What is Language?

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The question has an obvious answer, right?  Language is how we communicate. So if I slam the door when I am mad, I am communicating. Therefore, slamming a door must be part of a language, right? Is the way animals communicate a form of language?  What about your “love language?”

Surely, that must be a language.

How Language is Defined

To define language, let’s start with words. Words are the building blocks, and they have two parts: a form and a meaning. The form can be either the sound or the spelling of a word. Words can have one or multiple meanings, which leads to the complexity of language.

The words and their meaning are not enough to create a language. We follow a system of rules (sometimes called grammar) when combining words to create meaning. In English, sentences are typically structured subject-verb-object.  That is why we understand the difference in the following sentences:

The dog chased the cat.

The cat chased the dog.

Finally, language has three other components. First, words are arbritary. We call a dog a dog, but why not a perro, chien, or hund? Or pies, the Polish word for dog. Eventually, users agree that a dog is a dog and not a cat. 

Second, language is open-ended and capable of change. New words are created, other words become obsolete, and some words change in meaning. For example,  gab as “to lie” is an obsolete definition, while “to talk much” is the modern one. (A gab is also a part of a steam engine.)

And third, language is creative—a speaker can create a sentence never spoken before, and the listener or reader can understand what it means.  I can create a sentence that might never have been uttered before, but the reader or listener understands it.

The bird flew under the large cat, tickled its belly, and flew away without incident.

To communicate, we use words that were once arbitrary, combine them into agreed upon systems, and create meaning. 

Do Animals Have Language?

Anyone who has watched cute, funny, or touching animal videos recognizes that animals communicate with one another. Pet lovers say the same.  But is their form of communication a language? 

The consensus among linguists is that animals communicate but don’t use what we consider a language. Bees, for example, have a dance that tells other bees the location of a honey source. Skunks spray when they feel threatened. Dolphins have a complex system of clicks and whistles that they use to communicate with one another. Our pets let us know when they are hungry or want attention.  And some apes can learn a few phrases!

However, language involves the ability to combine words and phrases to create new meanings, something that animals have not been observed doing. Instead, most of their communication is fixed to specific purposes.

This doesn’t negate the variety and complexity of the ways animals communicate. Stories and videos of animals rescuing humans or other animals show they have emotional responses and perhaps methods for communicating that we don’t fully understand.

But they aren’t using language as we define it. That doesn’t lessen your pet’s greeting or idiosyncrasies. It is amazing what they can communicate without it.

Is Love a Language?

Most of us have heard the phrase “love language.” It refers to the way people express and receive love. Gary Chapman introduced the concept in his book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.

Chapman theorized that everyone has a set of behaviors they think of and associate with love and affection. The five categories he observed in his years as a Christian counselor were 

  • Quality time
  • touch
  • Acts of service
  • Gifts (giving and receiving)
  • Words of affirmation.

The concept of “love language” has morphed into something different from what Chapman intended. In pop culture, one’s love language is self-focused. But Chapman intended that couples focus not on their needs but on their partner’s. Self-focused love language is a one-way conversation: I prefer to spend quality time with you, so you need to do the same. 

But Chapman developed the theory to encourage couples to communicate—to talk with one another to identify how they can best show love in ways their partner wants. So although the “love language” concept is not one, it can, if used as intended, lead to conversations, and conversation is language.

If you enjoyed this article, you might be a lover of language. If not, the article How to Become a Lover of Language will help you get there.

2 thoughts on “What is Language?”

  1. Interesting pondering Steve. I know the usual thinking is that they have a communication system but not a language for the reasons you outlined, but I found myself wondering if its just because we don’t understand their language ?

    • I agree. When I started this piece, I had no idea it would head to animals.

      Having the ability to create meaning with language has its pros and cons. Maybe that’s one reason videos of animals rescuing other animals or humans are heartwarming–one doesn’t need language to communicate love and caring.


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