The Nature of Language and Linguistics

Language is God’s special gift to mankind. Without language human civilization, as we now know it, would have remained an impossibility. Language is ubiquitous. It is present everywhere––in our thoughts and dreams, prayers and meditations, relations and communication. Besides being a means of communication, and storehouse of knowledge, it is an instrument of thinking as well as a source of delight (e.g. singing).

It transfers knowledge from one person to another and from one generation to another. Language is also the maker or unmaker of human relationships. It is the use of language that ‘Italics a life bitter or sweet. Without language man would have remained only a dumb animal. It is our ability to communicate through words that makes us different from animals. Because of its omnipresence, language is often taken for granted.

Definition of Language
Since linguistics is the study of language, it is imperative for linguist to know what language is. Language is a very complex human phenomenon; all attempts to define it have proved inadequate. In a nut-shell, language is an ‘organised noise’ used in actual social situations. That is why it has also been defined as ‘contextualised systematic sound‘.
In order to understand a term like life, one has to talk of the properties or characteristics of living beings (e.g. motion, reproduction, respiration, growth, power of self-healing, excretion, nutrition, mortality, etc. etc.). Similarly, the term language can be understood better in terms of its properties or characteristics. Some linguists, however, have been trying to define language in their own ways even though all these definitions have been far from satisfactory. Here are some of these definitions:
1. Language is a symbol system based on pure or arbitrary conventions… infinitely extendable and modifiable according to the changing needs and conditions of the speakers.
(Robins)
According to this definition, language is a symbol system. Every languages selects some symbols for its selected sounds. The English sound /k/ for example has the symbol k for it. These symbols form the alphabet of the language and join in different combinations to form meaningful words.
The system talked of here is purely arbitrary in the sense that there is no one to one correspondence between the structure of a word and the thing it stands for. The combination p.e.n., for example stands, in English, for an instrument used for writing. Why could it not be e.p.n. or n.e.p.? Well, it could also be e.p.n. or n.e.p. and there is nothing sacrosanct about the combination p.e.n. except that it has now become a convention—a convention that cannot be easily changed.
As stated here, language conventions are not easily changed, yet it is not impossible to do so. Language is infinitely modifiable and extendable. Words go on changing meanings and new words continue to be added to language with the changing needs of the community using it.
2. Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.
(Sapir)
There are two terms in this definition that call for discussion: human and non-instinctive. Language, as Sapir rightly said, is human. Only humans possess language and all normal humans uniformly possess it. Animals do have a communication system but it is not a developed system. That is why language is said to be species-specific and species-uniform.
Also, language does not pass from a parent to a child. In this sense it is non-instinctive. A child has to learn language and he/she learns the language of the society he/she is placed in.
3. Language is the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory arbitrary symbols.
(Hall)
This definition rightly gives more prominence to the fact that language is primarily speech produced by oral-auditory symbols. A speaker produces some string of oral sounds that get conveyed through the air to the speaker who, through his hearing organs, receives the sound waves and conveys these to the brain that interprets these symbols to arrive at a meaning.
4.   A language is a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements.
(Noam Chomsky)
Chomsky meant to convey that each sentence has a structure. Human brain is competent enough to construct different sentences from out of the limited set of sounds/symbols belonging to a particular language. Human brain is so productive that a child can at any time produce a sentence that has never been said or heard earlier.
5.   A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols used for human communication.       
(Wardaugh)
6.   A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates.
(Bloch and Trager)
Both the definitions 5 and 6 above prominently point out that language is a system. Sounds join to form words according to a system. The letters k, n, i, t join to form a meaningful ‘word knit, whereas combinations like n-k-i-t, t.k.n.i. or i.n.k.t. do not form any meaningful or sensible combinations. Although initially the formation of words, as said earlier, is only arbitrary, convention makes them parts of a system. Words too join to form sentences according to some system. A sentence like: Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties is acceptable but one cannot accept a string of words like: a game is of cricket uncertainties glorious. It is in this sense that language is said to be a system of systems.
7.   Language is undoubtedly a kind of means of communication among human beings. It consists primarily of vocal sounds. It is articulatory, systematic, symbolic and arbitrary.
