What Is Language? The 5 Basic Elements of Language Defined

Updated on August 15, 2018
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Rodric completed his bachelor of psychology through the University of Phoenix. His perspective provides guidance and education.

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Definition of Language

Language can be defined as 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 the meaning of language because some may 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 proper language—that is to distinguish between noises or grunts and communicative utterances in languages.

The Lexicon of a language or the words used to form a language provides the opportunity for multiple combinations of words virtually to never say the same group of words the same way.

Language cannot be described as a behavior because of its changing nature—its unpredictability. There are small variations in tone that portray a different meaning for words when uttered that prove processes beyond physical biochemical reactions affect speech. Tens of thousands of words exist in the English lexicon. Though the words are defined and have a specific meaning, the nature of the lexicon changes as the generations change.

1. Language is Communicative

Communicative by definition is a willingness to dispense information. The 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.

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.

The arbitrary nature of language can be called into question since objects have names based on whatever they were used for initially; however, for this brief treatment, it stands as a ruler for language.

The evidence that language is arbitrary is overwhelming. The fact that there are literally thousands 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 answer 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.

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3. Language is Structured

There is a pattern of organization 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 it there is no written blueprint, there is a mental template that exists 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 languages that are written. There is a certain way to put words together to make them intelligible to the hearers.

4. Language is Generative

Language constantly creates new phrases, 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 speak it keep it alive or generative by speaking and writing it. New ideas are communicated with language that could not be communicated well with gestures and grunts alone.

There are five basic elements that compose a language

5. Language is Dynamic

Language experiences augmentation and refinement (change) as time passes, which can be looked upon also with some question. But for this work, dynamic is a decent gauge for describing language. Dynamic in this cause means that language has the ability to evolve and never repeat the same 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.

Note: In order to qualify as a language, all given attributes listed must be present, which calls into question the forms of signing that exist.

Language Perspective

Culture does influence a person’s view of the world—shaping his or her ideas and behavior--meaning that a person may respond differently depending on how the words leave his or her mouth because of the way he or she has to hold his or her tongue to say those words.

The human mind, however, 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 in the past, another will take its place and expand the mind in the same way.

Questions & Answers

  • 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?

    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.

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

    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.

© 2018 Rodric Anthony

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    • Rodric29 profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodric Anthony 

      15 months ago from Peoria, Arizona

      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.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      15 months ago from SW England

      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.

      Ann

    • Rodric29 profile imageAUTHOR

      Rodric Anthony 

      15 months ago from Peoria, Arizona

      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.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      15 months ago from SW England

      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.

      Ann

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