What is language?

Definition of language

Simply put, language is a set of signals used to communicate. Humans are not the only species that are endowed with the ability to communicate. Animals, too, have a well-defined system of communication. Bees communicate about place food or the sitting of hives; dolphins click and whistle to communicate; chimpanzees shout to communicate about danger. However, no other species show a capacity to use language as creatively as humans. People are able to produce an infinite number of sentences or utterances that they have never encountered before. In fact, human language differs from animal system of communication not only in essence but also in degree. Nothing in animal communication even approximates human language in its flexibility, precision, productivity, complexity and sheer quantity. The sounds of a language are limited but the scope of their use is enormously unlimited. Humans have learnt to make an infinite use of finite means.

Linguistic knowledge

Knowing a language entails knowing the rules that govern its use and usage. First, speakers have knowledge of the sounds, the minimal units of language. They know exactly which sounds are and which are not in the sound inventory. For example [v] is not part of the sound system of Moroccan Arabic. Most native Moroccan speakers would substitute [f] for [v]. For example the French word vacance is pronounced facance. In addition to that, a speaker has an unconscious knowledge of the sound patterns of the language he speaks, the phonology. Speakers know the constraints that govern the sound clusters, that is which phonemes can be used in the beginning, middle or end of a word. For a Spaniard, it is difficult to pronounce a word beginning with an /s/cluster. That’s why they add a vowel in front of such words. For example, Chicano English speakers, speakers of a variety of Spanish in the US, pronounce scare as escare.

Linguistic knowledge of native speakers also includes the way words are formed and used in sentences. They unconsciously know how to assign a meaning to a string of sounds and to form morphemes, the minimal meaning units of language. Humans have a capacity to derive words through affixation (using prefixes and suffixes), create new ones and borrow others from other languages. What is more, speakers are able to combine these words to form grammatical and acceptable sentences. They know, for example, that the following sentence is grammatical but that it has no sense:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Linguistic ability of native speakers involves not only the grammar but also the rules that govern its use in context. Speakers know which utterances are appropriate and which are not appropriate given a certain context. The pragmatic knowledge of language, kowledge of how utterances communicate meaning in context, constitutes a very important part of our language faculty. Otherwise, we would be using nonsense language.

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