Definition and Features of Language

Today, language is an inextricably aspect of human society. Human civilization has only been possible because of language. Only through the use of language has humanity progressed from the Stone Age to the present day, achieving significant advances in science, art, and technology. Language is a means of communication, it is arbitrary, and it is a system of systems. We all know that speech is primary and writing is secondary.

Language is human, thus it varies from animal communication in various ways. Language has many features, but the following are the most important: it is arbitrary, productive, creative, systematic, vocalic, social, non-instinctive, and conventional. These features of language distinguish human communication from animal communication. Some of these characteristics may be present in animal communication; nevertheless, they do not constitute the entirety of it.

Language, as a medium of communication for people, is much more than just spoken or written words. consists of five key characteristics.  Language is a system, is dynamic, has dialect, is sociolect and idiolect.  There are different linguistic levels within the system of a language. The most fundamental is the phonological level. It associates variations in sound with changes in meaning.

Next, the lexical level comprises morphemes, or whole words with attached definitions. On the syntactical level, words are specifically arranged in sentences to convey a thought. At this level, definitions of individual words cannot be considered separately from the sentence, lest misinterpretation is bound. The sociolinguistic level of the language system is shaped by social factors such as age, gender and social class. It is best understood when considering the subtle, yet distinct differences in the way men and women relay the same message.

Language is always changing; it is dynamic. Words that the “screen-technology” demographic uses to communicate are quite different from those of the “baby boomers”. So much so that certain words and phrases are lost in the past. The literature of Shakespeare exemplifies this.

The third characteristic, dialect, describes the regional differences of language. Southern American English is very distinct from Northern American English, as is English spoken in other countries such as Australia and London. These differences are as much auditory as they are definitive.

Sociolect is directly related to the speaker’s social class. A king and queen may use different phrases and intonation than a pauper, for instance, and the hip-hop generation’s language is easily distinguished from those of the “valley”.

Lastly, idiolect is the most specific characteristic of language. It refers to the speech habits of an individual. From this view, even twins who have lived together all their lives will use language differently. It includes voice quality, pitch, intonation, word choice and many other factors.

Language is the collection of all efforts human use to communicate. Whether spoken, written, or insinuated by movement and gesture, the five characteristics of language remain relevant and important to human communication.

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. 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. 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.

Language is Social: 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 cooperate 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.

Note: A person who loves to learn multiple languages or is simply a lover of language is called a linguaphile.

Language is Symbolic: Language consists of various sound symbols and their graphological counterparts that are employed to denote some objects, occurrences or meaning. These symbols are arbitrarily chosen and conventionally accepted and employed. Words in a language are not mere signs or figures, but symbols of meaning. The intelligibility of a language depends on a correct interpretation of these symbols.

Language is Systematic: Although language is symbolic, yet its symbols are arranged in a particular system. All languages have their system of arrangements. 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 systems such as those of plural, of mood, of aspect, of tense, etc.

Language is Vocal: Language is primarily made up of vocal sounds only produced by a physiological articulatory mechanism in the human body. In the beginning, it appeared as vocal sounds only. Writing came much later, as an intelligent attempt to represent vocal sounds. Writing is only the graphic representation of the sounds of the language. So the linguists say that speech is primary.

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 because he an innate ability.

Language is Productive and Creative: 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. 

Finally, language has other characteristics such as Duality referring to the two systems of sound and meaning. Displacement which means the ability to talk across time and space, Humanness which means that animals cannot acquire it, Universality which refers to the equilibrium across humanity on linguistic grounds, Competence and Performance which means that language is innate and produced is society and furthermore, language is culturally transmitted. It is learnt by an individual from his elders, and is transmitted from one generation to another.  Thus using J. Firth’s term, language is a ‘poly systametic’. It is also open to be studied from multifaceted angles. 


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