WHAT IS LANGUAGE?
1.1. DEFINITION OF LANGUAGE
1.1.1. If language is defined merely as a system of communication, then language is not unique to humans. As we know, there are other species with the ability to hear, imitate or produce sounds. Talking birds, bees and many other creatures communicate in some way, but they can’t produce new utterances to convey their thoughts. The information imparted is severely limited and confined to a small set of messages.
Animals have developed ways of letting others know that they have found a supply of food, of warning others of danger, of attracting a male, and so on. Such communication may be by means of sight, smell or sound.
There are certain characteristics of human language which are not found in the communication systems of any other species.
A basic property of human language is its creative aspect: a speaker’s ability to combine the basic linguistic units to form an infinite set of “well-formed” grammatical sentences, most of which are novel, never before produced or heard.
The system of language represented by intricate mental grammars (which are not stimulus-bound and) which generate infinite messages is unique to the human species. This idea is emphasized by N. Chomsky in his book “Language and Mind”: “When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call ‘the human essence’, the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man”.
1.1.2. One attempt to define human language was made by the American linguist Charles F. Hockett (1958). He enumerated a number of features which, he argued, constitute human language. Other communication systems might exhibit one or more of these features but only human language has them all.
The ‘dance’ of the honey-bee which informs other bees about the location of a source of nectar meets many of the criteria. It meets, for example, that of interchangeability: any creature that can transmit the information can also receive such information and vice versa. It meets that of productivity, the ability to vary a message to reflect differences in the circumstances concerned. The dance does not, however, meet the criterion of cultural transmission for the bees are acting instinctively, not behaving in a way that they have learnt from others.
This last criterion (of cultural transmission) is particularly associated with human language for the one stimulates the other; we acquire our native tongue by cultural transmission and it is by means of our native tongue that we receive cultural transmissions, that we learn and adapt. This is the spiral that has driven human development.
How, then, might we define the term language?
An earlier American linguist, Edward Sapir, gave a definition in a book published in 1921 (Sapir, 1921: 8) he supported the hypothesis that language relates to communication between human beings. Just as Hockett was to associate human language with cultural transmission, so too Sapir considered that it is ‘non-instinctive’ and ‘voluntarily produced’. Thus for him language does not include such instinctive forms of communication as smiling and cries of pain. His definition is as follows:
Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating
ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced
Sapir goes on to say that these symbols are, in the first instance, auditory; thus language is primarily a matter of speech as opposed to, say, sign language.
The element ‘symbols’ reflects the fact that there is rarely an inherent association between a word and the object or concept that it denotes. Any sequence of sounds can serve to denote an object as long as the speakers of the language concerned make the same association; we could just as well denote a dog using the word chien or the word Hund, as the French and the Germans have shown.
The element ‘system’ reflects the fact that language provides us with the framework for generating appropriate utterances rather than providing us with an infinite store of ready-made utterances. We can create utterances never uttered before.
For comparison we may look at a definition given by a modern British linguist, David Crystal, who wrote the following (Crystal, 1989: 251):
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 purposes of
Thus this definition also proposes communication as the principal function of language.
What it does not do is attempt to specify what is communicated; as the British linguist John Lyons points out (Lyons, 1992: 3) Sapir was too restrictive in this.
Nor is there any element corresponding to ‘non-instinctive’; while any particular language is culturally transmitted - an infant acquires the language of the society in which it grows up, irrespective of the language of its parents – it is now generally accepted that humans inherit a predisposition towards acquiring language.
Indeed the modern linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker uses the word instinct to embody the essence of human language (Pinker, 1994: 18)
Whether one considers language to be instinctive or not depends precisely on what one is talking about. Language is instinctive in so far as we are all born with a predisposition to speak, we all acquire a language without tuition and when we speak we do not consciously convert our thoughts into speech.
Language is, however, non-instinctive in that we can choose what we say or whether to say anything at all.
Both definitions refer to the element
of system and both allude to the fact that the association between the words
used and the things that they denote is not inherent, Sapir by using the word symbols and
While, as R. H. Robins suggests (Robins, 1990: 12), there is a danger of definitions of language being simplistic, it might help us to focus our study of language I we try to distil a definition. According to Stuart C. Poole (1999: 5), such a definition might be something like the following:
Language is a form of human communication by means of a system of
symbols principally transmitted by vocal sounds.
Language, the faculty for communication by speech sounds, is a universal characteristic of the human race. But we do not share one medium of communication; Russians and Arabs speak different languages.
