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What Is Language? The 5 Basic Elements of Language Defined

Rodric completed his bachelor of psychology through the University of Phoenix. His perspective provides guidance and education.

So, what is language? Read on to discover the 5 basic elements in clear definitions. This article will help you grasp the basics of what exactly a language really is!

So, what is language? Read on to discover the 5 basic elements in clear definitions. This article will help you grasp the basics of what exactly a language really is!

Definition of Language

Language is a form of communication that allows intercourse between multiple people that is arbitrary (in words individually), generative (in word placement), and constantly evolving.

Many may dispute this meaning of language because some equate language to communication in general. Where communication can be any action, language must have particular limits placed within its meaning to protect what may constitute a formal language—that is, to distinguish between noises or grunts and communicative utterances in languages.

The lexicon of a language (words used to form a language) allows multiple combinations of words with the possibility of never saying the same group of words the same way!

Language is not a behavior because of its changing nature—its unpredictability. There are slight variations in tone that portray a different meaning for words when uttered that prove processes beyond physical and biochemical reactions affect speech.

Over 170,000 words exist in the English lexicon, which continues to grow as new things need naming! Though the words in the English lexicon are defined and have specific meanings, their nature changes as the generations change; in other words, "cool" means more than the temperature of something or a place.

Where communication can be any action, language must have particular limits within its meaning to protect what may constitute a proper language.

This article tackles the task of defining 5 of the following fundamental elements of language as clearly as possible:

5 Basic Elements of Language Defined in This Article

  1. Language is communicative
  2. Language is arbitrary in nature
  3. Language is structured
  4. Language is generative
  5. Language is dynamic

1. Language Is Communicative

The quality of being communicative, by definition, is a willingness to dispense information. Ancient Roman society preserved records and instructed their progeny in the form and vocabulary, the lexicon of their language. Because of its communicative nature, that ancient language, Latin, existed for centuries, perpetuating generational culture, which sustained that society and continues to provide the rudiments for medical and scientific terminology.

Language is based on random choices by groups of people (nations, even) to communicate needs and wants, a collective system for commerce.

2. Language Is Arbitrary in Nature

One word describing an object may very well be another—such as the word door could as easily have been assigned to a window.

Language is based on random choices by groups of people (nations, even) to communicate needs and wants, a collective system for commerce.

The arbitrary nature of language can be called into question since objects have names based on their initial uses; however, for this brief treatment, it stands as a ruler for language.

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The evidence that language is arbitrary is overwhelming. The fact that there are hundreds of languages attests that anything can be called anything! Take the word "yes." In English, "yes," means to agree or answer in the affirmative. In Spanish, "si" is to agree or reply in the affirmative. In French, "oui" is to agree or answer in the affirmative. In Xhosa, it is "ewe." Depending on what language a person uses, what English people call "yes" could be any sound.

"Yes," in Klingon it is "HIja." Even fictional languages must meet the five criteria to appear believable!

Arbitrariness as a Property of Language

3. Language Is Structured

There is a pattern of organization in a given language that takes an identifiable shape. The patterns are familiar enough to be identifiable to all other users of that language. Language has basic building blocks that set it aside from other forms of communication.

It would be difficult to build a house without a blueprint. Even if there is no written blueprint, there is a mental template to reference so that others can fashion something similar to the first house. In other words, for those out there thinking that they can build a house without directions, it is not so. The directions are mental and/or physical.

Even languages that have no written form have building blocks in common with written languages. There is a sure way to put words together to make them intelligible to the hearers.

4. Language Is Generative

Language constantly creates new phrases and new structures—it generates more of itself. It is comparable to a living thing that reproduces, changes, and even dies. Even though Latin is a dead tongue, those who use it keep it alive or generative by speaking and writing it.

Language communicates new ideas not possible to convey with gestures and grunts alone. Sign Language is an exception to gesturing because it consists of the five elements of language with no sound.


5. Language Is Dynamic

Language experiences augmentation and refinement (change) as time passes. This change can cause questions in the minds of those who seek to preserve the integrity of certain cultural aspects surrounding a language.

"Dynamic" is a decent way to describe this natural change, this basic aspect of language. "Dynamic," in this case, means that language can evolve and never repeat the exact phrase with the same meaning in the same way without doing so on purpose.

