Language refers to: the faculty that allows individuals to acquire and use at least one specific language; the system of a language itself; the performance of speaking, writing or signing; and to different varieties or levels of speech, writing or signs (e.g. 'bad language'). Typically, language and languages act as a system for encoding and decoding information, and for the purpose of communication. However, determining what kinds of signals or symbols constitute language is not always a straightforward matter, and issues of how biologically-based this ability is, how it could have evolved and whether it is unique to humans continue to fascinate linguists and users of language in general.
Types of 'language' and how it is studied
'Language', primarily, refers to a system of the human mind that facilitates one kind of communication. It has both a spoken and a written form. Its study is called linguistics, with subdivisions such as historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, though some fields of this science are concerned with linguistic systems that run on computers. To distinguish the 'human' system from such formal languages in mathematics or computer science, it is also sometimes called natural language. However, linguistics is not the only scholarly area with an interest in language. The discovery of the oldest evidence of language, primarily via vestiges of early writing, falls under the purview of archaeology or anthropology and also history. The mechanisms related to learning of human languages may be of interest in psychology and medicine due to its exercise of higher brain function. Computer scientists have been engaged in the study of human languages for the purpose of machine translation between different human languages.
Formal, mathematical, and computer languages
The activity of computer engineering has produced numerous computer programming languages, and in fact they have created several subfields of scholarly research relating to them, such as formal languages and compilers. Mathematicians have expressed various mathematical formalisms that they describe as languages.
Origins of human language
- See also: Language evolution
Linguists do not agree on when human language may first have been used, or even whether the first language users were modern humans at all - earlier hominins may have come to language first, passing it down the generations to modern humans. Possibly, such species as Homo habilis may have been the first to link sound, gestures, symbol and meaning to form a linguistic system, producing the first individual languages around two million years in the past. Some linguists go further back into the past, attributing the first forms of language to Australopothecus afarensis, which would mean that human language is actually between 4 and 7 million years old. Alternatively, since spoken and signed languages leave no fossils, for all we know language may have emerged only with the early modern Cro-Magnon humans, as recently as around 100 - 40,000 years ago.
In all likelihood, some of the genetic basis for language was found in many species, though only in human did it lead to language: our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals, have been reported to have carried a gene, FoxP2, that is linked with speech in humans, plus vocalisation in bats (including echolocation) and chimpanzees.
Do other species have language?
Does the blossoming of a flower, whose color or scent signals to bees or birds to come and pollinate it, constitute a form of language? Does a skunk spraying constitute language, since it can certainly be said to be a form of communication? Are communications that involve, say, chemicals or pheromones part of some kind of language? Can we say that signaling behavior that is learned, rather than wired in, is language, whereas signaling behavior that is instinctive is not language?
Some animals communicate in a system which might be considered language, consisting either of calls or body postures used consistently for certain purposes and which are learned behavior. There are examples of multiple signals existing within one species, but signals are also sometimes used across species, such as when birds respond to chattering and tail waggles made by squirrels to warn of the presence of a predator. The question of whether animals have the capacity for language to a similar degree that humans have (even sign language) is controversial.
Edmund Blair Bolles, author of Babel's Dawn: A Natural History of the Origins of Speech, asserts the following: “I call it language when a speaker and a listener exchange news about a topic. The closest thing in the animal kingdom to this kind of behavior is the waggle dance of the bee.”
- Pinker, S. The Language Instinct. How the Mind Creates Language. (1994)
- Nature: 'Modern speech gene found in Neanderthals'. 18th October 2007.
- Li G, Wang J, Rossiter SJ, Jones G & Zhang S (2007).
- Evolutionpages.com: 'FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language'.
- Edmund Blair Bolles. (2014) How Can You Recognize Language?