(Derbyshire)
Derbyshire, while accepting that language is the property of human beings and that it is primarily speech, brings out the point that it is an important means of communication amongst humans. Before the start of civilization, man might have used the language of signs but it must have had a very limited scope. Language is a fully developed means of communication with the civilized man who can convey and receive millions of messages across the universe. An entire civilization depends on language only. Think of a world without language—man would only continue to be a denizen of the forest and the caves. Language has changed the entire gamut of human relations and made it possible for human beings to grow into a human community on this planet.
Some More Definitions
8.       Language is a system of conventional spoken or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, communicate.
(Encyclopaedia Britannica)
9.   Languages are the principal systems of communication used by particular groups of human beings within the particular society (linguistic community) of which they are members.
(Lyons)
Anthropologists regard language as a form of cultural behaviour, sociologists as an interaction between members of social, city, students of literature as an artistic medium, philosophers as a means of interpreting human experience, language teachers as a set of skills. Truly, language is such a complex phenomenon that to define it in terms of a single level as knowledge, behaviour, skill, habit, an event or an object, solve the problem of its definition. None of the above definitions are perfect. Each of them just hints at certain characteristics of language. Hence instead of defining language, it would he worthwhile to stand its Major characteristics.
Characteristics of Language
1) Language is a Means of Communication:
Language is a very important means of communication between humans. A can communicate his or her ideas, emotions, beliefs or feelings to B as they share a common code that makes up the language. No doubt, there are many other means of communication used by humans e.g. gestures, nods, winks, flags, smiles, horns, short-hand, Braille alphabet, mathematical symbols, Morse code, sirens, sketches, maps, acting, miming, dancing etc. But all these systems of communication are extremely limited or they too, in turn, depend upon language only. They are not so flexible, comprehensive, perfect and extensive as language is. Language is so important a form of communication between humans that it is difficult to think of a society without language. It gives shape to people’s thoughts and guides and controls their entire activity. It is a carrier of civilization and culture as human thoughts and philosophy are conveyed from one generation to the other through the medium of language. Language is ubiquitous in the sense that it is present everywhere in all activities. It is as important as the air we breathe and is the most valuable possession of man.
Animals too have their system of communication but their communication is limited to a very small number of messages, e.g. hunger, fear, and anger. In the case of humans, the situation is entirely different. Human beings can send an infinite number of messages to their fellow beings. It is through language that they store knowledge, transfer it to the next generation and yoke the present, past and the future together.
2) Language is Arbitrary:
Language is arbitrary in the sense that there is no inherent relation between the words of a language and their meanings or the ideas conveyed by them (except in the case of hieroglyphics where a picture of an object may represent the object). There is no reason why a female adult human being be called a woman in English, aurat in Urdu, Zen in Persian and Femine in French. Selection of these words in the languages mentioned here is purely arbitrary, an accident of history. It is just like christening a new born baby who may be christened John or James. But once a child is given some name in a purely arbitrary manner; this name gets associated with the child for his entire life and it becomes an important, established convention. The situation in the case of the language is a similar one. The choice of a word selected to mean a particular thing or idea is purely arbitrary but once a word is selected for a particular referent, it comes to stay as such.
It may be noted that had language not been arbitrary, there would have been only one language in the world.
3) Language is a System of Systems:
Language is not an amorphous, a disorganised or a chaotic combination of sounds. Any brick may be used anywhere in a building, but it is not so with sounds or graphic symbols standing for the sounds of a language. Sounds are arranged in certain fixed or established, systematic order to form meaningful units or words. Similarly, words are also arranged in a particular system to frame acceptable mean­ingful sentences. These systems operate at two levels: phonological and syntactical.
At the phonological level, for example, sounds of a language appear only in some fixed combinations. There is no word, for example, that starts with bz–, lr­– or zl– combination. There is no word that begins with a /ŋ/ sound or ends in a /h/ sound. Similarly words too combine to form sentences according to certain conventions (i.e. grammatical or structural rules) of the language. The sentence “The hunter shot the tiger with a gun” is acceptable but the sentence “the tiger shot a gun with hunter the” is not acceptable as the word order in the latter sentence does not conform to the established language conventions.
Language is thus called a system of systems as it operates at the two levels discussed above. This property of language is also termed duality by some linguists. This makes language a very complex phenomenon. Every human child has to master the conventions of the language he or she learns before being able to successfully communicate with other members of the social group in which he or she is placed.
