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Human spoken and written languages can be described as a system of symbols (sometimes known as lexemes) and the grammars (rules) by which the symbols are manipulated. The word "language" is also used to refer to common properties of languages.
Language learning is normal in human childhood. Most human languages use patterns of sound or gesture for symbols which enable communication with others around them. There are thousands of human languages, and these seem to share certain properties, even though many shared properties have exceptions.
There is no defined line between a language and a dialect, but Max Weinreich is credited as saying that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy;" in other words, the distinction between a language and a dialect of a language is as much due to political divisions as it is because of cultural differences, distinctive writing systems, or mutual intelligibility.
Humans and computer programs have also constructed other languages, including constructed languages such as Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, Klingon, programming languages, and various mathematical formalisms. These languages are not necessarily restricted to the properties shared by human languages.
Properties of language
Languages are not just sets of symbols. They also often conform to a rough grammar, or system of rules, used to manipulate the symbols. While a set of symbols may be used for expression or communication, it is primitive and relatively unexpressive, because there are no clear or regular relationships between the symbols.
For example, imagine going on a walk with a person who only knows individual symbols. If you saw a dog, he might say, "Dog not scare" or "Not scare dog". Although any English speaker would have some notion of what he was talking about, the relationship between the words is unclear. Is he scared of dogs? Or just that dog? Or does he want to scare the dog off? Does he think the dog is scared? But if you respond, "I'm not scared of dogs", the relationship between "dog" and "scare" is quite apparent and hence the meaning of the utterance.
Another property of language is the arbitrariness of the symbols. Any symbol can be mapped onto any concept (or even onto one of the rules of the grammar). For instance, there is nothing about the Spanish word nada itself that forces Spanish speakers to use it to mean "nothing". That is the meaning all Spanish speakers have memorized for that sound pattern. But for Croatian speakers nada means "hope".
However, it must be understood that just because in principle the symbols are arbitrary does not mean that a language cannot have symbols that are iconic of what they stand for. Words such as "meow" sound similar to what they represent (see Onomatopoeia), but they could be replaced with words such as "jarn", and as long as everyone memorized the new word, the same concepts could be expressed with it.
Human languages are usually referred to as natural languages, and the science of studying them is linguistics.
Making a principled distinction between one language and another is usually impossible. For instance, there are a few dialects of German similar to some dialects of Dutch. The transition between languages within the same language family is usually gradual (see dialect continuum).
Some like to make parallels with biology, where it is not always possible to make a well-defined distinction between one species and the next. In either case, the ultimate difficulty may stem from the interactions between languages and populations. (See Dialect or August Schleicher for a longer discussion.)
Origins of human language
No one yet agrees on when language was first used by humans (or their ancestors). Estimates range from about two million (2,000,000) years ago, during the time of Homo habilis, to as recently as forty thousand (40,000) years ago, during the time of Cro-Magnon man.
The classification of natural languages can be performed on the basis of different underlying principles (different closeness notions, respecting different properties and relations between languages); important directions of present classifications are:
- paying attention to the historical evolution of languages results in a genetic classification of languages—which is based on genetic relatedness of languages,
- paying attention to the internal structure of languages (grammar) results in a typological classification of languages—which is based on similarity of one or more components of the language's grammar across languages,
- and respecting geographical closeness and contacts between language-speaking communities results in areal groupings of languages.
The different classifications do not match each other and are not expected to, but the correlation between them is an important point for many linguistic research works. (There is a parallel to the classification of species in biological phylogenetics here: consider monophyletic vs. polyphyletic groups of species.)
The world's languages have been grouped into families of languages that are believed to have common ancestors. Some of the major families are the Indo-European languages, the Afro-Asiatic languages, the Austronesian languages, and the Sino-Tibetan languages.
The shared features of languages from one family can be due to shared ancestry. (Compare with homology in biology.)
An example of a typological classification is the classification of languages on the basis of the basic order of the verb, the subject and the object in a sentence into several types: SVO, SOV, VSO, and so on, languages. (English, for instance, belongs to the SVO language type.)
The shared features of languages of one type (= from one typological class) may have arisen completely independently. (Compare with analogy in biology.) Their cooccurence might be due to the universal laws governing the structure of natural languages—language universals.
The following language groupings can serve as some linguistically significant examples of areal linguistic units, or sprachbunds: Balkan linguistic union, or the bigger group of European languages; Caucasian languages. Although the members of each group are not closely genetically related, there is a reason for them to share similar features, namely: their speakers have been in contact for a long time within a common community and the languages converged in the course of the history. These are called "areal features".
N.B.: one should be careful about the underlying classification principle for groups of languages which have apparently a geographical name: besides areal linguistic units, the taxa of the genetic classification (language families) are often given names which themselves or parts of which refer to geographical areas.
Some individuals have constructed their own artificial languages, for practical, experimental, personal, or ideological reasons. For example, one prominent artificial language, Esperanto, was created by L. L. Zamenhof as a compilation of various elements of different languages, and was intended to be an easy-to-learn language for people familiar with similar languages. Other constructed languages strive to be more logical ("loglangs") than natural languages; a prominent example of this is Lojban.
The study of language
The oldest surviving written grammar for any language is believed to be the Tolkāppiyam (தொல்காப்பியம்), a book on the grammar of the Tamil language, written around 200 BC by Tolkāppiyar. Its classification of the alphabet into consonants and vowel was a breakthrough. The historical record of the study of language begins in North India with Pāṇini, the 5th century BC grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology, known as the Aṣṭādhyāyī (अष्टाध्यायी). Pāṇini’s grammar is highly systematized and technical. Inherent in its analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme, and the root; the phoneme was only recognized by Western linguists some two millennia later.
In the Middle East, the Persian linguist Sibawayh made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760 CE in his monumental work, Al-kitab fi al-nahw (الكتاب في النحو, The Book on Grammar), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book he distinguished phonetics from phonology.
Later in the West, the success of science, mathematics, and other formal systems in the 20th century led many to attempt a formalization of the study of language as a "semantic code". This resulted in the academic discipline of linguistics, the founding of which is attributed to Ferdinand de Saussure.
The term "animal languages" is often used for non-human languages. Most researchers agree that these are not as complex or expressive as human language; they may better be described as animal communication. Some researchers argue that there are significant differences separating human language from the communication of other animals, and that the underlying principles are unrelated.
In several publicised instances, non-human animals have been trained to mimic certain features of human language. For example, chimpanzees and gorillas have been taught hand signs based on American Sign Language; however, they have never been successfully taught its grammar. There was also a case in 2003 of Kanzi, a captive bonobo chimpanzee allegedly independently creating some words to mean certain concepts. While animal communication has debated levels of semantics, it has not been shown to have syntax in the sense that human languages do.
Some researchers argue that a continuum exists among the communication methods of all social animals, pointing to the fundamental requirements of group behaviour and the existence of "mirror cells" in primates. This, however, may not be a scientific question, but is perhaps more one of definition. What exactly is the definition of the word "language"? Most researchers agree that, although human and more primitive languages have analogous features, they are not homologous.
Mathematics and computer science use artificial entities called formal languages (including programming languages and markup languages, but also some that are far more theoretical in nature). These often take the form of character strings, produced by some combination of formal grammar and semantics of arbitrary complexity.
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- Animal sounds in different languages
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- Speech accent archive
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- Language & Communication at The Psychology Wiki