language

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

language

language, systematic communication by vocal symbols. It is a universal characteristic of the human species. Nothing is known of its origin, although scientists have identified a gene that clearly contributes to the human ability to use language. Scientists generally hold that it has been so long in use that the length of time writing is known to have existed (7,900 years at most) is short by comparison. Just as languages spoken now by peoples of the simplest cultures are as subtle and as intricate as those of the peoples of more complex civilizations, similarly the forms of languages known (or hypothetically reconstructed) from the earliest records show no trace of being more "primitive" than their modern forms.

Because language is a cultural system, individual languages may classify objects and ideas in completely different fashions. For example, the sex or age of the speaker may determine the use of certain grammatical forms or avoidance of taboo words. Many languages divide the color spectrum into completely different and unequal units of color. Terms of address may vary according to the age, sex, and status of speaker and hearer. Linguists also distinguish between registers, i.e., activities (such as a religious service or an athletic contest) with a characteristic vocabulary and level of diction.

Speech Communities

Every person belongs to a speech community, a group of people who speak the same language. Estimates of the number of speech communities range from 3,000 to 7,000 or more, with the number of speakers of a given language ranging from many millions of speakers down to a few dozen or even fewer. The following list probably includes (in approximate descending order) all languages spoken natively by groups of more than 100 million people: North Chinese vernacular (Mandarin), English, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi or Urdu, Portuguese, Bengali or Bangla, Russian, French, Japanese, German, and Malay or Bahasa Indonesia. Roughly 120 languages have at least a million speakers, but some 60% of the world's languages have 10,000 or fewer speakers, and half of those have 1,000 or fewer speakers.

Many persons speak more than one language; English is the most common auxiliary language in the world. When people learn a second language very well, they are said to be bilingual. They may abandon their native language entirely, because they have moved from the place where it is spoken or because of politico-economic and cultural pressure (as among Native Americans and speakers of the Celtic languages in Europe). Such factors may lead to the disappearance of languages. In the last several centuries, many languages have become extinct, especially in the Americas; it is estimated that as many as half the world's remaining languages could become extinct by the end of the 21st cent.

The Basis of Language

The language first learned is called one's native language or mother tongue; both of these terms are figurative in that the knowledge of particular languages is not inherited but learned behavior. Nonetheless, since the mid-20th cent. linguists have shown increasing interest in the theory that, while no one is born with a predisposition toward any particular language, all human beings are genetically endowed with the ability to learn and use language in general.

According to transformational (or generative) grammar, introduced by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s, the idiosyncratic vocabulary and grammatical conventions of any natural language rest on a foundation of "deep structures," a universal grammar underlying all languages and corresponding to an innate capacity of the human brain. This theory implies not only that there are constraints on what may constitute an intelligible human language, but also that, however numerous or striking, the differences between any two languages are less fundamental than their similarities.

Comparative Linguistics

Interest in transformational grammar has led in turn to increased interest in comparative linguistics. The differences between languages are not uniform. When languages resemble each other in a systematic way, they are said to be genetically related. Such relationships have been established in many cases, but almost always on the basis of the sounds of the languages and the way the sounds are grouped in systematic patterns. It is more difficult to compare the grammatical structures of languages. Maximal groups of related languages are called families, or stocks. A language that does not appear genetically related to any existing language is termed a language isolate.

Languages of the Indo-European and Afroasiatic families have traditionally received vastly more scholarly attention than the others. These languages actually represent a very small part of the world linguistic spectrum. As a consequence, most generalized statements about language, grammar, and related matters made before 1920 are not valid. Few authorities agree on all points of language classification and analysis, and knowledge of the languages of some isolated regions (e.g., Australia, New Guinea, and E Siberia) is still too scanty to permit proper classification.

Variations in Language

Individuals differ in the manner in which they speak their native tongue, although usually not markedly within a small area. The differences among groups of speakers in the same speech community can, however, be considerable. These variations of a language constitute its dialects. All languages are continuously changing, but if there is a common direction of change it has never been convincingly described. Various factors, especially the use of written language, have led to the development of a standard language in most of the major speech communities—a special official dialect of a language that is theoretically maintained unchanged.

This official dialect is the school form of a language, and by a familiar fallacy has been considered the norm from which everyday language deviates. Rather, the standard language is actually a development of some local dialect that has been accorded prestige. The standard English of England is derived from London English and the standard Italian is that of Tuscany. Use of the standard language is often a mark of polite behavior. In the United States employing standard English, which largely entails the usage of approved grammar and pronunciation, marks a person as cultivated. Ordinary speech may be affected by the standard language. Thus, many forms of expression come to be considered ungrammatical and substandard and are regarded as badges of ignorance, such as you was in place of the standard you were.

As in other fields of etiquette, there is variation. Gotten is acceptable in the United States but not in England. The literary standard may differ from the colloquial standard of educated people, and the jargon of a trade may be unintelligible to outsiders. Such linguistic variations in English are mainly a matter of vocabulary. An auxiliary language is a nonnative language adopted for specific use; such languages include lingua franca, pidgin, and international language.

Related Articles

For general descriptive information see articles on individual languages, e.g., French language. See also creole language; dialect; dictionary; etymology; grammar; inflection; linguistics; part of speech; phonetics; phonology; semantics; sign language; slang.

Bibliography

See L. Bloomfield, Language (1933); E. Sapir, Language (1921, repr. 1949); S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (5th ed. 1990); H. Giles and N. Coupland, Language: Contexts and Consequences (1991); T. W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species (1997); N. M. and R. Dauenhauer, Endangered Languages (1998); S. Pinker, Words and Rules (1999).

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