4) Language is Primarily Vocal:
Language is primarily made up of vocal sounds only produced by a physiological articulatory mechanism in the human body. In the beginning, it must have appeared as vocal sounds only. Writing must have come much later, as an intelligent attempt to represent vocal sounds. Writing is only the graphic representation of the sounds of the language. There are a number of languages which continue to exist, even today, in the spoken form only. They do not have a written form. A child learns to speak first; writing comes much later. Also, during his life time, a man speaks much more than he writes. The total quantum of speech is much larger than the total quantum of written materials.
It is because of these reasons that some linguists say that speech is primary, writing is secondary. Writing did have one advantage over speech—it could be preserved in books or records. But, with the invention of magnetic tapes or audio-cassettes, it has lost that advantage too. The age-old proverb ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ does not hold much ground when one finds that the spoken words, at the beck and call of a really good orator, can do much more than a pen. Just think of Mark Antony’s speech in ‘Julius Caesar’ that inspired the whole mob into action and spurred them on to a mood of frenzy to burn and kill the enemies of Julius Caesar. A number of modern gadgets like the telephone, the tape recorder, the Dictaphone, etc. only go to prove the primacy of speech over writing.
5) Language is a Social Phenomenon:
Language is a set of conventional communicative signals used by humans for communication in a community. Language in this sense is a possession of a social group, comprising an indispensable set of rules which permits its members to relate to each other, to interact with each other, to co-operate with each other; it is a social institution. Language exists in society; it is a means of nourishing and developing culture and establishing human relations. It is as a member of society that a human being acquires a language. We are not born with an instinct to learn a particular language––English, Russian, Chinese or French. We learn a language as member of the society using that language, or because we want to understand that society, or to be understood by that speech-community. If a language is not used in any society, it dies out.
Language is thus a social event. It can fully be described only if we know all about the people who are involved in it, their personalities, their beliefs, attitudes, knowledge of the world, relationship to each other, their social status, what activity they are engaged in, what they are talking about, what has gone before linguistically and non-linguistically, what happens after, what they are and a host of other facts about them and the situation they are placed in.
6) Language is Non-instinctive, Conventional:
No language was created in a day out of a mutually agreed upon formula by a group of humans. Language is the outcome of evolution and convention. Each generation transmits this convention on to the next. Like all human institutions languages also change and die, grow and expand. Every language then is a convention in a community. It is non-instinctive because it is acquired by human beings. No body gets a language in heritage; he acquires it, and everybody has been provided with an innate ability to acquire language. Animals inherit their system of communication by heredity, humans do not.
7) Language is Systematic:
Although language is symbolic, yet its symbols are arranged in a particular system. All languages have their system of arrangements. Though symbols in each human language are finite, they can be arranged infinitely; that is to say, we can produce an infinite set of sentence by a finite set of symbols.
Every language is a system of systems. All languages have phonological and grammatical systems, and within a system there are several sub-systems. For example, within the grammatical system we have morphological and syntactic systems, and within these two sub-systems we have several other systems such as those of plural, of mood, of aspect, of tense, etc.
8) Language is unique, creative, complex and modifiable:
Language is a unique phenomenon of the earth. Other planets do not seem to have any language, although this fact may be invalidated if we happen to discover a talking generation on any other planet. But so far there is no evidence of the presence of language on the moon. Each language is unique in its own sense. By this we do not mean that lan­guages do not have any similarities or universals. Despite their common features and language, universals, each language has its peculiarities and distinct features.
Language has creativity and productivity. The structural elements of human language can be combined to produce new utterances, which neither the speaker nor his hearers may ever have made or heard before any, listener, yet which both sides understand without difficulty. Language changes according to the needs of society. Old English is different from modern English; so is old Urdu different form modern Urdu.
9) Duality:
The language that human beings use consists of two sub-systems – sound and meaning. A finite set of sound units can be grouped and re-gourd into units of meaning. These can be grouped and re-grouped to generate further functional constituents of the higher hierarchical order. We can produce sentences through this process of combining units of a different order. Animal calls donot show such duality, they are unitary.
10) Productivity:
A speaker may say something that he has never said before and be understood without difficulty. Man uses the limited linguistic, resources in order to produce completely novel ideas and utterances. Fairy tales, animal fables, narratives about alien unheard of happenings in distant galaxies or nonexistent worlds are perfectly understood by the listeners.
