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Language (general)

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This article is about language in general. For other uses of the term Language, please see Language (disambiguation).

A language is a system for encoding and decoding information. Determining what kinds of signals or symbols constitute language is not always a straightforward matter. Does the blossoming of a flower, whose color or scent signals to bees or birds to come and pollinate it, constitute a form of language? Does a skunk spraying constitute language, since it can certainly be said to be a form of communication? Are communications that involve, say, chemicals or pheromones part of some kind of language? Can we say that signaling behavior that is learned, rather than wired in, is language, whereas signaling behavior that is instinctive is not language?

The following article concerns language in all of its aspects. The definition of language - what counts as a language and what doesn't - is a difficult philosophical topic, deserving an article in its own right.

Contents

Types of 'language' and how it is studied

'Language', primarily, refers to a system of the human mind that facilitates one kind of communication. Its study is called linguistics, with subdivisions such as historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, though some fields of this science are concerned with linguistic systems that run on computers. To distinguish the 'human' system from such formal languages in mathematics or computer science, it is also sometimes called natural language. However, linguistics is not the only scholarly area with an interest in language. The discovery of the oldest evidence of language, primarily via vestiges of early writing, falls under the purview of archaeology or anthropology and also history. The mechanisms related to learning of human languages may be of interest in psychology and medicine due to its exercise of higher brain function. Computer scientists have been engaged in the study of human languages for the purpose of machine translation between different human languages.

Formal, mathematical, and computer languages

The activity of computer engineering has produced numerous computer programming languages, and in fact they have created several subfields of scholarly research relating to them, such as formal languages and compilers. Mathematicians have expressed various mathematical formalisms that they describe as languages.

Origins of language

See also: Language evolution

Linguists do not agree on when language may first have been used, or even whether the first language users were modern humans at all - earlier hominins may have come to language first, passing it down the generations to modern humans. Possibly, such species as Homo habilis may have been the first to link sound, gestures, symbol and meaning to form a linguistic system, producing the first individual languages around two million years in the past. Some linguists go further back into the past, attributing the first forms of language to Australopothecus afarensis, which would mean that human language is actually between 4 and 7 million years old.[1] Alternatively, since spoken and signed languages leave no fossils, for all we know language may have emerged only with the early modern Cro-Magnon humans, as recently as around 100 - 40,000 years ago.

In all likelihood, some of the genetic basis for language was found in many species, though only in human did it lead to language: our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals, have been reported to have carried a gene, FoxP2, that is linked with speech in humans,[2] plus vocalisation in bats (including echolocation)[3] and chimpanzees.[4]


Do other species have language?

Some animals communicate in a system which might be considered language, consisting either of calls or body postures used consistently for certain purposes and which are learned behavior. There are examples of multiple signals existing within one species, but signals are also sometimes used across species, such as when birds respond to chattering and tail waggles made by squirrels to warn of the presence of a predator. The question of whether animals have the capacity for language to a similar degree that humans have (even sign language) is controversial.

Footnotes

  1. Pinker, S. The Language Instinct. How the Mind Creates Language. (1994)
  2. Nature: 'Modern speech gene found in Neanderthals'. 18th October 2007.
  3. Li G, Wang J, Rossiter SJ, Jones G & Zhang S (2007).
  4. Evolutionpages.com: 'FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language'.
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