Introduction to Language

What is the meaning of language?

Various scholars have tried to explain the meaning of language in different ways. In fact, language is a multidimensional concept. Language can be defined as a system of arbitrary vocal symbols, which are conventionally used by a group of people as means of communication.

Terms used in the definition of language

            •           System

Why is language said to be a system? The answer is because language is made up of different units or components, which work together in conveying ideas or concepts, i.e smaller units combine to form larger ones.  For example, morphemes combine together to form words; words combine to form phrases, clauses or sentences.

            •           Arbitrary

Language is said to be arbitrary due to that it uses symbols (words) that have no direct relationship with their referents (meanings). For instance, a male parent is called ‘father’ in English, ‘baba’ in Swahili, ‘padre’ in Spanish.

  • Symbol

A symbol is something, which stands for something else. Language is said to be a symbol because it uses words, which stand for concepts, ideas, notions, etc. 

  • Conventional

Language uses symbols and rules which are unanimously accepted by the community members using that particular language.

  • Human

Language can be produced and used by human beings. Other creatures like animals cannot be considered as producers or users of language due to the fact that they possess a very limited set of sounds, which are used as means of communication.

Characteristics/features of language

i) Language is arbitrary: Language is arbitrary in the sense thank there is no inherent relation between the words of a language and their meanings or the ideas conveyed by them. There is no reason why a female adult human being be called a woman in English, ‘mwanamke’ in Swahili, and ‘femine’ in French. The choice of a word selected to mean a particular thing or idea is purely arbitrary but once a word is selected for a particular referent, it comes to stay as such.

ii) Language is culturally transmitted: Language is a set of conventional communicative signals used by humans for communication in a community. Language is not genetically inherited. One should acquire or learn it. Language is related to different cultural practices through which language can be transmitted.

iii) Language is systematic: language is a system because its symbols are arranged in a particular system. All languages have their system of arrangements. Every language is a system of systems. For instance, all languages have phonological and grammatical systems, and in those systems, there are several sub-systems. For example: tenses, word classes, morphemes, etc. 

iv) Language is vocal: Language is primarily made up of vocal sounds only produced by human beings using vocal organs, such as tongue, larynx, pharynx, glottis, palate, teeth, lips, alveolar ridge, etc. As a product of science and technology, writing came, as an intelligent attempt to represent vocal sounds. Writing is the graphic representation of the sounds of language. So speech is primary and writing is secondary.

v) Language is also characterized by displacement. Human language allows the speaker to talk about concepts or notions that are far in terms of time or space. For instance, we can talk about a football match that was played in England last year while we are in Tanzania.

vi) Language is creative and productive: by using language, we can combine structural elements to produce new utterances, which neither the speaker nor his hearers may ever has made or heard before any, listener, yet which both sides understand without any difficulty. Language changes according to the needs of society.

vii) Language is interchangeable: language allows speakers to exchange positions during a conversation. For instance, one can be a speaker at one time and be a listener at the other. On the other side, the one who was listening can be a speaker especially when he or she decides to maybe ask a question.

Functions of language

1.         Communicative function

Human beings use language to communicate with one another. Language acts as a vehicle of transferring messages, ideas, concepts from one person to another. 

2.         Phatic function

Language is very important when it comes to socialization among people in the society. People use expressions such as hello, hi, how are you, good morning and so forth to show how they consider the presence of others. It is usually considered unfriendly to pass by someone without greeting them or just saying a word.  

3.         Identifying function

We use language in differentiating things. For instance, we give names to people, animals, objects, so that we can easily identify and differentiate them.

4.         Recording function

Language is used for storing information about different events. We can refer to past events using language. Likewise, we can know what the people in the past did and how they lived.  

5.         Declarative function

On some special occasions, language is used to change state of affairs. This happens when language is used authoritatively. For example, in the court a person is considered a convict when the magistrate or judge declares the accused person to be guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

6.         Expressive function

Human beings use language to express feelings and emotions, such as happiness, sadness, surprise, excitement, disgust, etc.

7.         Aesthetic function

When language is used artistically, it delivers a certain beauty (aesthetic). So, when language is used in this way it fulfills an aesthetic function.

8.         Metalinguistic function

Language explains itself. We can use language to talk about language. When language explains about itself it performs a metalinguistic function.

9.         Thinking function

We use language to organize our thoughts. Even when silent humans can plan, decide, judge, etc. within their heads.

Importance of language in society

Language plays a very pivotal role in matters concerning the welfare of society. Language is greatly significant when it comes to uniting people, expressing culture, identifying a nation and most importantly bringing development to society. Language is key to socio-economic development.

i)          Language unifies people

People speaking the same language can cooperate effectively in their day-to-day activities. Unity can easily be achieved through language. For instance, the Swahili language makes the people of Tanzania socially bound and united.

ii)         Language identifies people’s culture

Each language carries with it cultural values pertaining to a particular society. Language is used in defining realities embedded within the society. Through language cultural items are identified.

iii)        Language identifies a nation

In most cases languages are directly connected to particular nations. Therefore, language can tell where someone is from or related to. For example, Greek (Greece), Chinese (China), German (Germany)

iv)        Language is the tool of communication

Language enables people to exchange views and ideas about their life. This helps them to know one another and ultimately friendship among them can be made.

v)         Language is a tool of development

People can use language for different socio-economic purposes, such as formulating economic policies, mobilizing people to work, etc. additionally, artists compose and sell songs. This makes them financially prosperous.

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