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What+is+language - What is Language Linguistics 101 P P...

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What is Language? Linguistics 101 P. & P. Houghton Spring 2009 1 Human Language It is no easy task to define what language is. Certainly, we can say that its purpose is the communication of ideas. But human language is much more complex and interesting than mere communication. Birds, monkeys, dogs, and bees all communicate in different ways. However, humans can communicate things that no other animal can, and they can do it in ways that no other animal can. Moreover, we humans have such a strong urge to use language that even if we don’t possess the usual tools for language (the ability to use our vocal tract), we will use another method to express our language (such as sign language). As we will see, every human language – Chinese, Athabaskan, American Sign Language, Timugon Murut, and the thousands of others – all share a number of features; features that no non-human system of communication possesses. So, what are the special properties of human language that set it apart from other sys- tems of communication? The four most important features are: arbitrariness, discreteness, displacement, and productivity. Arbitrariness: The words that we use have no logical connection to the things that they refer to. There is no inherent connection between the word table and the actual flat surface that we serve our meals on. That is, the words are arbitrarily chosen to represent things. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that you can just assign any combination of sounds to name something. Individual languages have established lexicons , or sets of words; but the words are connected to the things they describe only in that we associate them in our minds. If human language was not arbitrary, then every language would use exactly the same words. While table is an arbitrary signal to describe a particular object in English, mesa is used in Spanish, zhuozi is used in Mandarin Chinese, and bikaa’adani is used in Navajo. An example of non-arbitrary communication is a snarling dog. The dog shows its teeth, and communicates the idea I will use these teeth to hurt you . The teeth provide a message about teeth, specifically the very teeth that you are looking at! Across every species in the family Canis , this form of communication is used in exactly the same way and means exactly the same thing. Discreteness: This feature of human language can actually be thought of as two related phenomena: 1) the ability to break the language down into distinct units ( discreteness ), and 2) the ability to build the distinct parts into complex structures ( compositionality ). We can
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Linguistics 101 What is Language? actually see this feature at every level of our languages. Sentences can be broken down into words, and words can be composed into sentences in accordance with certain rules. Words can be broken down into parts (called morphemes ) and recomposed into different words in accordance with certain rules. Morphemes can be broken down into sounds, and sounds can be composed into morphemes, once again, in accordance with certain rules. We will look at these compositional rules in greater detail throughout the course. What you need to know
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