A language, then, is a medium of communication specific to a society; it forms part of the culture of that society.
Being a feature of the human race, ‘language’ is inherited genetically, whereas we acquire ‘a language’ from the society in which we spend our first years. A child born in Russian of Russian parents will acquire English if it is taken away from its parents and spend its earliest years in an English environment.
1.2. The Functions of Language
We use language for an almost infinite number of purposes, from writing letters, to gossiping with our friends and making speeches. However, there are a number of recurring functions which, despite the many different uses we make of language, are generally being served. Some are apparently so ordinary as almost to pass unnoticed as functions, whilst others are more lofty and almost abstract. But the important thing to recognize is that, linguistically speaking, they are all of equal importance.
Some linguists, such as G. Finch (2003: 21) distinguish between the micro and macro functions of language. Micro functions, as the name suggests, cover the particular individual uses whilst macro functions relate to the larger, more general purposes underlying language use.
1.2.1. Micro functions:
We can identify seven main functions of language:
22.214.171.124. To release nervous / physical energy (physiological function):
A great deal of what we say when angry, in the heat of the moment, is said simply to relieve the physical and nervous energy generated by emotional distress. A great deal of so-called ‘bad language’ or swearing fulfils this function.
An expression of emotion such as That’s fantastic! or Shit! may be called an emotive utterance.
Clearly, words like bloody, bugger, fuck, shit, and so on, are not being used for any conceptual content they may have. They are essentially meaningless. They are being used because they are socially taboo and because at such moments we need a vocabulary of violence to mach that of our feelings.
126.96.36.199. For purposes of sociability (phatic function)
It is surprising how often we use language for no other reason than simply to signal our general disposition to be sociable. The technical term for this is phatic communion. The word ‘phatic’ comes from Greek and means ‘utterance’; it is the same root from which we get ‘emphatic’. So, literally, this is speech for its own sake. The term itself was coined by Malinowski, the anthropologist, who was struck by how much of what we say is essentially formulaic and meaningless. Malinowski is suggesting that language acts as a form of social bonding, that it is the adhesive which links people together. (from Quirk, 1962: 58).
In the case of How are you? used just to be sociable, for example, they use the term phatic communion, that being the use of speech with the aim of establishing or maintaining social relations. In such cases the important thing may be simply that one says something, as saying nothing might be taken as a sign of displeasure. No one expects in reply to How are you? a detailed medical history.
Other phatic phrases are How do you do? or Take care, fairly popular in leave-taking. The phatic use of language is mainly spoken but there are some written equivalents. The most obvious examples are the conventionalized phrases for starting and ending letters: Dear Sir/ Madam…Yours faithfully, sincerely, truly.
Phatic language, then, fulfils important contact uses: it helps us negotiate the start and end of exchanges whether in spoken or written form. Failure to observe these social courtesies can cause considerable embarrassment and even bad feeling.
188.8.131.52. To provide a record (recording function)
This is a more obviously ‘serious’ use of language than the previously two, although not necessarily more significant even so. We are constantly using language to record things we wish to remember. It might be a short-term record as a shopping list or a list of things to do, or a long-term record as in a diary or history of some kind. It’s the most official use of language: modern commercial life would be impossible without up-to-date and accurate files. Indeed, it’s probably the most significant function behind the development of language from being simply an oral medium to becoming a written one.
184.108.40.206. To identify and classify things (identifying function)
Language not only allows us to record, but also to identify, with considerable precision, an enormous array of objects and events, without which it would be very difficult to make sense of the world around us. Learning the names of things allows us to refer quickly and accurately to them.
220.127.116.11. As an instrument of thought (reasoning function)
A common view of language is that it is merely a tool of thought, in other words, that we have ideas forming in our minds for which we feel the need to find the appropriate words: the words are simply the expression of the ideas. In practice, however, the words are the ideas because our ideas are generated in language, they come to us already linguistically encoded. Speaking and writing are forms of thought.
A principal problem, however, of this reasoning function of language is that the meanings of any words are not stable and as a consequence it is difficult to think with any precision. How can we define words like civilization, culture, democracy, and liberty? They seem to be subject to what has been called the law of accelerating fuzziness by which words expand in meaning and decline in precision.
18.104.22.168. As a means of communicating ideas and feelings
This is probably the function that most people would select first as the principal purpose of language. And clearly it is an extremely important function. But, as we have seen, the relationship between language and meaning can be problematic. Communication is a two-way process. On the one hand we need to be able to use language to express ourselves to others, and, conversely, we need it in order to understand what they are communicating to us.
