Thursday, December 16, 2010

Discuss the concept and Definition of Language

Language is God’s special gift to mankind. Without language human civilization, as we now know it, would have remained an impossibility. Language is ubiquitous. It is present everywhere––in our thoughts and dreams, prayers and meditations, relations and communication. It is our ability to communicate through words that makes us different from animals. Language is a very important means of communication between humans.
A can communicate his or her ideas, emotions, beliefs or feelings to B as they share a common code that makes up the language. No doubt, there are many other means of communication used by humans e.g. gestures, nods, winks, short-hand, Braille alphabet, Morse code, acting, miming, dancing etc. But all these systems of communication are extremely limited or they too, in turn, depend upon language only. Language gives shape to people’s thoughts and guides and controls their entire activity. It is a carrier of civilization and culture as human thoughts and philosophy are conveyed from one generation to the other through the medium of language. It is through language that they store knowledge, transfer it to the next generation and yoke the present, past and the future together. Because of its omnipresence, language is often taken for granted.

Definition of Language
Some linguists, however, have been trying to define language in their own ways even though all these definitions have been far from satisfactory. Here are some of these definitions to understand language. Robins says:

                “Language is a symbol system based on pure or arbitrary conventions... infinitely                 extendable and modifiable according to the changing needs and conditions of the              speakers”

According to this definition, language is a symbol system. Every language selects some symbols for its selected sounds. The English sound /k/ for example has the symbol k for it. These symbols form the alphabet of the language and join in different combinations to form meaningful words. For Sapir:

                “Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas,         emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols”.

There are two terms in this definition that call for discussion: human and non-instinctive. Language, as Sapir rightly said, is human. Only humans possess language and all normal humans uniformly possess it. Animals do have a communication system but it is not a developed system. That is why language is said to be species-specific and species-uniform. A recent and modern Linguist, Noam Chomsky endorses that:

                “A language is a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements”.

Chomsky meant to convey that each sentence has a structure. Human brain is competent enough to construct different sentences from out of the limited set of sounds/symbols belonging to a particular language. Human brain is so productive that a child can at any time produce a sentence that has never been said or heard earlier.
There are as many definitions as many linguistic authorities. For example, Encyclopaedia Britannica states that, “Language is a system of conventional spoken or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, communicate”.  Johns Lyons states that, “Languages are the principal systems of communication used by particular groups of human beings within the particular society (linguistic community) of which they are members”. But Language is a very complex human phenomenon; all attempts to define it have proved inadequate. In a nut-shell, language is an ‘organized noise’ used in actual social situations. That is why it has also been defined as ‘contextualized systematic sound‘. In order to understand a term like life, one has to talk of the properties or characteristics of living beings (e.g. motion, reproduction, respiration, growth, power of self-healing, excretion, nutrition, mortality, etc. etc.). Similarly, the term language can be understood better in terms of its properties or characteristics. The classicist studied language largely as a medium of expression. The only difference is that modern age has made it a specialized field. As H. A. Gleason says:
                “Language has so many inter-relations with various aspects of human life that it can be                 studied from numerous points of views. All are valid and useful as well as interesting.”

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