A language is a system, used for communication, comprising a finite set of arbitrary symbols and a set of rules (or grammar) by which the manipulation of these symbols is governed. These symbols can be combined productively to convey new information, distinguishing languages from other forms of communication. The word language (without an article) can also refer to the use of such systems as a phenomenon.
Human languages use patterns of sound for symbols. These sounds can be converted into written foorm with little loss of information. Gestures are a part of human language too. Some invented human languages have been built entirely on visual cues to enable communication. In human languages, the symbols are sometimes known as lexemes and the rules are usually known as grammars. “Language” is also used to refer to common properties of languages. Language learning is normal in human childhood and is biologically driven: a crucial role of this process is performed by the neural activity off a portion of the human brain known as Broca’s area. There are thousands of human languages, and these seem to share certain properties (called: Universal Grammar) as shown by generative grammar studies pioneered by the work of Noam Chomsky, ev
There is no clear distinction between a language and a dialect, notwithstanding linguist Max Weinreich’s famous aphorism that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” In other words, the distinction may hinge on political considerations as much as on cultural differences, distinctive writing systems, or degree of mutual intelligibility.
Humans and computer programs have also constructed other languages, including constructed languages such as Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, Klingon, programming languages, and various mathematical formalisms. These languages arre not restricted to the properties shared by human languages.
Human languages are usually referred to as natural languages, and the science of studying them is linguistics.
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 usually gradual (see dialect continuum).
Some like to make parallels with biology, where it is not always possible to
The concepts of Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache and Dachsprache are used to make finer distinctions about the degrees of difference between languages or dialects.
Origins of human language
No one yet agrees on when language was first used by humans (or their ancestors). Estimates range from about two million (2,000,000) years ago, during the time of Homo habilis, to as recently as forty thousand (40,000) years ago, during the time of Cro-Magnon man, to Biblical eden-times six thousand (6,000) years ago.
The classification of natural languages can be performed on the basis of different underlying principles (different closeness notions, respecting different properties and relations between languages); important directions of present classifications are:
• paying attention to the historical evolution of languages results in a genetic classification of languages—which is based on genetic relatedness of languages,
• paying attention to the internal structure of languages (grammar) results in a typological classification of languages—which is based on similarity of one or more components of the language’s grammar across languages,
• and respecting geographical closeness and contacts between language-speaking communities re
The different classifications do not match each other and are not expected to, but the correlation between them is an important point for many linguistic research works. (There is a parallel to the classification of species in biological phylogenetics here: consider monophyletic vs. polyphyletic groups of species.)
The task of genetic classification belongs to the field of historical-comparative linguistics, of typological—to linguistic typology.
See also Taxonomy, and Taxonomic classification for the general idea of classification and taxonomies.
The world’s languages have been grouped into families of languages that are believed to have common ancestors. Some of the major families are the Indo-European languages, the Afro-Asiatic languages, the Austronesian languages, and the Sino-Tibetan languages.
The shared features of languages from one family can be due to shared ancestry. (Compare with homology in biology.)
An example of a typological classification is the classification of languages on the basis of the basic order of the verb, the subject and the object in a sentence into several types: SVO, SOV, VSO, and so on, languages. (English, for instance, belongs to the SVO language type.)
The shared features of languages of one type (= from one typological class) may have arisen completely independently. (Compare wi
The following language groupings can serve as some linguistically significant examples of areal linguistic units, or sprachbunds: Balkan linguistic union, or the bigger group of European languages; Caucasian languages. Although the members of each group are not closely genetically related, there is a reason for them to share similar features, namely: their speakers have been in contact for a long time within a common community and the languages converged in the course of the history. These are called “areal features”.
N.B.: one should be careful about the underlying classification principle for groups of languages which have apparently a geographical name: besides areal linguistic units, the taxa of the genetic classification (language families) are often given names which themselves or parts of which refer to geographical areas.
International Auxiliary Languages
Some languages are meant specifically for communication between people of different nationalities or language groups. Several of these languages have been constructed by an individual or group, as noted below. Others are seen as natural, pre-existing languages. 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. Another, Occidental, was drawn from several Western languages.
To date, the most successful of these languages is Interlingua. The vocabulary of Interlingua consists of international words from any language family. Most Interlingua words are of Greco-Latin origin, because Greek and Latin have penetrated very widely into modern-day languages. Interlingua makes use of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, English, German, and Russian as control languages to confirm the internationality of each eligible word. The International Auxiliary Language Association, which standardized Interlingua, found that this selection of controls gave Interlingua the greatest possible internationality.
Interlingua probably owes its success to three factors: large populations of speakers can understand it at first sight; it is simple, regular, and logical, making it easy to learn for any speaking population; and it has a natural sound and appearance, in contrast with many other auxiliary languages. Finally, Interlingua was developed to be as internationally neutral as possible within the framework of an international auxiliary language.
Some individuals and groups have constructed their own artificial languages, for practical, experimental, personal, or ideological reasons. For example, one prominent artificial language, Esperanto, was created by L. L. Zamenhof as a compilation of various elements of different languages, and was intended to be an easy-to-learn language for people familiar with similar languages. Other constructed languages strive to be more logical (“loglangs”) than natural languages; a prominent example of this is Lojban. Both of these languages are meant as international auxiliary languages.
Some writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, and (to some extent) Christopher Paolini, have created fantasy languages, for literary, artistic, or personal reasons.
The study of language
The historical record of the study of language begins in Northern India with Pāṇini, the 5th century BC grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, known as the Aṣṭādhyāyī (अष्टाध्यायी). Pāṇini’s grammar is highly systematized and technical. Inherent in its analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root; the phoneme was only recognized by Western linguists some two millennia later. Its classification of the alphabet into consonants and vowel, and elements like nouns, verbs, vowels and consonants which he put into classes, were also breakthroughs at the time.
The oldest surviving written grammar for a language still commonly spoken today is the Tolkāppiyam (தொல்காப்பியம்), a book on the grammar of the Tamil language, written in Southern India around 200 BC by Tolkāppiyar.
In the Middle East, the arabic linguist Sibawayh 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.