There are a variety of reasons which may prompt the act of communication. We use language for requesting, informing, ordering, promising, reprimanding, to mention just a few. In all these cases we could say that language is being used to perform certain speech acts.
Speech act theory is associated with two linguistic philosophers, J. L. Austin and J. R. Searle. They developed a functional view of language based on the notion that the social use of language is primarily concerned with the performance of certain communicative acts. The problem is to determine what those acts might be. If, for example, I say to you, It’s cold in here, I am presumably performing an informing or announcing act, but I may also be doing other things as well. I could be indirectly asking you to close the window, or perhaps complaining because you have turned off the heating, or indeed both.
Speech act theory copes with this indeterminacy by distinguishing between direct and indirect speech acts. We frequently find that people convey their wishes indirectly and it is an important part of communicative competence to be able to decode these.
We rarely find that employers tell their workers to see them, they invariably ask them. But although the direct speech act might be a request, Can I see you? or Could I see you?, the indirect act is interpreted as a demand of some kind since to refuse is not permissible.
In this instance, indirectness is a form of politeness and, indeed, the greater the indirectness the more polite it is. Could is more indirect than can, since it uses the past tense. Past here has no connection with time, it simply indicates mood.
When an utterance is an act in itself, the utterance being spoken by somebody with relevant authority, it may be called a performative utterance. A bridge, for example, may be officially opened by some dignitary saying I declare this bridge open.
Speech act theory provides a useful framework for analyzing the personal and social purposes which language fulfils, and we shall be returning to it in Chapter 7.
22.214.171.124. To give delight (pleasure function)
There are various kinds of pleasure which we derive from language. At the simplest level there is sheer enjoyment of sound itself and the melody of certain combinations of sounds. Most poetry exploits this function.
Devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, and assonance all draw on the pleasure we find in euphony, as do rhythm and rhyme.
This pleasure is important in language learning. There is considerable evidence to suggest that children respond as much to the melody of the language as to any cognitive content.
1.2.2. Macro functions
If instead of going below the level of individual functions we go above it, it is possible to identify several macro functions. The linguist Michael Halliday calls them ‘metafunctions’. A metafunction is one which is capable of describing one or more other functions. The macro functions are represented by: the ideational function; the interpersonal function; the textual function.
(i) the ideational function: the use we make of language to conceptualise the world. This function emphasizes language as an instrument of thought, a symbolic code, with which we represent the world to ourselves.
(ii) the interpersonal function: the use we make of language as a personal medium. This function emphasizes language as an instrument of transaction by which we represent ourselves to others.
(iii) the textual function: the use we make of language to form texts, whether spoken or written. This function emphasizes language as an instrument of communication with which we construct cohesive and coherent sequences.
1.3. The Components of Language
1.3.1. If a young child sees a dog he may draw it t his mother’s attention by pointing to it and saying ‘dog’.
Even such a simple utterance involves a number of facets of language. The speaker has to recognize which category of the world around him the animal concerned belongs to and he has to know the label that attaches to that category.
He has then to transmit the sequence of sounds that convey that label to the hearer, thereby generating the thought of a dog in the mind of that person.
The study of words is lexis and that of meaning, of the relationship between word and the real world, is semantics.
The study of speech sounds is phonetics and, in the context of language systems, phonology.
A more complex utterance, such as ‘That dog is bigger than our dog‘, exhibits further facets. The word bigger is a complex word in that a modifying element has been added to the basic word big in order to express the idea of comparison. The words have to be assembled in a certain order to indicate the relationship between them: swapping round the phrases that dog and our dog would clearly completely change the sense of the sentence. The study of the structure of words is morphology and the study of the structure of phrases and sentences is syntax.
The Anglo-Saxons denoted a dog with the word hund, the precursor of the word hound that has now been relegated to a very restricted use. It is generally accepted that the word hound is related to, say, the Italian word cane, one of the distinctive features of the Germanic languages being the development of the phoneme /k/ into a fricative sound. Such changes to language over time belong to the field of historical linguistics.
Therefore, a question that linguists have attempted to answer is the following: What does language consist of?
Language consists of words and sentences.
The words of a language can be listed in a dictionary, but not all the sentences can be: Speakers use a finite set of rules to produce and understand an infinite set of sentences. These rules comprise the grammar of a language which is learned when you acquire the language.
13.2. Grammar includes the following components:
126.96.36.199. The sound system: represented by PHONOLOGY (while the description of speech sounds, i.e. the sounds used in speech is phonetics).
