As with any complex, emergent concept, language is somewhat resistant to definition. However, most would agree that language is a system of communication or reasoning using representation along with metaphor and some manner of logical grammar, all of which presuppose a historical and at least temporarily transcendent standard or truth from which it is derived. Many languages use gestures, sounds, symbols, or words, and aim at communicating concepts, ideas, meanings, and thoughts, though the problem of linguistic vagueness often rears its head when we try to distinguish between these aspects.
The study of language
The study of language began in India and in particular with Panini, the ancient Indian grammarian (approximately 5th century BC) who is most famous for formulating the 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology known as the Aṣṭādhyāyī (अष्टाध्यायी).
Pāṇini's grammar of Sanskrit is highly systematised and technical. Inherent in its analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme and the root, only recognized by Western linguists some two millennia later.
In the Middle-East the Persian linguist Sibawayh made a detailed and professional description of the Arabic language in 760 AD in his monumental work, al-Kitab fi an-nahw (“الكتاب في النحو”, “The Book on Grammar”), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book he developed a distinct phonetic and phonological theory.
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.
Philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. V. Quine, and Jacques Derrida have disputed the possibility of such a rigorous study of language by questioning many of the assumptions necessary for such a study, and have put forth their own views on the nature of language. There is no end in sight to this debate.
Making a principled distinction between one language and another is usually impossible. For example, the boundaries between named language groups are in effect arbitrary due to blending between populations (the dialect continuum). For instance, there are dialects of German very similar to Dutch which are not mutually intelligible with other dialects of (what Germans call) German.
Some like to make parallels to 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.)
The concepts of Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache, and Dachsprache are used to make finer distinctions about the degree of difference between languages or dialects.
Origins of human language
Scientists do not yet agree on when language was first used by humans (or their ancestors). Estimates range from about two million years ago, during the time of Homo habilis, to as recently as forty thousand years ago, during the time of Cro-Magnon man.
The world's languages have been grouped into families of languages that have similarities. Some of the major groupings are the Indo-European languages, the Afro-Asiatic languages, and the Sino-Tibetan languages.
One prominent artificial language, called Esperanto, was created by L. L. Zamenhof. It was a compilation of various elements of different languages, and it was intended to be an easy-to-learn language.
Other writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, have created fantasy languages, for literary, linguistic, or personal reasons. One of Tolkien's languages is called Quenya, which is a form of Elvish. It includes its own alphabet and its phonology and syntax are modelled after Finnish. The writer, linguist and Star Trek actor James Doohan devised the original vocabularies of Vulcan and Klingon speech which have been developed by others into full languages.
Animal (nonhuman) language
While the term animal languages is widely used, most researchers agree that they are not as complex or expressive as human language; a more accurate term is 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 not related.
In several widely publicised instances, 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 taught its grammar. While animal communication has semantics, its syntax is much simpler than that of most human languages.
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). These often take the form of character strings, produced by some combination of formal grammar and semantics of arbitrary complexity.
- Crystal, David (1997). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
- Crystal, David (2001). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
- Katzner, K. (1999). The Languages of the World. New York, Routledge.
- McArthur, T. (1996). The Concise Companion to the English Language. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- Kandel, Jessel, and Schwartz (1991). Principles of Neural Science. McGraw Hill (esp. p. 1173).