What is language? – Various definitions

By some “divine” intervention, I decided to know more about Linguistics, Language, Grammar etc in the past few weeks. I tried with Korada Mahadeva Sastri’s book on Telugu grammar (Which was written for German learners of Telugu!), and gave up on the grounds that native speakers should not learn from such books written for foreigners ;).

Now, I began fooling around with this aim to know the answer for “What is language?”. I was reading the preface of a Linguistics Intro book and found a mention of Charles Hockett’s definition. On arriving at his wiki page, I was surprised, amused and whatever…seeing those 13 design features for a language. Okay, now, only human, spoken language satisfies all the 13 features. They are:

1) A vocal-auditory channel
2) Broadcast transmission and directional reception
3) Rapid fading (and, Rapid firing too, in my view!)
4) Inter changeability
5) Total Feedback
6) Specialization
7) Semanticity
8) Arbitrariness
9) Discreteness
10) Displacement
11) Productivity
12) Traditional Transmission
13) Duality of Patterning

Although looking at them as single words might make this look like a bunch of contradicting features, the explanations on the Wiki page (atleast to me), made things clearer. It was interesting to see the contrast with other “languages” like “bee language”.

Another 1920s definition by Edward Sapir goes like this:
“Language is purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols.”

A more modern definition by David Crystal goes like this:
“The discussion may be summarized by referring to language as human vocal noise (or the graphic representation of this noise in writing) used systematically and conventionally by a community for the purposes of communication”
-To me, this one appears the most incomplete…and the one by Sapir looks too simplistic definition, although you are welcome to blast me for my ignorance 🙂

And now, there is this thing about “non-instinctivity” of Sapir. Another linguist John Lyons points out that: Language is both instinctive and non-instinctive 🙂

It was both interesting and amusing to read through these various definitions of language. On one hand, its interesting that we use some language or the other and still can’t be unanimous about some definition of “what are the features of language?”. Its amusing…er….for the same reason!

(For some undisclosed reason, I managed to read the introductory chapter of “Introduction to linguistics” by Stuart C.Poole. All this “gyaan” is because of that.)


1) Write what you consider to be a good definition of the term language. (Serves me right!)
Ans: Perhaps, I would say: Language is a form of human, vocal and/or verbal communication with some structure and meaning.
(Okay, I am not a linguist. This is a common man definition)

2) What do you consider to be the principal benefits to the human race, of language?
Ans: A means of communication that is versatile and diverse.

3) How well, does the word “communication” represent the function of human language?
Ans: Totally 😉
(Well, adding the cultural dimension too!)

—End of story for this post—

Published in: on December 14, 2011 at 2:44 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] blast me for my ignorance. Now, I began fooling around with this aim to know the answer for ‘What Is Language.’. I was reading the preface of a Linguistics Intro book and found a mention of Charles […]

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