AskDefine | Define language

Dictionary Definition



1 a systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional symbols; "he taught foreign languages"; "the language introduced is standard throughout the text"; "the speed with which a program can be executed depends on the language in which it is written" [syn: linguistic communication]
2 (language) communication by word of mouth; "his speech was garbled"; "he uttered harsh language"; "he recorded the spoken language of the streets" [syn: speech, speech communication, spoken communication, spoken language, voice communication, oral communication]
3 a system of words used in a particular discipline; "legal terminology"; "the language of sociology" [syn: terminology, nomenclature]
4 the cognitive processes involved in producing and understanding linguistic communication; "he didn't have the language to express his feelings" [syn: linguistic process]
5 the mental faculty or power of vocal communication; "language sets homo sapiens apart from all other animals" [syn: speech]
6 the text of a popular song or musical-comedy number; "his compositions always started with the lyrics"; "he wrote both words and music"; "the song uses colloquial language" [syn: lyric, words]

User Contributed Dictionary



From langage, from *|linguaticum, from lingua, from Old Latin dingua, from *|dnghwa-


Extensive Definition

A language is a dynamic set of visual, auditory, or tactile symbols of communication and the elements used to manipulate them. Language can also refer to the use of such systems as a general phenomenon. Language is considered to be an exclusively human mode of communication; although animals make use of quite sophisticated communicative systems none of these are known to make use of all of the properties that linguists use to define language.

Properties of language

A set of agreed-upon symbols is only one feature of written language; all languages must define the structural relationships between these symbols in a system of grammar. Rules of grammar are what distinguish language from other forms of communication. They allow a finite set of symbols to be manipulated to create a potentially infinite number of grammatical utterances.
Another property of language is that the symbols used are arbitrary. Any concept or grammatical rule can be mapped onto a symbol. Most languages make use of sound, but the combinations of sounds used do not have any inherent meaning - they are merely an agreed-upon convention to represent a certain thing by users of that language. For instance, there is nothing about the Spanish word itself that forces Spanish speakers to use it to mean "nothing". Another set of sounds - for example, English nothing - could equally be used to represent the same concept. Nevertheless, all Spanish speakers have acquired or learned that meaning for that sound pattern. But for Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian/Kosovan or Bosnian speakers, means "hope".

The study of language


Linguistics approaches language through meaning, discourse, semiotics (or social signification), as well as through existing narrative and grammatical structures. The recent study of semiotics and discourse have introduced linguistics to the more metaphysical and sociological perspectives available today, making it open to a wide range of inter-disciplinary subjects and approaches within the realm of the human sciences. Linguistics explores lingual trends and social constructs. It explores histories to arrive at universals, and it examines the aesthetics of various styles in these literary and cultural discourses. It also attempts to account for the development of specific words and utterances through the way they have been used.
Discourse provides an understanding of language on the basis of how it has actually been used. Semiotics is the study of the relationship between signs and what they signify. Narrative studies works on the theory of the narrative, or narratology. The study of narratives might help us to understand how the narratives and structures, that texts are based on, shape our social visions and perspectives. Semantics is the study of meaning: It attempts to understand the meaning behind texts, utterances, usages and words.
Theoretical linguistics is most concerned with developing models of linguistic knowledge. The fields that are generally considered the core of theoretical linguistics are syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics. Applied linguistics attempts to put linguistic theories into practice through areas like translation, stylistics, literary criticism and theory, discourse analysis, speech therapy, speech pathology and foreign language teaching.

Origins of linguistics

The historical record of linguistics begins in India with Pāṇini, the 5th century BCE grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, known as the (अष्टाध्यायी) and with Tolkāppiyar, the 3rd century BCE grammarian of the Tamil work Tolkāppiyam. grammar is highly systematized and technical. Inherent in its analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root; Western linguists only recognized the phoneme some two millennia later. Tolkāppiyar's work is perhaps the first to describe articulatory phonetics for a language. Its classification of the alphabet into consonants and vowels, and elements like nouns, verbs, vowels, and consonants, which he put into classes, were also breakthroughs at the time. In the Middle East, the Persian linguist Sibawayh (سیبویه) 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. In the 20th century, substantial contributions to the understanding of language came from Ferdinand de Saussure, Hjelmslev, Émile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson, which are characterized as being highly systematic. 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 sometimes gradual (see dialect continuum).
Some like to make parallels with biology, where it is not possible to make a well-defined distinction between one species and the next. In either case, the ultimate difficulty may stem from the interactions between languages and populations. (See Dialect or August Schleicher for a longer discussion.)
The concepts of Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache and Dachsprache are used to make finer distinctions about the degrees of difference between languages or dialects.

