Before it can become a form of communication, a language must have become a system of representation. This is necessary if the meanings of its words and sentences are to be understood by people communicating in the same language, that is, by using the same code.
Language is a term that covers a vast array of concepts best understood through a series of basic distinctions. Language is a form of communication - specifically, a communication system based on human sounds. There are other forms of communication systems. Some are based on touch, scent, movement, colour, gesture and even the electrical impulses that pass through computers. A bee is able to communicate the location of nectar by performing a dance for other bees in the hive, just as the peacock can communicate by displaying brightly coloured feathers and strutting about. However, such forms of communication do not match the marvellous complexity of human language.
Before it can become a form of communication, a language must have become a system of representation. This is necessary if the meanings of its words and sentences are to be understood by people communicating in the same language, that is, by using the same code. For languages do not code things in the same way. Anything that can be seen, heard, felt, experienced or conceived can be coded in any way by language. There is no necessary relationship between what is seen and what is heard in language, no reason why the animal dog should be called chien in French, hund in German, perro in Spanish, kutya in Hungarian or dog in English. What is necessary is that for people speaking the same language, these words always refer to the same animal.
We know that all people using the streets and roads of a city must accept the convention that a red traffic light means "stop" - even though some may prefer another colour. It is in this sense that language is a system of conventional signs, even though the signs were at first arbitrary. Not only are these signs arbitrary; so is what they represent. A language may use the same sign (the same word) for dogs and wolves. Although English has different words for inside as opposed to outside barriers - doors as distinguished from gates - French uses one word, portes, for both. Contrariwise, French distinguishes between 2 sorts of rivers - fleuve and rivière, while English uses one word for both.
Each language cuts up the universe of experience in a different way. The more distant the relation between the languages, the greater the difference. Although people with different languages may see the same rainbow in the same way, the number and range of the rainbow's hues they can name will depend on how colours have been coded in their language. Some languages have everyday words for a dozen colours; other language can get by with only a couple - not necessarily the same couple. The difference could be between light and dark, or reddish and bluish. Thus different languages segment the same observable reality - the same rainbow - in different ways. The line of demarcation between blue and green in the Germanic language is not the same as it is in the Celtic language; some things that are blue in English may be green in Welsh. Languages differ in the number, type and contents of their categories.
Nevertheless, there are some universal features of human language that distinguish it from other forms of communication. Perhaps most important is "productivity," a feature implying that there are no limitations to what speakers can express through language. We can talk about anything; we are able, with no effort, to utter and understand sentences that we have never heard before.
The Components of Language
To categorize things, events and ideas, a language employs syntax (including word order), morphology (word roots, affixes), phonology (functional sounds) and prosody (intonation, stress, tone). What is expressed in one language by differences among words may be expressed in another language by differences in grammar or even intonation. For example, the difference between the French words personne and n'importe qui can be rendered in English by a difference in the intonation of such utterances as "I don't lend my books to anyone" ( "je ne prête pas mes livres à - personne/n'importe qui" ).
Natural vs Artificial Languages
A further distinction within the concept of language should be made between natural and artificial languages. Some artificial languages were invented in response to a desire for a universal medium of communication. Esperanto, Novial, Interlingua and several hundred other artificial languages have been proposed over the past few centuries, but none of them has met with universal acceptance. Computer technology has brought about another kind of artificial language: FORTRAN, BASIC and COBOL have been some of the codes with which humans can communicate with machines, but none of them is nearly as elaborate as a natural language. Natural languages have evolved within communities, some of them over many millennia; they are all based on human speech sounds, with the exception of sign languages (used by the deaf) and purely idiographic writing systems. An infant surrounded by individuals speaking a particular language will learn that language just as he learns the behaviours expected by family and community.
Language, Culture and Society
Only those who succeed in speaking a language to the satisfaction of a given linguistic group are eventually integrated into the group. It is as if the speech community were to say, "This person, who speaks like one of us, must be one of us." Language, even more than religion, social behaviour, dress, food or custom, is the most integrative and exclusive component of culture. As a living monument fashioned by countless generations of users, it has encoded all that its speakers have considered important. It has also left uncoded that which was considered unimportant. For example, nomadic Canadian Inuit on the treeless fringes of the Arctic seas had little interest in distinguishing different types of trees; what they needed were words to talk about snow. In some Inuit dialects, more than 50 words referring to ice and snow are in use. All cultures have words that reflect their needs.
Although language is one component of culture, not all cultures regard language in the same way. For some, language is so highly valued that is must be protected and kept pure; for others language is simply a means of communication. For some, language is a badge of belonging, an instrument of empathy; for others, it is mostly a skill for living and for making a living.