Knowing a language means knowing what sounds are in that language and what sounds are not. This unconscious knowledge is revealed by the way speakers of one language pronounce words from another language. If one speaks only English, for example, they may substitute an English sound for a non-English sound when pronouncing foreign words. Thus, French or Romanian people speaking English often pronounce word like this and that as if they were spelled zis and zat.
188.8.131.52. Knowledge of words
Knowing the sounds and sound patterns in our language constitutes only one part of our linguistic knowledge.
In addition, knowing a language means knowing that certain sound sequences signify certain concepts or meanings. The way in which sounds (form) and meanings are related is represented by SEMANTICS. In other words, semantics is the study of meaning, is the relationship between words and the real world.
The sounds and meanings of these words are related in an arbitrary fashion. If you do not know a language, the words will be mainly incomprehensible because the relationship between speech sounds and the meaning they represent in the languages of the world is, for the most part, an arbitrary one. Thus, you have to learn (when you are acquiring the English language) that the sounds represented by the letters HOUSE (in the written form of the language) signify the concept ۩ ; if you know French this same meaning is represented by maison, if you know Russian by ДOM (dom), if you know Spanish or Romanian by casa.
Nevertheless, there is some sound symbolism in language: that is, words whose pronunciation suggests the meaning. A few words in most languages are onomatopoeic: the sounds of the words supposedly imitate the sounds of nature. Even here the sounds differ from one language to another reflecting the particular sound system of the language. Thus, the word cock-a-doodle-doo represents a rooster’s crow in English, while in Russian it is kukuriku (cf. Rom. cucurigu).
Sometimes particular sound sequences seem to relate to a particular concept. In English many words beginning with gl- relate to ‘sight’, such as glare, glint, gleam, glitter, glossy, glaze, glance, glimmer glimpse and glisten. However, such words are a very small part of any language, and gl- may have nothing to do with ‘sight’, in another language, or even in other words in English, such as gladiator, glucose, globe, glycerine, and so on.
184.108.40.206. The structure of words is represented by MORPHOLOGY.
The words make up the lexicon, i.e. the total stock of words in the language. In other words, the term lexicon, in its most general sense, is synonymous with vocabulary.
220.127.116.11. The Creativity of Linguistic Knowledge
The way words may be combined into phrases and sentences, i.e. the structure of phrases and sentences, is represented by SYNTAX.
Knowledge of a language enables you to combine words to form phrases and phrases to form sentences. Knowing a language means being able to produce new sentences never spoken before and to understand sentences never heard before. The American linguist Noam Chomsky refers to this ability as part of the creative aspect of language use.
Simple memorization of all possible sentences in a language is impossible in principle. If, for every sentence in the language, a longer sentence can be formed, then there is no limit to the length of any sentence and therefore no limit to the number of sentences. In English we can say:
This is the house
or: This is the house that Jack built
or: This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built
or: This is the dog that chased the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay
in the house that Jack built.
Through this recursive / iterative process, in principle, there is no limit to the number of sentences.
All human languages permit their speakers to form infinitely long sentences: ‘creativity’ is a universal property of human language.
18.104.22.168. Knowledge of Sentences and Non-sentences
Knowledge of a language determines which strings of words are grammatically correct, i.e. are sentences, and which strings of words are not sentences. Therefore, in addition to knowing the words of the language, linguistic knowledge includes rules for forming sentences and making judgements about them
These facets of linguistics will be dealt with in chapters 3 - 5.
1.4. Linguistic Knowledge and Performance
COMPETENCE and PERFORMANCE
An important distinction is made between competence and performance. In brief, it is a difference between what you know, which is your linguistic competence, and how you use this knowledge in actual speech production and comprehension, which is your linguistic performance.
Competence is a term used in linguistic theory to refer to a person’s knowledge of his language, the system of rules he has mastered so that he is able to produce and understand an infinite number of sentences and to recognize grammatical mistakes or ambiguities.
It is an idealized conception of language, which is seen in opposition to the notion of performance, the specific utterance of speech.
Performance refers to language seen as a set of specific utterances produced by speakers. The utterances of performance will contain features irrelevant to the abstract rule system, such as hesitations, unfinished structures, pauses arising from the various psychological difficulties acting upon the speaker.
The idea that performance features are unimportant has been strongly criticized in recent years. The factors which contribute to performance grammars are now of considerable interest, especially in psycholinguistics.
