Approaching ‘language’

Before pondering some more specific matters related to language, it would be good to make sure what the subject of analysis is, i.e. what is language per se.

The word ‘language’ is commonly used by both specialists and lay people every day. On the pages of this blog, I will take a linguistic stance on the matter, but it is worth looking at some more general aspects of language and general definitions that guide language users around the world before getting into the more ‘linguistic’ part of the issue.

So, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, language is, among others 1) the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community; 2) a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings, e.g. <the language of mathematics>; 3) form or manner of verbal expression; specifically : <the beauty of Shakespeare’s language> or the vocabulary and phraseology belonging to an art or a department of knowledge: <the language of diplomacy> <medical language>. See definition.

Under such a set of definitions, we can understand language as either something technical (building blocks / structural elements) or something practical (language use), either hardware or software, or in the case of software, the code and executive files that express this code.

The hardware of any language would be its units, sounds, words, phrases and their combinations. The software is how they combine and function together. The expression is in the physical productions (either spoken – verbal – or written).

In some of the above definitions, various aspects or modules are alluded to: phonetics (sounds, pronunciations), lexis (words, vocabulary), syntax (their combinations), semantics (communicating ideas, feelings, meanings). Although this list is not exhaustive (language has more units than the four listed here based on the dictionary definitions), it gives a general idea about at least one important fact about language: that it is a system comprised of a series of interrelated elements. Another important fact is that language is combinatorial: various combinations of the basic elements are possible within the system. Also, the principal units are conventionalised, which means that the use of this and that unit depends on convention, hence the community that uses them and varies from one culture/place to another (hence linguistic variation).

Perhaps the most salient word in the definitions is the word ‘communication’. Well, first and foremost, language is used for communication.

At this point, it is important to differentiate language in the sense of human speech from other types of languages based on the same principles (e.g. communication: the language of animals or plants; convention/formal representation: the language of mathematics, logic, programming languages, etc.). Principally, the aim of this blog is to talk about human language: a means of communication used conventionally in communicative situations, although given the broad meaning of the word ‘communication’, I do not exclude getting deeper into the realm of modern communication methods and systems, as well as other types of languages, especially programming languages in the future.

Given the linguistic bias of this blog, let us therefore turn to some definitions of language from this field of study. Literature abounds in definitions of ‘language’ so I have to make a tough decision and choose the most suitable ones. As you can imagine, this decision is not an objective one. It is also arbitrary.

Arbitrary’ is one of the difficult words I had to learn as an undergraduate student. It can be defined as ‘depending on individual discretion’ or ‘based on or determined by individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something’ (arbitrary). I mention it here precisely because the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign was so important to the so-called father of linguistics: Ferdinand de Saussure. The great 19th century scholar saw language as a structured system of signs used by humans to understand the world and communicate ideas. Crucially, he divided language into langue (a formal, symbolic system) and parole (language use in particular situations). What is more, according to Saussure, the basic unit of language, i.e. the linguistic sign consists of two crucial parts: the signifier and the signified. Each sign is arbitrary, which means that it does not represent what is represented in any logical or tangible manner. For instance, the fact that the word ‘horse’ represents a concrete animal does not arise from the letters used to denote it or their combination, or from the sound that is produced when pronouncing it. In French, the word is cheval, in Spanish it is caballo, in Polish it is koń, etc. All of these signs (words, signifiers) have nothing in common but the denoted meaning (signified). The same applies to smaller units, such as sounds. The fact that ‘a’ has the sound it has cannot be implied from the way the grapheme <a> is written. The grapheme <ch> has a different pronunciation in EnglishFrench and German, and the latter language has two pronunciation variants for the same set of letters, 1 and 2. Thus, the connection between the signifier (sign, symbol) and the signified (meaning) is purely conventional. Hence, language is arbitrary.

Another important figure in the discipline of linguistics, André Martinet, defines language as an ability that humans have and use in order to understand one another with the use of vocal signs. Furthermore, in Martinet’s view, language is one of human institutions (creations, instruments) resulting from life in society and its essential function is communication. We must be careful, however, as Martinet warns us, not to think of language as a labelling system or lists of words, as it is more complicated than that. Graphic or phonetic representations of objects, events and concepts are not merely labels. If it were so, learning a different language would consist in memorising word lists and a one-to-one correspondence would ensue between all linguistic units, which is not true. Some examples of the complexity of words and concepts across cultures can be seen here.

Language is based on human experience, which differs from one speech community to another, and expressed via linguistic units (monemes) which carry a semantic meaning and a phonetic realisation resulting from abstract, distinctive units (phonemes) whose combinations and distributions depend on a given language spoken in a specific geographic area. In Martinet’s view, Saussure’s langue and parole are understood here in terms of a code and a message that is conveyed at a specific moment.

Some years later, the father of generative linguistics, i.e. the modern era in the field, although we can talk about post-generativism now in my opinion, Noam Chomsky proposed that we should distinguish between linguistic competence and performance. In his own words, “to have command of a language is to be able […] to understand what is said, and to produce a signal with the intended semantic interpretation” (1972: 115). This is competence, or grammar, and can be conceived of as a new model of Saussure’s langue. The grammar in Chomsky’s model is a formal mechanism that is generative in nature. This means that surface structures (i.e. what we actually produce) are generated from deep/underlying structures (theoretical constructs, intended concepts and meanings, abstract units) based on rules governing language. In principle, our competence guides and underlies our linguistic behaviour, although the process of generating linguistic structures can be distorted (as in slips of the tongue, grammatical errors, ambiguity, etc.).

Performance, on the other hand, is Saussure’s parole, the way competence is expressed (or language used) in particular situations. Most importantly, it must be remembered that multiple factors influence speaker performance. These include the circumstances, context, social relations, but also individual decisions and abilities, memory limitations, and perceptual limitations. What is more, Chomsky says that another level is necessary to fully account for language, both in terms of competence and performance, namely language acquisition, i.e. learning. As we learn a given language, our competence and performance are constantly affected. Also, first (native) and second (foreign) language acquisition are governed by different rules.

The principles of Chomsky’s model have been developed and reshaped on numerous occasions until this day and there are many related concepts that require both closer attention and space. Since Chomsky’s transformational grammar and universal language properties are an extremely complex matter, it is worth looking at them in a separate post. For now, it suffices to distinguish between the two key concepts: competence and performance, and the fact that language has to be learned in order to be used in the course of any human’s lifespan. I also hope that the reader sees some parallels between the views represented by some key figures of almost 150 years of linguistics. Of course, these parallels are only partial and the above description is a simplification of the issue at hand. There are crucial differences between them, together with decades of growing insight into the workings of language and the brain. But let’s keep it ‘simple’ here and just say that language is complex, and both concrete and abstract, depending on the way or part of it we look at.

To understand and question language, we have to grasp what it is. To sum up:

In substance, language is a formally organised, structured system (of signs). Linguistic signs are arbitrary, conventional, socially created and negotiated in the course of, and with the objective of establishing or maintaining communication. In language use, communication is about transmitting messages and mutual understanding between language users belonging to a given speech community. From here, we can infer that language is social. It is also about culture. Does this mean that language influences us or do we influence language? That’s something I would like to talk about in the next post. Stay tuned!


Chomsky, Noam (1972). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Chomsky, Noam (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

Martinet, André (1960). Eléments de linguistique générale. Paris: Armand Colin.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916). Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot.