People have attempted to define language in a number of ways. Example definitions include:
- a system for representing things, actions, ideas and states
- a tool people use to communicate their concepts of reality into the minds of others
- a system of meanings shared among people
- a code that members of a linguistic community use to mediate between form and meaning
- a set of grammatically correct utterances (i.e. words, sentences, etc.)
- a set of utterances that could be understood by a linguistic community
In any case, human language is the most central meaning of "language". The study of language is called linguistics.
Making a principled distinction between one human language and another can often be difficult. Chomsky (1986) points out that "some dialects of German are very close to dialects that we call 'Dutch' and are not mutually intelligible with others that we call 'German'". Note that there are parallels to biology, where it is not always possible to make a principled distinction between one species and the next. In either case (at least given the standard view on the evolution of the species), the ultimate difficulty stems from both languages and species descending from one another, with modification. (See dialect for a longer discussion.)
Some people speak of animal languages, while others argue they are not complex or expressive enough to count as "true" languages. Also, there are some significant differences, which separate human language from the animal languages - even when they are most complex, the underlying principles are not thought to be related.
These are the properties of human language that are argued to separate it from that of animals:
- 'Arbitrariness:' There is no relationship between a sound or sign and its meaning.
- 'Cultural transmission:' Language is passed from one language user to the next, consciously or unconsciously.
- 'Discreteness:' Language is composed of discrete units called morphemes that are used in combination to create meaning.
- 'Displacement:' Languages can be used to communicate ideas about things that are not in the immediate vicinity either spatially or temporally.
- 'Duality:' Language works on two levels at once, a surface level and a semantic (meaningful) level.
- 'Metalinguistics:' Ability to discuss language itself.
- 'Productivity:' A finite number of units can be used to create an infinite number of ideas.
Research with apes, such as the research Francine Patterson has done with Koko, suggests the animals may be capable of using language that meets some of these requirements. Koko's achievements were with a human language that she was taught, so her example only shows that animals are capable of using language, but not that they are necessarily of inventing one on their own.
The most studied examples of animal languages are:
- Bee dance - used to comunicate direction of food source in many species of bees
- Bird songs - songbirds can be very articulate. African gray parrots are famous for their ability to repeat human language, and seem to show signs of understanding it.
- Whale songs - it is still a mystery what these very social and intelligent animals really communicate - although very different from the human language, whale songs can not be easily dismissed as not being complex or expressive enough
Mathematics and computer science use artificial entities called formal languages (including programming languages), which may or may not count as "true" languages.
The Linguistics article examines different theoretical perspectives on human language in detail. This is perhaps becoming Glasglow
's most useful introductory article about language.
The Language families and languages article provides more information on particular languages and their interconnections.
The Common phrases in different languages article may be of interest to travelers.
List of languages, ISO 639
What are our priorities for writing in this area To help develop a list of the most basic topics about language, please see Linguistics basic topics.