Artificial languages

Constructed languages

Some individuals and groups have constructed their own artificial languages, for practical, experimental, personal, or ideological reasons. International auxiliary languages are generally constructed languages that strive to be easier to learn than natural languages; other constructed languages strive to be more logical ("loglangs") than natural languages; a prominent example of this is Lojban.
Some writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, have created fantasy languages, for literary, artistic or personal reasons. However, like all languages, these now appear to be based upon what some consider to be the original language, Adamic. The fantasy language of the Klingon race has in recent years been developed by fans of the Star Trek series, including a vocabulary and grammar.
Constructed languages are not necessarily restricted to the properties shared by natural languages.
This part of ISO 639 also includes identifiers that denote constructed (or artificial) languages. In order to qualify for inclusion the language must have a literature and it must be designed for the purpose of human communication. Specifically excluded are reconstructed languages and computer programming languages.

International auxiliary languages

Some languages, most constructed, are meant specifically for communication between people of different nationalities or language groups as an easy-to-learn second language. Several of these languages have been constructed by individuals or groups. Natural, pre-existing languages may also be used in this way - 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. Two others, Occidental and Novial, were drawn from several Western languages.
To date, the most successful auxiliary language is Esperanto, invented by Polish ophthalmologist Zamenhof. It has a relatively large community roughly estimated at about 2 million speakers worldwide, with a large body of literature, songs, and is the only known constructed language to have native speakers, such as the Hungarian-born American businessman George Soros. Other auxiliary languages with a relatively large number of speakers and literature are Interlingua and Ido.

Controlled languages

Controlled natural languages are subsets of natural languages whose grammars and dictionaries have been restricted in order to reduce or eliminate both ambiguity and complexity. The purpose behind the development and implementation of a controlled natural language typically is to aid non-native speakers of a natural language in understanding it, or to ease computer processing of a natural language. An example of a widely used controlled natural language is Simplified English, which was originally developed for aerospace industry maintenance manuals.

Formal languages

Mathematics and computer science use artificial entities called formal languages (including programming languages and markup languages, and some that are more theoretical in nature). These often take the form of character strings, produced by a combination of formal grammar and semantics of arbitrary complexity.

Programming languages

A programming language is an extreme case of a formal language that can be used to control the behavior of a machine, particularly a computer, to perform specific tasks. Programming languages are defined using syntactic and semantic rules, to determine structure and meaning respectively.
Programming languages are used to facilitate communication about the task of organizing and manipulating information, and to express algorithms precisely. Some authors restrict the term "programming language" to those languages that can express all possible algorithms; sometimes the term "computer language" is used for artificial languages that are more limited.

Animal communication

The term "animal languages" is often used for nonhuman languages. Linguists do not consider these to be language, but describe them as animal communication, because the interaction between animals in such communication is fundamentally different in its underlying principles from true language, which has been found in humans only. Karl von Frisch received the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his proof of the language and dialects of the bees. Recent research demonstrates that every sign-use in communication processes follows syntactic, pragmatic and semantic rules. Signs may be signals or symbols. signals in bacteria-, fungi- or plant-communication are chemical molecules ("semiochemicals"). In contrast to the analog signaling of honey bees of the southern hemisphere Karl von Frisch demonstrated that the variety of bee dances function as symbolic code for distance and direction of nutrient availability.
In several publicized instances, nonhuman animals have been taught to understand certain features of human language. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have been taught hand signs based on American Sign Language; however, they have never been successfully taught grammar. In 2003, a saved Bonobo ape named Kanzi allegedly independently created some words to convey certain concepts, however the careful examination of other apes raised in a similar manner (Washoe, Koko, and Nim Chimpsky) shows a greater degree of anthropomorphism and selective observation on the part of trainers and a lack of initiative and high levels of simple imitative behavior with the subjects. The African Grey Parrot, which possesses the ability to mimic human speech with a high degree of accuracy, is suspected of having sufficient intelligence to comprehend some of the speech it mimics. Most species of parrot, despite expert mimicry, are believed to have no linguistic comprehension at all.
While proponents of animal communication systems have debated levels of semantics, these systems have not been found to have anything approaching human language syntax. The situation with dolphins and whales presents a special case in that there is some evidence that spontaneous development of complex vocal language is occurring, but it certainly has not been proven.
Some researchers argue that a continuum exists among the communication methods of all social animals, pointing to the fundamental requirements of group behavior and the existence of mirror neurons in primates. This, however, is still a scientific question. Most researchers agree that, although human and more primitive languages have analogous features, they are not homologous..



