The Characteristics of Language

One of the most amazing aspects of human cognitive abilities is the capacity to understand, learn, and produce language. Language can be defined as a systematic way to convey meaning using symbols and sounds. Communication and language are integral to the study of human psychology. Although there are more than 3,000 languages, spoken and signed, in the world today, all human languages share the same basic characteristics, which will be examined in this chapter. You'll also see whether language is a uniquely human characteristic.

In order to scientifically approach the study of language, you must dispense with some false but widely held linguistic beliefs. First, many people believe that there are languages with no grammar. All human languages have a grammar. Second, many people believe that some languages or dialects are inferior to others. This is often a point of contention with people who worry about “substandard” dialects of their language. In fact, every person speaks a dialect. “Standard” usage is usually determined by the class of speakers with the most social power. There is nothing inherently superior about one dialect versus another. This also holds for different languages. There is simply no such thing as a primitive language. All languages are complex and creative systems used with full efficiency among their speakers.

American Sign Language meets all of the criteria for a language, including generativity and syntax. Researchers have used brain-imaging scans to demonstrate that the same areas of the brain that are activated in people who hear spoken language are also activated in deaf individuals when they use sign language.

While some words correspond to the sounds that they represent, such as buzz, hiss, and bang in the English language, the connection between the symbol and the meaning is most often completely arbitrary. Language is incredibly flexible for this reason, allowing new words to be created as well as permitting the meaning of existing words to evolve or even change entirely over time. All languages undergo change. For instance, if you read Shakespeare, you will see the drastic changes in the English language that have taken place in just a few centuries.

Each language also has its own rules of syntax and grammar. These rules determine how and when certain words should be combined and in what order they should be presented in order to communicate meaning. In addition to these basic rules, however, it is important to realize that language is infinitely generative, allowing speakers to combine words to produce an endless array of sentences, phrases, and paragraphs. For example, consider the book Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. While the book does not contain any words that are new to the language, Austen presents these words in a way that is entirely unique and conveys an entirely distinctive story.

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