11) Displacement:
One can talk about situations, places and objects far removed from one’s present surroundings and time. We often talk about events that happened long time ago and at a distant place ; bombing incident in Ireland’s Londonderry twelve years’ back, for instance; or the sinking of the Spanish Armada in the sixteenth century. Bees, of course, perform dances about the source of nectar that is also removed from the place of dance (beehive). But they cannot convey what happened in the previous season through their dance features. Human beings, however, can narrate events in which they were not involved.
12) Language is Both Linguistic and Communicative Competence:
A language is an abstract set of psychological principles and sociological consideration that constitute a person’s competence as a speaker in a given situation. “These psychological principles make available to him an unlimited number of sentences he can draw upon in concrete; situations and provide him with the ability to understand and create entirely new sentences. Hence language is not just a verbal behaviour; it is a system of rules establishing correlations between meanings and sound sequences. It is a set of principles that a speaker masters; it is not anything that he does. In brief, a language is a code which is different from the act of encoding; it is a speaker’s linguistic competence rather than his linguistic performance. But mere linguistic or communicative competence is not enough for communication; it has to be coupled with communicative competence. This is the view of the sociolinguists who stress the use of language according to the occasion and context, the speaker and the listener, the profession and the social status of the speaker and the listener. That language is the result of social interaction established truth.
13) Language is Human and Structurally Complex:
No species other than humans has been endowed with language. Animals cannot acquire human language because of its complex struc­ture and their physical inadequacies. Animals do not have the type of brain which the human beings possess and their articulatory organs are also very much different from those of the human beings. Furthermore any system of animals communication does not make use of the quality of features, that is, of concurrent systems of sound and meaning. Human language is open-ended, extendable and modifiable whereas the animal language is not. The difference between human and animal system of communication is explained below.
Human and Animal Communication
Language is primarily human. It is humans alone that possess language and use it for communication. Language is, in that sense, species-specific––it is specific only to one set of species. Also, all human beings uniformly possess language. It is only a few deaf (and therefore dumb) persons who cannot speak. Thus language is species-uniform to that extent. Animals also have their own system of communication but communication between them is extremely limited. It is limited to a very small number of messages. Animal communication differs from human communication in the following ways:
(a) Language can convey a large number, rather an infinite set, of messages whereas the number of messages conveyed through the communication system of animals is very limited. Animals, for example, are able to convey to their fellow animals if they are hungry or afraid. A bee, by its dance, is able to convey the distance or the direction of the source of nectar but it cannot convey how good or had this honey is. Similarly a bee cannot tell another bee that the source of honey is ten metres to the left of a point fifteen metres to the right. Language can thus convey messages along several directions whereas, in the case of bees, messages are differentiated along two dimensions only, i.e., direction and distance. Some monkeys, it is known, can produce a number of (not more than 9 to 10) sounds to express fear, aggression, anger, love etc. but these messages too are extremely limited in number.
(b) Language makes use of clearly distinguishable discrete, separately identifiable symbols while animal communication systems are often continuous or non-discrete.
One can clearly distinguish between /k/, /æ/ and /t/ in the word cat but one cannot identify different discrete symbols in the long humming sound that a bee produces or the caw-caw of a crow.
(c)  Animal communication systems are closed systems that permit of no change, modification or addition. A bee’s dance or a cock’s crow is today the same that it was two hundred years ago. It is not so in the case of language. Language is changing, growing every day and new words continue to be added to it in the course of time. Words like sputnik, laser, video, software etc. did not, for example, exist anywhere in English language three hundred years ago. Language is thus open ended, modifiable and extendable.
(d)  Human language is far more structurally complex than animal commu­nication. English (RP Variety), for example, has 44 sounds that join in different groups to form thousands of words. These words can be arranged into millions of sets to frame different sentences. Each sentence has its own internal structure. There is no such structural complexity in a lamb’s bleating or a monkey’s cry.
(e)  Human language is non-instinctive in the sense that every human child has to learn language from his elders or peers in society. This process of learning plays an important part in the acquisition of language. On the other hand, bees acquire their skill in dancing as humans acquire the skill to walk. Bees are sometimes seen to make hexagonal hives. They do not learn any geometry. Their knowledge is inherited, inbuilt. It is not so in the case of human beings who have to learn a language.
(f)   Another important property possessed by human language is called Displacement. A human being, for example, can talk about the past, the present or the future, of an event that happened nearby or thousands of miles away. An animal cannot do that. When a dog produces a certain sound, it generally refers to the present. A dog cannot tell his master that a thief had visited his premises the previous night or the previous Sunday. It cannot tell him that a piece of meat is lying 200 metres away on the left bank of a river flowing by the village. When a cat mews at the arrival of its master, it is expressing its present feeling only. It cannot refer to an event that took place two hours ago in the park. It is this property of displacement which enables humans to create fiction and describe the past as well as the possible future events.