  • Crystal, David (1997). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Crystal, David (2001). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Chakrabarti, Byomkes (1994). A comparative study of Santali and Bengali. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi & Co. ISBN 8170741289
  • Gode, Alexander (1951). Interlingua-English Dictionary. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company.
  • Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM. Principles of Neural Science, fourth edition, 1173 pages. McGraw-Hill, New York (2000). ISBN 0-8385-7701-6
  • Katzner, K. (1999). The Languages of the World. New York, Routledge.
  • Holquist, Michael. (1981) Introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin and London: University of Texas Press. xv-xxxiv
  • McArthur, T. (1996). The Concise Companion to the English Language. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Further reading

  • Berger, Ruth: Warum der Mensch spricht: Eine Naturgeschichte der Sprache. (Eichborn, Frankfurt 2008 - a comprehensive survey of the field covering the latest research both in linguistics and anthropology, unfortunately in German).
  • Deacon, Terrence. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. Norton.
  • Witzany, Guenther. 1993. Natur der Sprache - Sprache der Natur. Sprachpragmatische Philosophie der Biologie. Koenigshausen und Neumann. Würzburg.
  • International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (Frawley 2003)
  • The World's Major Languages (Comrie 1987)
  • The Atlas of Languages (Comrie, Matthews, & Polinsky 1997)
language in Afrikaans: Taal
language in Tosk Albanian: Sprache
language in Arabic: لغة
language in Aragonese: Lenguache
language in Franco-Provençal: Lengua
language in Asturian: Idioma
language in Guarani: Ñe'ẽ
language in Aymara: Aru
language in Azerbaijani: Dil
language in Bambara: Kan
language in Min Nan: Gí-giân
language in Banyumasan: Basa
language in Bashkir: Тел (фән)
language in Belarusian: Мова
language in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Мова
language in Bavarian: Sprache
language in Bengali: ভাষা
language in Bosnian: Jezik
language in Breton: Yezh
language in Bulgarian: Език (лингвистика)
language in Catalan: Llenguatge
language in Chuvash: Чĕлхе
language in Cebuano: Pinulongan
language in Czech: Jazyk (lingvistika)
language in Welsh: Iaith
language in Danish: Sprog
language in Pennsylvania German: Schprooch
language in German: Sprache
language in Dhivehi: ބަސް
language in Navajo: Bizaad
language in Estonian: Keel (keeleteadus)
language in Modern Greek (1453-): Γλώσσα
language in Spanish: Lenguaje
language in Esperanto: Lingvo
language in Basque: Hizkuntza
language in Persian: زبان
language in Faroese: Mál
language in French: Langage
language in Western Frisian: Taal
language in Friulian: Lengaç
language in Irish: Teanga (cumarsáid)
language in Scottish Gaelic: Cànan
language in Galician: Linguaxe
language in Gujarati: ભાષા
language in Korean: 언어
language in Hindi: भाषा
language in Croatian: Jezik
language in Ido: Linguo
language in Iloko: Pagsasao
language in Indonesian: Bahasa
language in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Linguage
language in Xhosa: Ulwimi
language in Icelandic: Tungumál
language in Italian: Linguaggio
language in Hebrew: שפה
language in Javanese: Basa
language in Cornish: Yeth
language in Kirghiz: Тил
language in Swahili (macrolanguage): Lugha
language in Kongo: Ndinga
language in Haitian: Lang
language in Kurdish: Ziman
language in Latin: Lingua
language in Latvian: Valoda
language in Luxembourgish: Sprooch
language in Lithuanian: Kalba
language in Limburgan: Taol
language in Lingala: Lokótá
language in Lojban: bangu
language in Hungarian: Nyelv
language in Macedonian: Јазик
language in Malagasy: Fiteny
language in Malayalam: ഭാഷ
language in Marathi: भाषा
language in Mazanderani: Zivan
language in Malay (macrolanguage): Bahasa
language in Min Dong Chinese: Ngṳ̄-ngiòng
language in Dutch: Taal
language in Japanese: 言語
language in Chechen: Мотт
language in Norwegian: Språk
language in Norwegian Nynorsk: Språk
language in Narom: Laungue
language in Occitan (post 1500): Lenga
language in Pushto: ژبه
language in Polish: Język (mowa)
language in Portuguese: Linguagem
language in Kölsch: Sprooch
language in Romanian: Limbă
language in Vlax Romani: Chhib
language in Quechua: Rimay
language in Russian: Язык
language in Northern Sami: Giella
language in Sardinian: Limbas
language in Scots: Leid
language in Sicilian: Lingua (parràta)
language in Simple English: Language
language in Slovak: Jazyk (lingvistika)
language in Slovenian: Jezik (sredstvo sporazumevanja)
language in Serbian: Језик
language in Saterfriesisch: Sproake
language in Finnish: Kieli
language in Swedish: Språk
language in Tagalog: Wika
language in Tamil: மொழி
language in Thai: ภาษา
language in Vietnamese: Ngôn ngữ
language in Tajik: Забон (суxан)
language in Turkish: Dil (lisan)
language in Turkmen: Dil
language in Ukrainian: Мова
language in Volapük: Pük
language in Võro: Keeleq
language in Walloon: Lingaedje
language in Yiddish: שפראך
language in Dimli: Zıwan (lisan)
language in Samogitian: Kalba
language in Chinese: 语言
language in Contenese: 語言