1.5. TYPES OF GRAMMARS
The sounds and sound patterns, the basic units of meaning, such as words, and the rules to combine them to form new sentences constitute the grammar of a language. The grammar, then, is what we know; it represents our linguistic competence. To understand the nature of language we must understand the nature of this internalized, unconscious set of rules which is part of every grammar of every language.
Grammars are of different kinds:
1.5.1. Descriptive grammars
Every human being who speaks a language knows its grammar. When linguists wish to describe a language, they attempt to describe the grammar of the language that exists in the minds its speakers.
A descriptive grammar describes the facts of linguistic usage as they are and not how they ought to be, with reference to some real or imagined ideal state. It does not tell you how you should speak; it describes your basic linguistic knowledge. In other words, it does not teach the rules of language, it describes the rules that are already known.
Linguists use the word grammar in two ways: the first in reference to the mental grammar speakers have in their brain; the second as the model or description of this internalized grammar.
Almost two thousand years ago the Greek grammarian Dionysius Thrax defined grammar as that which permits us either to speak a language or to speak about a language. Most linguists do not differentiate these two meanings, because the linguist’s descriptive grammar is an attempt at a formal statement of the speakers’ grammar.
When we say in later chapters that there is a rule in the grammar – such as ‘Every sentence has a noun phrase subject and a verb phrase predicate’ – we posit the rule in both the mental grammar and the descriptive model of it, the linguist’s grammar.
When we say that a sentence is grammatical, we mean that it conforms to the rules of both grammars; conversely, an ungrammatical (starred, unacceptable) sentence deviates in some way from these rules.
If, however, linguists posit a rule for English that does not agree with your intuitions as a speaker, then the grammar linguists are describing differs in some way from your mental grammar that represents your linguistic competence; that is, your language is not the one described.
No language or variety of a language (called a dialect) is superior to any other in a linguistic sense. Every grammar is equally complex and logical and capable of producing an infinite set of sentences to express any thought.
1.5.2. Prescriptive grammars
The views expressed in the section above are not those of all grammarians now or in the past. From ancient times until the present, purists have believed that language change is corruption and that there are certain ‘correct forms that all educated people should use in speaking and writing.
Numerous English grammarians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held this view. They wished to prescribe rather than describe the rules of grammar, which gave rise to the writing of prescriptive grammars.
A prescriptive grammar is a grammar that attempts to legislate, i.e. to lay down rules of correctness as to how language should be used. Using such criteria as purity, logic, ‘prescriptivism’ aims to preserve imagined standards by insisting on norms of usage, and criticizing departures from these norms.
Prescriptive grammars include such recommendations as ‘I should be used after the verb be’, e.g. ‘It is I’; or ‘Whom should be used as the relative pronoun in objective function’, e.g. ‘The man whom I saw’, and so on.
Linguists have been generally critical of the ‘prescriptivist’ approach, emphasizing instead the importance of descriptively accurate studies of usage, and of the need to take into account sociolinguistic variation in explaining attitudes to language.
1.5.3. Teaching grammars
The descriptive grammar of a language attempts to describe everything speakers know about their language. It is different from a teaching grammar, which used to lean another language or dialect.
Teaching grammars are those we use in school to fulfil language requirements. Teaching grammars state explicitly the rules of the language, and aid in learning a new language or dialect.
Teaching grammars assume that the student already knows one language and compares the grammar of the target language with the grammar of the native language.
Although such grammars might be considered prescriptive in the sense that they attempt to teach the student what is not a grammatical construction in the new language, their aim is different from grammars that attempt to change the rules or usage of a language already learned.
1.5.4. Universal grammars
The more linguists investigate the thousands of languages of the world and describe the ways in which they differ from each other, the more they discover that these differences are limited.
There are linguistic universals that pertain to all parts of grammar, the ways in which these parts are related and the forms of rules. These principles comprise Universal Grammar, which forms the basis of the specific grammars of all possible human languages.
Investigations which go beyond the study of one individual language, attempting to establish the defining (universal) characteristics of human language in general, have as their goal a Universal Grammar.
Because of linguistic research throughout history, linguists have learned much about Universal Grammar, the properties shared by all languages.
There are a number of facts pertaining to all languages:
1. Wherever humans exist, language exists.
2. There are no primitive languages: all languages are equally complex and equally capable of expressing any idea in the universe.
3. All languages change through time.
4. The relationships between the sounds and meanings of spoken languages are for the most part arbitrary.
5. All human languages utilize a finite set of discrete sounds that are combined to form meaningful elements of words, which themselves form an infinite set of possible sentences.
6. Every spoken language includes discrete sound segments like a, p, or n, that can all be defined by a finite set of sound properties or features. Every spoken language has a class of vowels and a class of consonants.