Language gives humanity the ability to be innovative because of its dynamic nature. Cultures, religious systems, and political systems all use language to perpetuate hundreds of dogmas in written form or speech. Language is a very effective tool of persuasion because it is dynamic!

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words can clearly express an idea with little room for misunderstanding since a thousand more words await use!


To qualify as a language, all given attributes listed must be present, which questions the forms of signing that exist.

Language Perspective

Culture does influence a person’s view of the world, shaping their ideas and behavior. A person may respond differently depending on how the words leave their mouth because of the way they have to hold their tongue to say words.

The human mind processes language the same regardless of language differences. From babbling to speaking, the mind associates things with words to provide perspective and understanding. Though a language may rise and fall as the ancient Roman society’s language, Latin, did, another will take its place and expand the mind in the same way.

Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the element of language for jargon?

Answer: Jargon is not a separate element of language. Jargon is just another part of languaged used by specific groups to communicate within the scope of their interactions such as Doctors, firemen, and any group that has a way to speak specific to them.

Question: At what age do children begin to experiment with different aspects of language?

Answer: Children start as early as infancy to put sounds together to formulate what eventually becomes the basis for their language development and comprehension. Three years of age is the average time that children will begin to speak in a manner that is recognizable as proficient in their mother tongues according to the Encyclopedia of Children's Health, though for some it is earlier. One-year-olds, from my observations, start to experiment with language aspects trying to communicate what they want to family members. Forming words and crude sentences to describe and ask for things they want, young children experiment with ways to communicate.

Because language-use development is highly individualistic, I suggest that the experimental stage is a period from the ages one to three, which agrees in principle with the Encyclopedia of Children's Health average age of three years.

Question: According to the definition of language in this article, signing language is not language. What do you say about that since signing has the word language in it?

Answer: Most schools of thought suggest that Sign Language is a language, hence its descriptor. Signing shares many elements with spoken language and those who use it consider it a language. In the United States, many states recognize it as a second language and it is taught at some universities with credit as such. Most of society does NOT consider it a language on par with spoken and written languages because of the function of signing.

Signing may compare more to dialects of other spoken languages at one end of the spectrum and a paralanguage (more a pseudo-language) at the other than a language because it is not independent of a base language like English. Suggesting so is not off-based.

A paralanguage is a component of meta-communication that can modify meaning, give nuanced meaning, or convey emotion, by using techniques such as prosody, pitch, volume, intonation, etc. When people use American Sign Language, it stems from a mother language such as English and does not have its own generative uses and versatility like a spoken language. Qualifiers that signing is its own separate function outside of a base language abound, but as people speak and signers translate that speech into movements, facial gestures, and signaled spelling, it presents as a complex meta-communication tied to a mother language or base language.

It is not simple gestures, body movements, and hand motions with meaning because signing, like language, is generative in gestures and movement. But under the definition of language in this article, sign languages are more not language because none of them exist independently as do spoken languages.

When a person needs to communicate in the written word, sign languages use a base language to do so, English, French, and such. Using the English Alphabet is not a disqualifier since many other languages do so, like Xhosa. When the language is written, however, Xhosa generates its own words and grammar, not written English. With any sign language, there is no distinct written form. No matter how many dialects of sign language there are, in an English-speaking nation, signers communicate using English as the base language when written. That disqualifies it as a language in comparison to French, English, Xhosa, and others.

Attempts to make sign languages stand on their own are monumental tasks that have little practical value since there are not enough people with hearing impairment to support such a movement. It is neither convenient or practical to form a language separate from the base language when signers use a base language. It can occur, however. Signing can emerge as a language if the effort to establish it as such occurs.

Deaf, blind, and mute people communicate using braille and sign languages, but without a base language, could not function in society. It is unpopular to think of having a disability that places people at a disadvantage in society such as mutism or non-hearing. Communities exist for the non-hearing and the mute. These communities, however, function because most people in society are not disabled. Signing is for the benefit of helping people with disabilities communicate and live within society as equals though they have disadvantages. Signing works the same as spectacles or eye-glasses for the hard of seeing, hearing devices for the hard of hearing, prosthetics for missing body parts, or pacemakers for those with heart problems.