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Abnaki, Afghan, Afghani, Afrikaans, Afro-Asiatic, Ainu, Akan, Akkadian, Albanian, Aleut, Algonquian, Algonquin, Amharic, Anatolian, Anatolic, Andaman, Annamese, Anzanite, Apache, Arabic, Aramaic, Araucanian, Arawak, Arawakan, Armenian, Arulo, Aryan, Assamese, Athapaskan, Austral, Austronesian, Avestan, Aymara, Aztec, Balinese, Baluchi, Bashkir, Basque, Batak, Bellacoola, Bengali, Berber, Bhili, Bihari, Bikol, Bini, Blackfoot, Blaia Zimondal, Brahui, Brythonic, Buginese, Burmese, Burushaski, Buryat, Bushman, Byelorussian, Cantonese, Carolinian, Caspian, Castilian, Catalan, Caucasian, Chad, Cham, Cheremis, Cherokee, Chibcha, Chibchan, Chin, Chinese, Chinookan, Chuvash, Coptic, Cornish, Cuman, Czech, Dafla, Dalmatian, Danish, Dinka, Dravidian, Dutch, Dyak, Edo, Efatese, Egyptian, Elamitic, English, Eskimo, Eskimo-Aleut, Esperantido, Esperanto, Estonian, Ethiopic, Europan, Euskarian, Ewe, Faeroese, Faliscan, Fijian, Finnic, Finnish, Flemish, Fox, French, Frisian, Fula, Fulani, Gadaba, Gaelic, Galcha, Galla, Garo, Gaulish, Geez, Georgian, German, Germanic, Gold, Goldi, Gondi, Gothic, Greek, Guanche, Guarani, Gur, Gypsy, Haida, Haitian Creole, Hamito-Semitic, Hausa, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hellenic, Hindustani, Hittite, Ho, Hokaltecan, Hokan-Siouan, Hopi, Hottentot, Iban, Ibanag, Ibo, Icelandic, Idiom Neutral, Igorot, Illyrian, Indic, Indo-Aryan, Indo-Chinese, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Interlingua, Irish, Iroquoian, Italian, Italic, Ivatan, Kachin, Kafiri, Kalmuck, Kamasin, Kamchadal, Kanarese, Kara-Kalpak, Karamojong, Karankawa, Karelian, Kashmiri, Kashubian, Kechumaran, Keres, Ket, Khamti, Kharia, Khasi, Khmer, Khoisan, Khondi, Khosa, Khowar, Kickapoo, Kiowa Apache, Kirghiz, Kiriwina, Kitunahan, Kodagu, Kohistani, Koiari, Kolami, Koluschan, Komi, Konkani, Korean, Korwa, Koryak, Kui, Kuki, Kuki-Chin, Kumyk, Kunama, Kurdish, Kurukh, Kutchin, Kutenai, Kwa, Ladino, Lahnda, Lampong, Lamut, Lao, Lapp, Latin, Latinesce, Latvian, Lettish, Libyan, Ligurian, Limbu, Lingualumina, Lingvo Kosmopolita, Lithuanian, Livonian, Low German, Luorawetlan, Lusatian, Luwian, Lycian, Lydian, Macedonian, Madurese, Magyar, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Malayo-Polynesian, Maltese, Manchu, Mandarin, Mande, Mandingo, Mangarevan, Manobo, Manx, Maori, Marathi, Maya, Mayan, Meithei, Mende, Messapian, Micronesian, Middle