What Is Language, Actually?

What defines language — the one(s) we speak and the other languages we encounter? Perhaps linguists and philosophers can help us understand what it is we do when using words and grammar to communicate.
Babbel investigates: What is language?

Illustration by Sheree Domingo

All of us have learned at least one language during our lifetime. But have you ever asked yourself what a language actually is? We know we need it to communicate, but communication and language are not always the same thing. For instance, you might be speaking Mandarin and not manage to communicate with an English speaker. Communication is also not necessarily language — you might smile and point to something to communicate a thought or intention, but language requires a complexity these simple gestures can’t attain.

We also use the term “language” somewhat generously. Body language and programming language are two examples that encapsulate something different than normal “language.” Can they be compared to the ones we speak daily at work and at home, such as English or Japanese? Are humans the only living beings capable of using language?

The Real Language Checklist

If we try to answer “What is language?” we inevitably must start with why language is important to us at all. In this case, we value language immensely because it’s proof of a sophisticated human intellect. All cultures studied so far have been able to prove their ability to produce language by meeting the following requisites (terms in bold) outlined by Charles F. Hockett in the 1960s:

Language uses the vocal-auditory channel. The theory goes that somewhere along the evolutionary path, our larynx lowered and we were suddenly able to create amazing sounds with it (which also led to the possibility of choking!). So we use our vocal abilities to sound words and our auditory abilities to perceive them. Communicating in this way leaves us free to do other things with our hands. (Using sign language is also a possibility, but our hands and eyes will be busy and multitasking will be harder).

We are able to produce sounds and identify where sounds come from, abilities known as broadcast transmission and directional reception. We can reproduce any sound we understand (interchangeability) and hear our own voices (total feedback). Also, our spoken words are subject to rapid fading: they disappear in a flash, leaving no trace (unlike footprints in the snow or writing).

Speaking, according to Hockett, is a targeted activity, not a side effect of something else, a trait we can define as specialization. Dogs, for instance, inadvertently emit sounds when panting with their tongues out — a way to cool body temperature. These sounds have no semanticity (they carry no meaning: dogs are not intentionally stating “I’m hot”). Humans, on the other hand, make sounds that are intentional and meaningful.

Language also possesses arbitrariness, since the sounds in the words have no correlation to the objects they describe — i.e. “table” is Tisch in German and mesa in Spanish, etc. This means there are no limits to what can be communicated with the use of sounds. Some sounds do resemble each other — “pin” and “bin” — but we do tend to separate them and compensate when we’re in doubt about the word used — using context to guess the word, for instance. We know these words/sounds are different because language possesses discreteness. When mentioning the “pin” we bought yesterday, we don’t necessarily have to have it with us. The object can be remote in space and/or time, providing language with displacement. I can engage in flights of fancy, saying things that have never been said before using previously acquired patterns, a testament to the productivity of language. And how do we acquire language? Through traditional transmission: teaching and learning. Finally, language also has duality of patterning, which allows us to take small units of sound and rearrange them differently to attain meaning. For instance, “tack,” “cat” and “act” are different words with different meanings all made of the same three basic (meaningless) sounds rearranged differently. Quite ingenious!

If We Could Talk To Animals…

These features are interdependent, and all of them can only be found in humans. Sorry to burst your bubble, Dr. Doolittle, but non-human animals do not possess all of these interdependent features when they communicate. For instance, scientists have studied the behavior of vervet monkeys which use sounds to warn other monkeys of snakes and predators nearby, but they have never been caught lying about it to other monkeys with the intent to deceive. Birdsong tends to be highly gendered, with males chirping differently from females. But the jury is still out on many features of animal communication: up until recently, scientific consensus stated only make birds sang. Research now shows it’s not true, so other current assumptions might be challenged as well in the future.

The specificity of language is not necessarily a proof of human superiority — after all, the lowly cockroach will probably outlast the human race — but an acknowledgement of how unique language is! This definition of language is still up for debate, but thinking about it leads us to our next question:

Where Does Language Come From?

Theory 1: It’s mostly culture

The behaviorist point of view proposed by B.F. Skinner suggests language is not something in any way innate to human beings, but that it must be learned through trial and error. Babies must be exposed to it in order to acquire linguistic skills. If they fail to be socialized linguistically, they will eventually be unable to produce language as adults. Skinner’s behaviorist approach believes language is a behavior moulded through reinforcement by other individuals.

