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What Is Language?

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Question: What Is Language?

Language is succinctly defined in our glossary as a "human system of communication that uses arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols." But frankly, language is far too complicated, intriguing, and mysterious to be adequately explained by a brief definition.

The following observations on language, drawn from the works of various writers and scholars, take us beyond definitions. Approaching the subject from different metaphorical perspectives, these quotations may serve as points of departure for your own exploration of the mysteries--and the limitations--of language.

Answer:
  • Fossil Poetry
    "The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin."
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet," 1844)


  • A Museum Inside Our Heads
    "Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. . . . We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard."
    (Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger, 1987)


  • The Armory of the Human Mind
    "Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests."
    (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)


  • Records of Other People's Experience
    "Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born--the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people's experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things."
    (Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, 1954)


  • An Art
    "Language is an anonymous, collective and unconscious art; the result of the creativity of thousands of generations."
    (Edward Sapir)


  • An Instinctive Tendency
    "As Horne Tooke, one of the founders of the noble science of philology, observes, language is an art, like brewing or baking; but writing would have been a better simile. It certainly is not a true instinct, for every language has to be learnt. It differs, however, widely from all ordinary arts, for man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children; whilst no child has an instinctive tendency to brew, bake, or write. Moreover, no philologist now supposes that any language has been deliberately invented; it has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps."
    (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871)


  • The Instrument of Science
    "I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote."
    (Samuel Johnson, Preface, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)


  • Laws
    "In language, the ignorant have prescribed laws to the learned."
    (Richard Duppa, Maxims, 1830)


  • A Process of Free Creation
    "Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation."
    (Noam Chomsky)


  • A Finite System
    "Any language is necessarily a finite system applied with different degrees of creativity to an infinite variety of situations, and most of the words and phrases we use are 'prefabricated' in the sense that we don’t coin new ones every time we speak."
    (David Lodge, "Where It’s At," The State of the Language, 1980)


  • A Stage Beyond Ape-Mentality
    "Language is incomplete and fragmentary, and merely registers a stage in the average advance beyond ape-mentality. But all men enjoy flashes of insight beyond meanings already stabilized in etymology and grammar."
    (Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 1933)


  • A Cracked Kettle
    "Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."
    (Gustave Flaubert)


  • A Barrier to Progress
    "Language is the biggest barrier to human progress because language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Old perceptions are frozen into language and force us to look at the world in an old fashioned way."
    (Edward de Bono)


  • Intrinsically Approximate
    "Language is intrinsically approximate, since words mean different things to different people, and there is no material retaining ground for the imagery that words conjure in one brain or another."
    (John Updike, The New Yorker, December 15, 1997)


  • A Sheet of Paper
    "Language can also be compared with a sheet of paper: thought is the front and the sound the back; one cannot cut the front without cutting the back at the same time; likewise in language, one can neither divide sound from thought nor thought from sound."
    (Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1916)


  • An Object Between Sound and Thought
    "The language is an intermediate object between sound and thought: it consists in uniting both while simultaneously decomposing them."
    (Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, 1964)


  • A Labyrinth
    • "Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about."

    • "In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side-roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed."

    • "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

    • "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
      (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953)


  • The Mother of Thought
    "Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden."
    (Karl Kraus, Dicta and Contradicta)


  • The Shaper of Thought
    "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about."
    (Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality, 1964)

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