all languages must define the structural relationships between these symbols in a system of grammar. Rules of grammar are what distinguish language from other forms of communication. They allow a finite set of symbols to be manipulated to create a potentially infinite number of grammatical utterances.

Another property of language is that the symbols used are arbitrary. Any concept or grammatical rule can be mapped onto a symbol. Most languages make use of sound, but the combinations of sounds used do not have any inherent meaning - they are merely an agreed-upon convention to represent a certain thing by users of that language. For instance, there is nothing about the Spanish word nada itself that forces Spanish speakers to use it to mean "nothing". Another set of sounds - for example, English nothing - could equally be used to represent the same concept. Nevertheless, all Spanish speakers have memorized that meaning for that sound pattern. But for Croatian, Serbian/Kosovan or Bosnian speakers, nada means "hope".

However, even though in principle the symbols are arbitrary, this does not mean that a language cannot have symbols that are iconic of what they stand for. Words such as "meow" sound similar to what they represent (see Onomatopoeia), but they do not necessarily have to do so in order to be understood. Many languages use different onomatopoeias as the agreed convention to represent the sounds a cat makes.

Human languages

Some of the areas of the brain involved in language processing: Broca's area, Wernicke's area, Supramarginal gyrus, Angular gyrus, Primary Auditory Cortex
Some of the areas of the brain involved in language processing: Broca's area, Wernicke's area, Supramarginal gyrus, Angular gyrus, Primary Auditory Cortex

Human languages are usually referred to as natural languages, and the science of studying them is linguistics. A common progression for natural languages is that they are first spoken, then written, and then an understanding and explanation of their grammar (according to speech) is attempted.

Languages live, die, move from place to place, and change with time. Any language that stops changing begins to die; any language that is a living language is in a state of continuous change.

Making a principled distinction between one language and another is usually impossible. For instance, there are a few dialects of German similar to some dialects of Dutch. The transition between languages within the same language family is sometimes gradual (see dialect continuum).

Some like to make parallels with biology, where it is not possible to make a well-defined distinction between one species and the next. In either case, the ultimate difficulty may stem from the interactions between languages and populations. (See Dialect or August Schleicher for a longer discussion.)

The concepts of Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache and Dachsprache are used to make finer distinctions about the degrees of difference between languages or dialects.

Artificial languages

Constructed languages

Some individuals and groups have constructed their own artificial languages, for practical, experimental, personal, or ideological reasons. International auxiliary languages are generally constructed languages that strive to be easier to learn than natural languages; other constructed languages strive to be more logical ("loglangs") than natural languages; a prominent example of this is Lojban.

Some writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, have created fantasy languages, for literary, artistic or personal reasons. The fantasy language of the Klingon race has in recent years been developed by fans of the Star Trek series, including a vocabulary and grammar.

Constructed languages are not necessarily restricted to the properties shared by natural languages.

International auxiliary languages

Some languages, most constructed, are meant specifically for communication between people of different nationalities or language groups as an easy-to-learn second language. Several of these languages have been constructed by individuals or groups. Natural, pre-existing languages may also be used in this way - their developers merely catalogued and standardized their vocabulary and identified their grammatical rules. These languages are called naturalistic. One such language, Latino Sine Flexione, is a simplified form of Latin. Two others, Occidental and Novial, were drawn from several Western languages.

To date, the most successful auxiliary language is Esperanto, invented by Polish ophthalmologist Zamenhof. It has a relatively large community roughly estimated at about 2 million speakers worldwide, with a large body of literature, songs, and is the only known constructed language to have native speakers, such as the Hungarian-born American businessman George Soros. Other auxiliary languages with a relatively large number of speakers and literature are Interlingua and Ido.

Controlled languages

Controlled natural languages are subsets of natural languages whose grammars and dictionaries have been restricted in order to reduce or eliminate both ambiguity and complexity. The purpose behind the development and implementation of a controlled natural language typically is to aid non-native speakers of a natural language in understanding it, or to ease computer processing of a natural language. An example of a widely used controlled natural language is Simplified English, which was originally developed for aerospace industry maintenance manuals.

Formal languages

Mathematics and computer science use artificial entities called formal languages (including programming languages and markup languages, and some that are more theoretical in nature). These often take the form of character strings, produced by a combination of formal grammar and semantics of arbitrary complexity.

Programming languages

A programming language is an extreme case of a formal language that can be used to control the behaviour of a machine, particularly a computer, to perform specific tasks. Programming languages are defined using syntactic and semantic rules, to determine structure and meaning respectively.

Programming languages are used to facilitate communication about the task of organizing and manipulating information, and to express algorithms precisely. Some authors restrict the term "programming language" to those languages that can express all possible algorithms; sometimes the term "computer language" is used for artificial languages that are more limited.

The study of language

The historical record of linguistics begins in India with Pāṇini, the 5th century BCE grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, known as the Aṣṭādhyāyī (अष्टाध्यायी) and with Tolkāppiyar, the 3rd century BCE grammarian of the Tamil work Tolkāppiyam. Pāṇini’s grammar is highly systematized and technical. Inherent in its analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root; Western linguists only recognized the phoneme some two millennia later. Tolkāppiyar's work is perhaps the first to describe articulatory phonetics for a language. Its classification of the alphabet into consonants and vowels, and elements like nouns, verbs, vowels, and consonants, which he put into classes, were also breakthroughs at the time. In the Middle East, the Persian linguist Sibawayh (سیبویه) made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760 CE in his monumental work, Al-kitab fi al-nahw (الكتاب في النحو, The Book on Grammar), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book, he distinguished phonetics from phonology.

Later in the West, the success of science, mathematics, and other formal systems in the 20th century led many to attempt a formalization of the study of language as a "semantic code". This resulted in the academic discipline of linguistics, the founding of which is attributed to Ferdinand de Saussure. In the 20th century, substantial contributions to the understanding of language came from Ferdinand de Saussure, Hjelmslev, Émile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson, which are characterized as being highly systematic.


Animal communication

The term " animal languages" is often used for nonhuman languages. Linguists do not consider these to be language, but describe them as animal communication, because the interaction between animals in such communication is fundamentally different in its underlying principles from true language, which has been found in humans only.

In several publicized instances, nonhuman animals have been taught to understand certain features of human language. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have been taught hand signs based on American Sign Language; however, they have never been successfully taught grammar. In 2003, a saved Bonobo ape named Kanzi allegedly independently created some words to convey certain concepts, however the careful examination of other apes raised in a similar manner ( Washoe, Koko, and Nim Chimpsky) shows a greater degree of anthropormorphism and selective observation on the part of trainers and a lack of initiative and high levels of simple imitative behaviour with the subjects. The African Grey Parrot, which possesses the ability to mimic human speech with a high degree of accuracy, is suspected of having sufficient intelligence to comprehend some of the speech it mimics. Most species of parrot, despite expert mimicry, are believed to have no linguistic comprehension at all.

While proponents of animal communication systems have debated levels of semantics, these systems have not been found to have anything approaching human language syntax. The situation with dolphins and whales presents a special case in that there is some evidence that spontaneous development of complex vocal language is occurring, but it certainly has not been proven.

Some researchers argue that a continuum exists among the communication methods of all social animals, pointing to the fundamental requirements of group behaviour and the existence of mirror neurons in primates. This, however, is still a scientific question. Most researchers agree that, although human and more primitive languages have analogous features, they are not homologous.

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