English, Middle Greek, Middle High German, Middle Persian, Mishmi, Mishongnovi, Misima, Miskito, Mon, Monario, Mongolian, Mongolic, Mordvin, Mordvinian, Moro, Mru, Munda, Muong, Mura, Muran, Murmi, Muskogean, Muskogee, Na-dene, Naga, Nahuatlan, Nepali, Newari, Ngala, Ngbaka, Niasese, Nicobarese, Niuean, Nogai, Nootka, Norwegian, Nov-Esperanto, Nov-Latin, Novial, Occidental, Optez, Oraon, Oriya, Oscan, Osco-Umbrian, Osmanli, Ossetic, Ostyak, Otomanguean, Pahlavi, Palaic, Palau, Palaung, Paleo-Asiatic, Pali, Pampango, Pangasinan, Papuan, Pashto, Pasigraphy, Paya, Penutian, Permian, Persian, Phrygian, Piman, Plattdeutsch, Polabian, Polish, Polynesian, Portuguese, Prakrit, Punic, Punjabi, Quechua, Quechuan, Ritwan, Ro, Romaic, Romanal, Romance, Romanic, Romansh, Romany, Russian, Ruthenian, Sabellian, Saharan, Sakai, Salish, Samoan, Samoyed, Samoyedic, Sanskrit, Sardinian, Sasak, Scandinavian, Selung, Semitic, Serbo-Croatian, Shan, Shilha, Shluh, Shoshonean, Siamese, Sinhalese, Sino-Tibetan, Siouan, Skittagetan, Slavic, Slavonic, Slovak, Slovene, Slovenian, Sogdian, Sorbian, Soyot, Spanish, Sudanic, Sumerian, Susian, Swahili, Swedish, Syriac, Syryenian, Tagalog, Tagula, Tahitian, Takelma, Takilman, Tamashek, Tamaulipec, Tanoan, Taracahitian, Tarascan, Tavgi, Taw-Sug, Thraco-Phrygian, Tibeto-Burman, Tigre, Tipura, Tocharian, Toda, Tsimshian, Tuareg, Tulu, Tungus, Tungusic, Tupi-Guaranian, Turanian, Turkic, Turkish, Turko-Tartar, Turkoman, Ugric, Uighur, Umbrian, Ural-Altaic, Uralian, Urdu, Uto-Aztecan, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Visayan, Vote, Votyak, Wa, Welsh, White Russian, Xhosa, Yakut, Yeniseian, Yiddish, Yoruba, Yukaghir, Yukian, Yurak, Zenaga, Zulu, agglutinative, analytic, argot, cant, choice of words, communication, composition, dialect, diction, dictionary, expression, formulation, grammar, idiom, incorporative, inflectional, interaction, intercourse, isolating, jargon, language, lexicon, lingo, locution, monosyllabic, palaver, parlance, patois, phrase, phraseology, phrasing, polysynthetic, polytonic, rhetoric, slang, speech, style, synthetic, talk, terminology, tongue, usage, use of words, usus loquendi, verbiage, vernacular, vocabulary, wordage, wording, words
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