7. All grammars contain rules for the formation of words and sentences of a similar kind.
8. Similar grammatical categories (for example, noun, verb) are found in all languages.
9. There are semantic universals, such as ‘male’, or ‘female’ or ‘animate’ or ‘human’ found in every language in the world.
10. Every language has a way of referring to past time, negating, forming questions, issuing commands, and so on.
11. Speakers of all languages are capable of producing and comprehending an infinite set of sentences. Syntactic universals reveal that every language has a way of forming sentences such as:
Linguistics is an interesting subject.
I know that linguistics is an interesting subject.
You know that I know that linguistics is an interesting subject.
Ann knows that you know that I know that linguistics is an interesting subject.
It’s a fact that Ann knows that you know that I know that linguistics is an
12. Any normal child, born anywhere in the world, of any racial, geographical, social or economic heritage, is capable of learning any language to which he or she is exposed. The differences we find among languages cannot be due to biological reasons.
Speech has allowed human beings to develop in a completely different way from other animals. This is due in large part to the cultural transmission that our speech allows, which facilitates a faster adaptation to changes in our environment.
Language is generally considered to be a form of communication between human beings by means of a system of symbols which are principally transmitted by vocal sounds.
While the faculty of speech is considered to be inherited, the system that we use, the specific language is determined by the society in which we grow up, it being culturally transmitted.
Communication by speech requires symbols to be transmitted orally in an order that shows the relationship between them. The form of utterance will be affected by geography and social factors.
Our utterances have a variety of functions in addition to communicating facts; we may speak to express our emotions, for example, or to reinforce a relationship with somebody.
Speakers use a finite set of rules to produce and understand an infinite set of possible sentences. These rules comprise the grammar of a language, which is learned when you acquire the language and includes the sound system (the phonology), the structure of words (the morphology), how words may be combined into phrases and sentences (the syntax), the ways in which sounds and meanings are related (the semantics), and the words or lexicon.
Language, then, is a system that relates sounds with meanings; when you know a
language you know this system.
This knowledge (linguistic competence) is different from behaviour (linguistic performance).
Grammars are of different kinds. The descriptive grammar of a language represents the unconscious linguistic knowledge or capacity of its speakers. Such a grammar is a model of the mental grammar every speaker of the language knows. A grammar that attempts to legislate what your grammar should be is called a prescriptive grammar. Teaching grammars are written to help people learn a foreign language.
There are linguistic universals that pertain to all parts of grammars, the ways in which these parts are related and the forms of rules. These principles comprise universal grammar, which forms the basis of the specific grammars of all possible human languages.
1. (a) Write what you consider to be a good definition of the term language.
(b) Justify the choice of the elements that you have incorporated in your
2. What do you consider to be the principal benefits to the human race of
3. How well, in your opinion, does the word communication represent the function
of human language?
4. What do the barking of dogs, the meowing of cats, and the singing of birds
have in common with human language? What are some of the basic
5. State some rule of grammar that you have learned is the correct way to say
something, but that you do not generally use in speaking. For example, you
may have heard that It’s me is incorrect and that the correct form is It’s I.
Nevertheless you always use It’s me in such sentences; your friends do also,
and, in fact, It’s I sounds odd to you.
Guide to exercises:
1. (a) A possible definition of the term language is the following: Language is a
form of communication between human beings / human communication by
means of a system of symbols principally transmitted by vocal sounds.
(b) The element ‘human’ reflects the fact that it is generally only human
communication that exhibits the productivity and the cultural transmission that
is usually associated with language.
‘Communication’ reflects a major function of language (perhaps the major
‘System’ reflects the fact that language provides a system or framework for
‘Symbols’ reflects the fact that the connection between word and thing is
usually a matter of convention.
‘Vocal sounds’ alludes to the principal means of transmission of an utterance.
Language helps us to exchange information, to learn, to plan, to co-operate, to
establish and maintain relationships. It helps us to refer to things that are
removed from us in time and space.
3. Clearly communication is a major element of the function of human language.
How major an element it is, depends on one’s definition of ‘communication’.
There can be little doubt that telling somebody that a train leaves at ten past
four is an example of communication.
A performative utterance such as declaring a bridge open is, on the other
hand, primarily an action rather than communication, even though the
utterance, together with any symbolic action such as cutting a tape,
communicates to others that the action is taking place.
More debatable are the likes of emotive utterances; if some frustration
causes you to curse, are you communicating your frustration or relieving your
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