Page 1 of 1
is multifaceted and complex, many attempts to define it are simplified
to the construction of lists of language characteristics. This approach
is not without its difficulties, however. For example, how many
characteristics are minimally sufficient to describe language? Two?
Four? Twenty? Having said this, an outline of essential characteristics
can still be helpful in gaining an overview of the so-called key properties of language. I will discuss just eight of these, as follows.
Essentially, language is a symbol system. In broad terms, the symbols of language are words. By constructing words and stringing them together according to a set of rules – the grammar of the language – we are able to construct meaningful utterances.
The choice of symbols used by a language is,
however, said to be arbitrary. This is because there is no direct
relationship between a particular word and its meaning. For example, in
English we use the word cup to represent a physical object
capable of holding liquids, which usually has a handle, and which
humans use to drink from. Of course, there is no particular reason why
we should use the word-symbol cup. We could just as easily choose to use the word form zarg, or pinkt,
or any other word form we might think of. The point is that words are
just an arbitrary set of symbols used to represent various meanings. In
summary, if we know the form of a word it is impossible to predict the
meaning and if we know the meaning it is impossible to predict the form.
Each particular language (English, French, Russian,
Chinese, and so on) uses a different set of symbols. So, for example,
the word-symbol for cup in French is tasse but in Portuguese it is copo.
Arbitrariness is a useful property because it increases the flexibility of language.
The flexibility arises because language is not constrained by the need
to match the form of a word and its meaning. Because of this it is
possible to construct an almost infinite number of words from a limited
set of speech sounds.
Having made the point that linguistic symbols are
arbitrary, there are some English words that appear to be less
arbitrary than others. These are onomatopoeic words: words that imitate the sound associated with an object or an action. For example, in the utterance the bees were buzzing the word buzzing sounds similar to the noise bees make. Other examples include hiss and rasp. The features of such words are often exploited in the writing of poetry.
Language appears to be organized at least at two levels:
the primary level consisting of the units
the secondary level consisting of the elements
The elements of the secondary level combine to form
the units of the primary level. For our purposes, we can consider the
elements of verbal language to be speech sounds, i.e. consonants and vowels. These speech sounds then combine to form units at the primary level, i.e. words.
Consider, for example, how the word cat is
formed by the combination of three speech sounds: the consonant ‘c’,
the vowel ‘a’ and the consonant ‘t’. These speech sounds at the primary
level are meaningless if they are uttered in isolation. For example, if
I just say the sound ‘c’ this has no meaning. Similarly, ‘a’ and ‘t’
spoken on their own are meaningless. It is only when these secondary
level elements are combined in a systematic way that they have the
possibility of conveying meaning. Consequently, cat is meaningful, whereas ‘c’, ‘a’, and ‘t’ are not.
Language is an orderly method of communicating
ideas, thoughts, emotions, and so on. If language were random then
there would be no way of ensuring that the intended meaning was
conveyed. Regularity and order (i.e. systematicity) are essential for
language to work properly.
We have already seen an example of this above when
considering duality. We noted that the combination of the secondary
level elements ‘c’, ‘a’, and ‘t’ may combine to form the primary level
unit cat. These three elements may also be recombined to form the word act. However, the combination ‘a’ + ‘t’ + ‘c’ to form atc is meaningless (in English).
What this demonstrates is that language is governed
by rules that define which combinations of elements are acceptable and
which are not. There are also rules that govern the combination of
primary level units. So, for example, we realize that the utterance the first snows of winter is appropriate, whereas the combination snows winter first the of is not.
Language appears to have an underlying patterned
structure and humans appear to intuitively recognize these patterns.
Consider the following utterance:
We intuitively realize that this utterance patterns
into coherent segments. This is demonstrated by the fact that we are
able to easily remove one segment and replace it with another, e.g.
As well as recognizing that we can substitute one
segment with another, further evidence that we intuitively recognize
patterns in language is demonstrated by our ability to readily
rearrange segments. Consider again our opening utterance:
This utterance could be rearranged as follows.
Of course, the patterned structure of language allows us to both rearrange and substitute segments simultaneously, e.g.
Many animals respond to stimuli in their environment
in predictable ways. For example, the stimulus of seeing a collection
of shiny objects in front of a small grass covert will stimulate a
female Bowerbird to mate with the male bird who prepared the display.
The sight of the objects stimulates the female to perform a particular
behavior, in this case pairing and mating.
Similarly, the stimulus of cold weather and reduced
daylight hours stimulates the ground squirrel to perform a certain
behavior – hibernation.
These behaviors, and others like them, are said to be stimulus bound.
In other words, if we know what the stimulus is then we can predict the
subsequent behavior. The behavior is invariant and always follows a
If language were stimulus bound we would expect that
each time a human was presented with the same stimulus he or she would
utter exactly the same words. Clearly this is not so. If three people
were all shown the painting of the Mona Lisa there is no guarantee that
each would utter the same words. A variety of responses are available
to these people. There is no sure way of predicting what they may say:
‘What a beautiful picture’, ‘That reminds me of my sister’, ‘Oh, I’ve
forgotten to put the kettle on!’
The salient point is that it is not possible to
predict that a particular stimulus will cause a human to use one, and
only one, particular language construction. In this sense, language is
said to be stimulus free and this explains why humans are able to use language creatively. Language is, therefore, flexible.
The fact that language is stimulus-free and that it is flexible leads to the notion of productivity,
i.e. that language can be used to construct an infinite set of new and
meaningful utterances. These utterances are novel in that they may
never have been spoken before and yet they are meaningful and readily
interpretable by other people.
Language also allows us to think of, and communicate
about, something or someone that is not immediately present. So, for
example, we can refer to our new car even though it is not actually in
front of us. Similarly, we can discuss last night’s football game even
though it has passed. This property of language is known as displacement.
This key property refers to the fact that language
allows us to substitute an arbitrary word for a physical action. An
example might be a child who instructs their friend to ‘Stay away!’
This utterance means that the child does not then have to act out his
or her message: for example, by physically pushing the friend away.
Similarly, the police officer who instructs a crowd to ‘Move along!’
has used language to substitute for the physical action of driving the
crowd forwards. In both instances the language has substituted for a
Language is the means by which humans are able to
teach the upcoming generation all that they have learnt to date. If we
did not have the ability to use language then it would be largely
impossible to transmit our knowledge and experiences to the next
generation of humans and each successive generation would have to start
afresh. However, because we have language we are able to communicate
necessary knowledge and social norms of behaviour to the upcoming
One of the most obvious examples of this is the
formal teaching in our schools, the majority of which is undertaken
using spoken language. The child who sits on a parent’s lap and listens
to stories of family traditions and events is also learning through
language. This property of language is referred to as cultural transmission. The language of a particular society, therefore, forms part of the culture of that society.
Very helpful. Thanks for your effort.
Page 1 of 1
Permissions in this forum:You cannot reply to topics in this forum