Argument could arise that language itself is a tool, a crutch to help unevolved humanity learn to communicate because of its lack of empathic ability generally towards understanding that would eliminate unintentional offenses. That is the subject for philosophers to ponder.

Question: What element of language are vowels in the alphabet?

Answer: Vowels are the long and short sounds we make with our mouths to form words. Ann Carr mentioned in a comment on this article that we have short sounds like, "'a' in cat, or in 'bad'" or a long vowel "by adding an 'e', as in 'bade'; we then have what's called a split vowel digraph (two letters split by a consonant; a-e). In that way, mouth shapes make a difference." Vowels are symbols from the alphabet that we used to represent those long and short sounds in written language. Vowels are components to communicate the spoken words of written language.

What part of speech are they? They are part of speech! Without them, words exist in languages--none which I know.

Question: What are the elements of a language?

Answer: I refer you back to this article:

Question: I have trouble correcting someone’s grammatical mistake, or their choice of a word that doesn’t match their intended meaning. But I always want my mistakes to be corrected, and when I encounter an unfamiliar word I am happy to look it up in a dictionary. What’s your advice, from any perspective?

Answer: Keep doing what you're doing! You can't know everything, which is why we have reference books like dictionaries--or even Wikipedia. Your writing success depends on your willingness to step out of your "ordinary."

© 2018 Rodric Anthony Johnson


Ann Carr from SW England on April 18, 2020:

I don't want to kick, just to nudge a little if occasion demands and that's hardly ever in your case, Rodric. It's a difficult subject to write about and you do it well.


Rodric Anthony Johnson (author) from Surprise, Arizona on April 17, 2020:

Ann, you are one of my writing mentors. I know I have not said it much, but you are. I have no qualm with you improving my knowledge, ever. You and Bill have a free ticket to kick me in my writing pants each and every time.

Rodric Anthony Johnson (author) from Surprise, Arizona on April 17, 2020:

Denny, thanks for reading and your supportive comment. I intentionally try my best to write with every skill level I possess. If I get a new skill, I come back to update my articles to reflect that.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 16, 2020:

In your answer to the question about vowels, you have said they are long sounds. Actually, vowels can be short as well, as in the 'a' in cat, or in 'bad', the latter made a long vowel by adding an 'e', as in 'bade'; we then have what's called a split vowel digraph (two letters split by a consonant; a-e). In that way, mouth shapes make the difference too.

Hope you don't mind me clarifying that one!


Denny Smith on April 15, 2020:

This is a compelling language blog! This genre seems to be proliferating—I wish they were all so well-written and welcoming to read.

Rodric Anthony Johnson (author) from Surprise, Arizona on August 12, 2018:

A fool is offended when no offence is intended. A fool is offended when offence is intended.

Ann, that sentiment is attributed to Brigham Young. Sometimes I am a fool. Most time, I take help as it is given. I want you to critique any of my writing. How else can I get better. It is also practice at telling people they need to improve without sounding like your are telling them they need to improve. I have not perfected my technique on that one.

I love your suggestions and welcome them. Thanks for your praise.

Ann Carr from SW England on August 12, 2018:

Not sure when the next challenge might be, Rodric, but there will be one eventually! I can't resist issuing or taking them up. Thanks for your kind words and encouragement.

It's always more difficult when updating or re-hashing an article, I find. I'm glad you are happy with my comment; it's so easy to offend some writers here, even though I never mean to and only offer gentle suggestions or point out something such as I did here.

I thought this article was so good on the explanation of a complicated subject.


Rodric Anthony Johnson (author) from Surprise, Arizona on August 12, 2018:

Thank you for catching that for me and. I wrote this a long time ago it was updating it with a new article and I still made the same mistake. I will get on it and fix it. I am glad that I have you who will look out for the rest of us writers. I'm waiting for your next challenge so that I can be creative.

Ann Carr from SW England on August 12, 2018:

Great article, well explained.

I know it's a typo but in your 'Number Two (2)..' the French word for yes should be 'Oui' not 'Qui', as you will know of course. The French also use 'Si' for yes, when it comes after a question, as in 'You don't do that, do you?... 'Yes, I do', to affirm the opposite.

All these things are what make language so fascinating. It has been a passion of mine since I was young and became my career, when teaching English, French, then literacy to dyslexics.


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