He identified four verbal operants. A mand occurs when children ask for reinforcement. For instance, when they call out “Mommy!” because they want their mother. A tact occurs when they name or identify objects: saying “Teddy bear!” when they see a plush toy. The echoic verbal operant occurs when they repeat whatever has been said to them: saying “Happy!” when someone has said “Happy!” to them. The intraverbal operant occurs when answering questions or having conversations where the speaker’s words lead to other words: When a motheer says “Mommy and…” and the baby replies with “me!”

Skinner’s theory of language continues to be influential to this day, but in the mid 20th century a vocal critic began poking holes in it.

Theory 2: It’s mostly genetic

Noam Chomsky famously proposed that infants possess a language acquisition device that preconditions the process of learning and suggests the existence of a Universal Grammar, a set of rules substantiating the generative theory of language.

According to Chomsky, studying language purely from the input-output perspective without any insight into its inner cogs and wheels ignores valuable information we can gather about the physiological processes. Besides, there is such a poverty of input in the acquisition of language — a lack of coherent information perceived by babies — how can an infant acquire language without some preexisting cognitive abilities?

Let us assume we possess a cognitive apparatus that prepares us for learning language in a structured manner. This would begin the explain the ability all humans have to learn a language from an early age. Consider this: six months after birth, a baby begins to babble a lot (deaf babies babble with their hands, mimicking sign language), between 9 and 18 months they can speak in single words, around 18 months they begin to speak in mini-sentences and after 24 months they produce extended sentence structures. After 30 months they are speaking their mother tongue with grammatical and functional structures more complex than Skinner’s “verbal operants” can account for.

Vocabulary acquisition also progresses rapidly. Babies reach the milestone of 10 words at 13 months, 50 words around 17 months and 310 words around 24 months. After the third year, children tend to learn 10 words a day. Children are therefore hard-wired to become fluent in their native language within five to six years, irrespective of its complexity. For instance, children create plurals and conjugate verbs in a regular manner (“I drawed the cat”, “I saw two womans”) and have to be corrected by adults. This would lead us to assume the existence of genetically produced fixed structures (generative structures) capable of framing and regulating the acquisition of language.

Sounds plausible. Unfortunately, this theory is not falsifiable. Chomsky did not arrive at this conclusion by laboratory experiments, neither did he study the more than 7000 languages in the world to confirm it. He simply inferred it — and critics accuse him of confusing general cognitive abilities in the development of a child with innate abilities to produce language.

Theory 3: It’s all metaphorical

We’ve so far only mentioned scientifically minded approaches to the origin and development of language, but we can also inquire about language from a philosophical perspective. Long before Chomsky and Skinner were hypothesizing, Nietzsche was pondering the nature of language. According to him, human intellect creates a simulation of the world and language surfaces through our fundamental drive for metaphors, which leads to the creation of words that shape concepts. Studying language and its origin from a modern scientific angle obfuscates the insight that there is no clear correlation between a word and what exists outside of us. (Gendered nouns are a good example: “key” is feminine in French and masculine in German.)

Words can never tell a truth, otherwise why would we have so many different languages? There would be only one, the true language that corresponds with reality. In fact, we possess only metaphors for things that have no unquestionable relation with the world outside. Chomsky’s attempt to justify the existence of a “true language” through his Universal Grammar is moot, since language can never be the vessel for the essence of stuff. Whereas scientists worry about the truthfulness of statements and things, they are only using socially sanctioned metaphors — i.e. they are being forced to “lie” according to a fixed convention. (Just like you’re being forced to “lie” when your Spanish teacher corrects the gender for the noun you’ve just said.) Nietzsche does acknowledge that our sense perceptions seem to be similar from person to person and are moulded by time and space. However, the same scientific method he questions has led many scientists to believe theories positing that time and space are not truly “real.”

If meaning in language is unstable and its origins are still unknown, will we ever reach true breakthroughs in our knowledge of it? Or are we too deep inside the bubble of language to know more about it? Is language itself responsible for our intellectual curiosity, playing games with our inadequacies and forcing us to ask absurd questions? Are we any closer now to finding out what is language, truly?

Perhaps poets and writers understand language better than scientists. Perhaps the student who is confronted with the joy and frustration of learning a new language senses the enjoyment and purpose more acutely than any researcher. Whatever you do with language, make it your own. It might be the best strategy to understand it!

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