What is language?

Language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols and signs that are conventionally used for human communication


Language is the conventional system of arbitrary vocal symbols used by human beings for communication


Language is a system.

A system means a group of interrelated parts that function as a whole for a particular purpose

  • Any system has fixed rules that have to be followed. So language is a system because it is governed by some fixed rules for it to be used.
  • If the system is not followed, then we say the language is not correct.

For example observe the structure of the following sentences;   (i) she has eaten some food. (ii) Food she eaten has some. The second sentence is not correct because the rule has not been followed.

Language is Arbitrary.

Language is arbitrary because there is no direct relationship between words and what they mean. (Referent)

The whole process of forming a language is done haphazardly. Hence a person hearing an English word for the first time cannot understand the meaning of a word unless he / she is told by the English speaker.

Language is vocal.

Language is vocal because the ideas are mostly transmitted through speaking (orally). Even when the language is written down, letters or other graphics stand for sounds. Therefore language is primarily vocal.

Language is Human.

Language is human because human beings are the only species in the world that use language in their communication. Other organisms communicate but their communication is not language.

Language is symbol.

A symbol is something that stands for something else. Language is made by symbols because it consists of words. These words represent objects, ideas, concepts and people. For example a word “man” represents an adult male or “mother” represents one’s female parent


Linguists mention some characteristics that are unique to language. These are the ones that distinguish language from              other sounds/noises made by animals. Animal’s ways of communication are not regarded as language because they lack these qualities. Among them are:-


Language has two levels. The level of sound and that of meaning. For example the sounds /t/ and /i/ may give ‘eat’ and ‘tea’ depending on the way they are arranged. Therefore duality is the property of language by which language allows simultaneous existence of meaning and sound


Human language is productive because it is possible to combine their structures (words, phrases) to produce new utterances never been heard before but which are understood by the speaker and hearer without difficulty. E.g. black + board = blackboard (a new word) Animal communication is not productive because the sounds produced are always the same and in the same way.


A language of a particular society is special in that society’s environment and situations. It reflects the physical realities of the environment that surrounds it. Hence a language of society living in a certain environment tends to have more words for things found there than in a language found in another environment. E.g. one language could have many words for say “rice” than the other language depending on the environment. Animal communication does have special sounds according to the different environment.


Human language allows communicators to exchange positions. At one time the communicator is a speaker and a listener at another. For instance when one person is talking, the other is listening. He/she becomes a speaker and the person who was previously a speaker becomes the listener. This is not obvious in animal communication.


Human language can talk about itself. For example we are now using language to talk about language. Animals cannot cry about their cries. Therefore this property differentiates human language from animal communication.


The sounds in human language are meaningful distinctly. For example the words “bad” and “bud” differ from each other only because they differ in vowel sound. Therefore in human language, there is possibility for one to identify individual sounds like /v/, /a/, /j/, /i/ and /p/. It is the discrete sounds of human language that helps us to distinguish between “pig” and “big”, “pack” and “bag”


Human language is not genetically transmitted from one person to another but through cultural activities. This is through acquiring or learning it depending on environment to which one is exposed. Animal communications are natural and not cultural.


Human language is arbitrary because: There is no natural or direct relationship between the symbols (words) and the referents (concepts or objects meant) There is no any deliberate choosing of the sounds of words to be used  in the language. This leads to languages having different words. Animal language lacks this property


Human language is capable of talking about present, past and future aspects and other arbitrary concepts.


Linguistically language refers to a conventional system of arbitrary vocal symbols used by human beings for communication. So here the word language is generic i.e. so general observing the general universal characteristics of language.

But a language refers to a specific language used by certain people e.g. Pare, Kurya, English etc.


The question of when and how language emerged has been debatable but at least there are some theories given by linguists to suggest the origin of language. Among the theories are:

The Bow- Wow Theory

This suggests that language began by people imitation of sounds of animals and nature around. This led to emergence of onomatopoeic words like moo, mew, roar etc as evidence.

The weakness here is that not all words are onomatopoeia (i.e. result from sound imitation)

The Pooh Pooh Theory

This argues that language developed from cries of pain, rages etc as expression of strong feelings

This theory does not explain how the complex organisation of language developed.

The Yo-he-ho Theory

This explains that the language arose as outcome of noises which people made while doing their physical labour.

For instance when lifting a big log they produced sounds calling for the effort and gradually true words like up, let’s go, lift, emerged.

What is convincing here is that language resulted from the need to organise society and communication. So that might have been the early forms (the noises).

The Ding Dong Theory

This argues that early man’s mental makeup was such that a sound representation was registered whenever mental process encountered any experience.

So what was registered in the minds of the early people was coded into sounds.

This theory fails to explain how the complex organised language developed.

The Gestural Theory (The Ta-ta Theory)

This suggests gesture to be the origin of language. That in the beginning man used gestures (eg hands) to communicate but later on when man started to use tools. His hands were not free for communication and so speech unconsciously replaced those gestures.


Knowing a language means that one posses linguistic knowledge of it.

This includes:

Knowing its sound system (phonology)

One should able to speak correctly and also understand the sounds produced by other members using that language.

Knowing its vocabulary (lexicons)

People speak in sequence of sounds in acceptable combinations that are meaningful. So one should know the words used in a language and their meanings.

Knowing how to organise words to form sentences

A sentence is not formed by putting words anyhow. The words are organised in rules that are acceptable and one should know them.

  1. You are an excellent teacher.
  2. An teacher you excellent are.
  3. Here the second sentence is incorrect.
  4. Knowing language therefore involves knowing its sounds (phonemes), the rules of forming words and their meanings and the rules of forming sentences.



Simply refers to the process of transferring and interpreting message from a sender to a receiver. The process of human communication involves:-

  • The message: this is what is to be communicated. It may be ideas, feelings signs etc
  • The sender (encoder): this is a person who delivers the idea and then encodes it. (puts it into symbols that are understood by the hearer).
  • The signals: the symbols (written or spoken) that have communicative value.
  • The channel: is the medium through which the message is passed. It may be through face to face, telephone etc.
  • The receiver (decoder): the one who receives the message. She/he decodes (turns the symbols spoken or written into meaning)
  • The feedback: is the response from the receiver, in action or words that show that the message has reached the receiver. It may be actions like coming, turning, signs like gesture and facial expression.


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