Language, Dialect and Register
It has been said that no 2 people, not even twins, speak the same language in exactly the same way. Every individual has an idiolect, yet within any speech community the degree of individual difference cannot be such as to make mutual comprehension impossible. Groups of people who communicate frequently develop a common speech and a threshold of tolerance for individual speech differences. Consequently, people living in the same region are likely to speak in a similar way; ie, they speak the same dialect.
Dialects have traditionally been described along 2 parameters, geographic and social. Just as people tend to speak in a manner similar to that of those living nearby, their speech usually resembles that of their socioeconomic peers with whom they usually associate. An example of a dialect based on social position is the British RP ("received pronunciation"), the "public school" accents of English as spoken by the people educated in the private schools of Great Britain. Language also varies in degree of formality depending on the context and occasion, and on the relative familiarity of the speakers. Thus many people use a number of different registers. What is appropriate in speaking to a family member may not be acceptable to a group of strangers at a public meeting or when addressing the judge in court.
Languages of the World
Since the difference between adjacent speech communities is one of degree, there has not always been total agreement on what dialect belongs to which language, and in some cases there is debate as to whether a given dialect is, in fact, a separate language. This has influenced estimates of the number of languages there are in the world: counts have ranged from 3000 to about 8000. A recent inventory lists the names and places of some 6600 languages, exclusive of dialects. Recognition of a dialect as a language is a matter of circumstance. In the past, the dialect of the royal court, the capital city or the seat of national government was usually selected as a state's language (seeENGLISH LANGUAGE; FRENCH LANGUAGE). Today linguists seek more objective criteria (eg, mutual intelligibility) for recognizing a language or dialect. Languages are described as mutual unintelligibility to emphasize that knowledge of one language does not preclude knowledge with another language. If 2 speech communities can understand each other, they are commonly thought to speak varieties of the same language, whereas 2 communities using mutually unintelligible speech might claim to be speaking 2 different languages or dialects. This is one way in which language distinctions are made today, although political boundaries still have an influence on linguistic classification.
Languages are grouped into families, the most encompassing (a phylum) being a number of languages that have all developed historically from the same protolanguage (source language). There are a number of such language family groups in the world, including Sino-Tibetan, Afro-Asiatic, Uralic-Altaic, Austronesian and Uto-Aztecan. The language families of Canada's native peoples have been grouped into Algonquian, Athapaskan, Salishan, Wakashan and other groups (seeNATIVE PEOPLE, LANGUAGES). One of the world's largest and most widespread group of language families is the Indo-European phylum which included families such as the Germanic, the Romance and the Slavic. The English language belongs to the so-called Germanic branch of this family, as do German, Dutch, Yiddish, Danish, Icelandic and many others. French belongs to the Romance family, which includes also Latin, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian and others.
Language differentiation is a function of time and space. When a group of people emigrates from its home community, the farther away it goes and the longer it remains isolated, the more different its language might become from that spoken in the area of origin. Although related languages may be mutually incomprehensible, it is possible, using techniques of comparative reconstruction, to establish sound-to-sound and word-to-word relationships - even if the speakers have lived apart for a thousand years or more. The same techniques that permit the identification of related languages also show how one language evolves into another. By comparing forms of the same word in documents of different dates, linguists have demonstrated, for example, the conditions under which the Latin of the Roman legions and their subjects developed into Spanish in Spain, French in France and Romanian in Romania. The process continues today, as the Haitian language clearly shows: on the early plantations of Haiti, the African slaves speaking mutually incomprehensible languages developed their own simplified version of the speech of their French-speaking supervisors; in a few generations, this Creole developed into the vernacular of all Haitians.
A nation in which many languages are spoken may choose to do all its legal, administrative and other official business in one or more official languages. Canada, which has a great many languages as a result of its indigenous and immigrant populations, has adopted 2, English and French. A language may be official according to 2 principles, the principle of territoriality and the principle of personality. According to the first, it is the individual who accommodates to the language of the state. According to the second, it is the state that accommodates to the language of the individual. The principle of territoriality was adopted for the first time in 1974 as the basis for Québec's Official Languages Act. By contrast, in 1969 both Canada and New Brunswick had formalized through their Official Languages Acts the application of the principle of personality in all dealings, in English or French, between the government and its citizens.
Jean Aichison, The Seeds of Speech: Language Origins and Evolution (1996); Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World, 3rd ed. (1995); R.L. Trask, Language: The Basics (1995); George Yule, The Study of Language (2nd ed, 1996).