Sometimes we can use certain terms with such frequency that we never stop to define them clearly. Sometimes we assume that we all agree on the meaning of a term, so we never really examine that meaning together.
One of the most interesting things to me about my first year of my master’s degree is how frequently I have been forced to pause and ask myself, “What is language?” In several cases my textbooks authors or scholars I’m reading seem to be using the term in a way that is broader, or narrower, or sort of just to one side of how I would think of it. One of my textbooks, for example, took into consideration such categories as body language, dress style, even physical touch and proxemics (conventions for acceptable physical distance between two people). Is that language? I’m still pondering that one.
Of course, dictionary definitions abound. H. Douglas Brown defines it as “a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings.” A common introductory linguistics textbook tells us that “language is often viewed as a vehicle of thought, a system of expression that mediates the transfer of thought from one person to another. “ These sound like pretty straightforward definitions, until you start to unpack them. That first definition says language communicates ideas or feelings, but what about information, questions, curses and blessings? The second one says that language is a means of transferring thought from one person to another; so when you say a prayer to a higher being or discuss the bad day you had with your dog, is that not language?
As you can see, following through on a scientific definition of language can quickly become an exercise in falling down the rabbit hole. When I start to feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland, I like to read deliberately non-scientific definitions of language. My favorite is the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson with which I started of this blog four months ago:
Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone.
I love that quote. It encapsulates everything I love about language, and why I think languages are important. It captures that specifically human, collaborative, and monumental quality that is unique to language, however you want to define it. And I love that Emerson acknowledges that it is something to which we all bring a stone, not just the masons and the architects, the master builders or, in this case, the linguists. Not just the speakers of global powerhouses like English, but the speakers of every single language. It is a city which we are all constructing together, and it is a city whose construction will never be finished.
So I wanted to ask you, dear readers: what is language? You don’t have to give me a scientific definition, though you’re welcome to of course. I know some of you are linguists, armchair or otherwise, but I want to know what everyone thinks. Do you have a quote that you like? A feeling you’d like to share?
What is language?