Language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication. A language is any specific example of such a system. The scientific study of language is called linguistics. There are broadly three aspects to the study, which include language form, language meaning and language in context.
About human language
Some of the properties that define human language include following.
- The arbitrariness of the linguistic sign – meaning that there is no predictable connection between a linguistic sign and its meaning.
- The duality of the linguistic system – meaning that linguistic structures are built by combining elements into larger structures that can be seen as layered, e.g. how sounds build words and words build phrases.
- The discreteness of the elements of language – meaning that the elements out of which linguistic signs are constructed are discrete units, e.g. sounds and words, that can be distinguished from each other and rearranged in different patterns.
- The productivity of the linguistic system – meaning that the finite number of linguistic elements can be combined into a theoretically infinite number of combinations.
Arguments continue to simmer among linguists whether or not humans have an exclusive hold on language. It is clear by observation that other animals communicate with one another and there are numerous examples to cite. One of the most curious, because of what it may imply regarding complexity, is the waggle dance performed by honeybees.
Is communication completely synonymous with language?
Both man and many other animals communicate without traditional communication components, that is, without verbal communication. The honeybee dance is exemplary. Also, the wry comment, “She had looks that could kill” demonstrates the woman’s clear potential of intent without a word. Whales sing, birds chirp, dolphins click but the rattlesnake’s obvious communication comes from the other end. All of this is communication, but is it language?
Some linguists have theorized that the two terms are barely synonymous. Linguists seem to agree on one point, that language is a set of communication systems of complexity. The argument turns on the point whether or not this complexity can only be exhibited by higher and perhaps only human intelligence. There are three essential components of this complexity; displacement, productivity and recursivity.
Displacement may be the most complex system and may be ultimate distinguishing factor that defines language as uniquely human. Displacement is the ability to communicate ideas not immediately present in space or time. “In Africa, I would speak a different language than here.” This speaks of a distant place and a condition unlike the local state. This ability is beyond animals other than man, with one possible exception. The honeybee waggle dance describes the location of a field of flowers ripe with pollen to other bees. However, the bees cannot speak to fields which used to or will be laden with pollen.
In linguistics, productivity is the degree to which native speakers use a particular grammatical process, especially in word formation. It compares grammatical processes that are ‘modern’ to more ‘unfashionable’ ones. Generally the test of productivity is which grammatical forms would be used with newly-coined words: these will tend to only be converted to other forms using productive processes.
Recursion is the process of repeating items in a self-similar way. Linguist Noam Chomsky theorizes that unlimited extension of any natural language is possible using the recursive device of embedding clauses within sentences – see Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. 1965. For example, two simple sentences—”Dorothy met the Wicked Witch of the West in Munchkin Land” and “The Wicked Witch’s sister was killed in Munchkin Land”—can be embedded in a third sentence, “Dorothy liquidated the Wicked Witch with a pail of water,” to obtain a recursive sentence: “Dorothy, who met the Wicked Witch of the West in Munchkin Land where her sister was killed, liquidated her with a pail of water.” Recursion in linguistics enables ‘discrete infinity’ by embedding phrases within phrases of the same type in a hierarchical structure. Without recursion, language does not have ‘discrete infinity’ and cannot embed sentences into infinity.
About language and linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of language. The study of language, linguistics, has been developing into a science since the first grammatical descriptions of particular languages in India more than 2000 years ago. Today, linguistics is a science that concerns itself with all aspects of language, examining it from all of the theoretical viewpoints described above. There are broadly three aspects to the study, which include language form, language meaning and language in context.
Language can be understood as an interplay of sound and meaning. The discipline that studies linguistic sound is termed as phonetics, which is concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds and non-speech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived. The study of language meaning, is concerned with how languages employ logic and real-world references to convey, process, and assign meaning, as well as to manage and resolve ambiguity. This in turn includes the study of semantics, which includes how meaning is inferred from words and concepts and pragmatics, about how meaning is inferred from context.
Clinical linguistics is a sub-discipline of linguistics which involves the application of linguistic theory to the field of Speech Pathology. Clinical linguistics, a branch of applied linguistics, is the use of linguistics to describe, analyze and treat language disabilities. The study of linguistic aspect of communication disorders is of relevance to a broader understanding of language and linguistic theory. Speech pathologists practice with the aims of improving the assessment, treatment and analysis of disordered speech and language. Through their clinical experience they offer insights into formal linguistic theories.