What is a language?

The uniquely playful nature of human communication...
14 May 2024

Interview with 

David Crystal


Sign language


What is language? It’s probably a question that you don’t think about too often but it governs pretty much everything we do - including how we communicate, learn, comprehend, and even express our identity. This week, we’re going to explore the science of language - which is called linguistics - and, a bit later on, I'm even going to have a crack at learning Greek. But first, to explore the purpose of language, here’s David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Bangor…

David - Language is a system of communication, obviously. Everybody knows that. It exists in three big forms: in spoken form (speech), in written form and, also, don't forget, in signed form for people who are deaf and in other circumstances too. There are other types of language around the world, but these are the three main kinds. The thing about language is it has two sides. There's not just the three main types I've mentioned. You asked the question, what is it for? That's part of the definition of language and the answer is, it's there to enable us to understand each other; intelligibility, that's the big function of language. Less noticed is that it's there to express our identity, who we are, where we're from, what community we belong to and so on. And least of all mentioned in some of the definitions of language: it's there for us to play with, to be creative with. This is the side of literature and all the playful jokes and everyday riddles and things like that. Little children playing with language just because it's fun to do. There are these two big sides to language: the form and the function. Important to remember both.

Chris - I suppose there's also a scientific side to this, isn't there? Because although we use it, we're all familiar with communicating via language, there's also the opportunity to study how we ended up where we are today.

David - Yes, the science of language: linguistics. Now, what does that mean? It means, like any science, you study language as objectively as you can, comprehensively, systematically. All sciences do that. You describe the languages of the world (and there are an awful lot of them, over 6,000 languages in the world) and they've all got to be described, spoken, written and signed; a big task. Then, once you've carried out some of these descriptions, you try and work out what all these languages have in common: a theory of language, of human language. What is it that makes language possible in the human being? You do this in a scientific kind of way by setting up models of language and asking questions and testing them in experiments and things like that. If you think that science is all about machines and things, well there is that side of linguistics as well called phonetics: the science of speech, sound making and sound reception. If you go into a phonetics lab, you'd think you were in a scientific lab because there are machines all over the place, analysing the acoustics of speech and things like that. So, it's definitely a science, although we mustn't forget that it also has its artistic side as well.

Chris - When do we think it first manifest? How far back in time do we have to go to start to recognise, if we were an observer, two individuals speaking to each other.

David - The estimates vary enormously. Somewhere between fifty and a hundred thousand years ago. It all depends what you mean by language, you see. You say, spoken language, well that would require a vocal tract and all the organs of speech like our tongue and everything like that to be fully formed. That's a matter for evolutionary biologists to work out: when was that possible? But maybe it wasn't speech to begin with, maybe people were communicating very happily using signs and gestures and facial expressions and things like that. The other point to remember is that we may not know what the origins of language are, although there have been many theories about it, but we can also study the history of language scientifically, by which I mean you can go back through all the written records that have been made of the different languages of the world and that will take us back to something like five, six or seven thousand BC; early sign systems, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and all of that kind of thing. You can start studying the way language changes, how language evolves, if you like, over quite a considerable period of time.

Chris - Do we think that languages tend to evolve in parallel in the same way because of the way our brains work, because of the way our anatomy works? So we tend to converge on the same linguistic solutions to communicate things, and so, if you look at different disparate cultures around the world, you see the same evolution of language in those groups?

David - Well, the main evidence for that is the way in which children acquire language, and children from a wide range of languages have been studied now over the last 50 years or so. Indeed, it does seem to be the case that the evolution of language in the child is pretty well the same as you go from place to place. All children start using their first words at around about 12 months of age, and then they start putting two words together around about 18 months of age and so on and so forth. Aroundabout age three, they start stringing sentences together and, at the same time, they're developing their pronunciation along certain lines, they're developing vocabulary along certain lines. The parallels, as you go from culture to culture, are really quite striking. Which doesn't mean to say of course that there aren't differences and indeed there are. As we all know, the French have a word for it, the Welsh have a word for it. Every language has got certain concepts, certain words that don't easily translate into other languages. This suggests that there is also an evolutionary trend towards individuality, towards identity. My language is not your language and I show that by allowing it to develop in society and also therefore in my brain in a distinctive way. And so, yes, there are universals of language both in acquisition and, when you actually compare all the languages of the world, in terms of the way they're structured. But we mustn't forget that there's an awful lot of idiosyncrasy and individual differences between these various languages.

Chris - Based on everything you've told me so far, does this mean that language is something only humans can have or do we think that animals effectively have language as well?

David - If we include, by 'language,' body language - that is, facial expression and gesture - then it's perfectly plain that an awful lot of animals are able to communicate in a basic sort of way using their facial expressions and their gestures. Indeed, there have been experiments over the years to try and train certain types of animal to use human language. Some of the ape world, for example, the chimpanzees, where they've been taught signing and learnt a pretty significant vocabulary of communication, they are able to play with that vocabulary a little bit to enable a kind of conversation to take place. But it's all very limited and nothing at all, at the moment, as far as we know, resembles the ability of the human being to use language in an infinite kind of way. That is, to use sentences that nobody's ever heard before, and yet you understand them. To use vocabulary, to play with vocabulary. You're putting in new words, new constructions that nobody's ever used before and yet we understand them. That kind of creativity does seem to be innately present in human beings and no animal so far as we know has reached anything like that level of achievement.


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