Why Study Language?
Having outlined the various characteristics of language, one may like to ask: why study or learn language at all? An answer to this question can be easily derived from a consideration of the situation this world was in before language came into being. One can easily imagine that man must then have been a denizen of the forest very much like anyone of the other animals, viz. horse, cow, tiger, elephant, and dog. The entire human progress, in fact everything that distinguishes humans from animals, depends on language only. Language is, today, a medium of literature, science and technology, computers and cultural exchanges between social groups, and the most powerful, convenient and permanent means of communication in the world. It is ubiquitous, present everywhere in all human activities, thoughts, dreams, prayers, meditations and relations. It is only through language that knowledge and culture are stored and passed on from generation to generation. Thus all human civilization and knowledge is only possible through language.
Some Misconception about Language
Having discussed the major characteristics of language, it would be proper to hint at some major misconceptions which ate cherished by otherwise well-informed people. These misconceptions arise because of improper and inadequate reflection on the nature and structure of language. For some people, language is so familiar an object that it is not worthy of reflection and investigation. For others, reflection about lan­guage would only mean the vaguely understood statements made in a grammar class which they attended sometime in their schools or colleges. For the linguist, however, both these views are unacceptable. He regards the study of language as essential and exciting. He wants to study lan­guage to find out what it is like, what its parts or units or elements or components are like, and bow they are combined together. He is interested in discovering its structure. He speculates about language then he analyzes and describes it. If need be he compares it with other languages, and discovers its core grammar.
More than this the linguist raises very many pertinent and valid questions to be answered by researchers in the future. He raise the questions such as those listed here. Does every linguist analyse a language into the same number and kind of parts? What is the relationship of one analysis to another when there is mole than one way of analyzing a language? Out of the existing analysis and descriptions which is the better one? How is a language learnt? What is the difference between the first language acquisition and the second language learning? Why is second language learning difficult? Can the knowledge of one language help a person in acquiring the knowledge of the other language? How, why and to what extent does the learner’s knowledge of the mother tongue inter­fere with the learning of a second language? Are there sonic people who do not know even a single language? What happens to a child when he is brought up in isolation? Is there a particular age at which children start the process of learning a language and another by which they complete it? Why can’t animals imitate human language? Winn is the difference between human language and animal system of communication? What are the similarities and dis-similarities between one lan­guage and another? Are there some language universals among the languages of the world? By which they complete it? Why can’t animals imitate human language? What is the difference between human language and animal system of communication? What are the similarities and dis-similarities between one language and another? Are there some language universals among the languages of the world?
A linguist tries to ask these and similar other questions. It is not incumbent upon him to find out satisfactory answers to all the questions. It is a contribution of no little value to raise questions that arc valid and important. In all sciences, raising questions is more important then sun-plying answers to the questions previously raised. This is how scientific inquiry progresses. If a question is raised today, some future linguist will find out not only its answer but also the ways and means to analyse and study languages scientifically, ask valid questions and raise new controversies.
There are misconceptions of yet graver magnitude than those mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. The common ones are, that written form is more prestigious than the spoken form; that literary language is the only language; that one language is superior to another; that traditional alphabet is adequate; that the job of a linguist is not to describe hut. to prescribe the grammatical rules to preserve the purity of a language that children learn language merely by imitation; that language is an in­stinctive and inherited property of man; that there is little in common between the languages of the world; that there are no language universals at all; that no two languages have any similarities; that the purity of a language should somehow be preserved and that historical forms of usage are to be preferred and remembered whereas contemporary usage should be ignored as unworthy of attention. Even wore is the misconception that only a historical treatment of language is the right treatment and that a language should riot be studied isolating it as it were, at a particular stage or point of time, and that what one school of linguists se the absolute and the only truth and what the other says is a falsehood and heresy. Some other misconceptions are that all languages can he ana­lyzed as one would analyze European languages such as Latin and French; that Greek and Latin are ideal languages; that sounds a particular language are in themselves easy or difficult; and that languages are static. The earlier a student of language removes such misconception, the easier it is for him to acquire wholesome and scientific attitude towards language.
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