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How does one truly define a language?

After an hour and a half long argument with a friend of mine, I realized how tough it is to really pin it down. Google says:

"the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way"

However, this definition ignores things such as complexity, abstract concepts, and other things that blur the lines between animal communication and human language.


October 26, 2017



Google's definition is so simplistic that if applied, would include codes, which are not languages, and it excludes things which are languages, such as Sign Languages.

The most thorough definition of language I've come across, that weeds out non-language forms of communication like codes, was from The Linguistics of American Sign Language. I have a copy of the 4th edition upstairs, it's brilliant.

The book lays out the technical requirements of the classification of "language" from pages 1-13, which you can access the 5th edition by using the Google Books link for it here.

EDIT I just realized that it won't take you directly to the book. So, from the page that link takes you to, follow the black arrows in the linked image below that take your through these steps: 1. Type the title The Linguistics of American Sign Language. 2. Click page 1 in the drop down menu. 3. Use the side arrows as you navigate through pages 1-13.

Click to view Image Instructions

13 pages is a lot to read. So, if you don't want to spend that much time, I recommend just scrolling through the bolded headings. Page 8 is where they begin listing those attributes that make language unique from other communication systems. Altogether, pages 1-13 take us through a set of parameters that separate communication systems from "Language".



One thing I heard from one of my professors is that parrots communicate with each other in their flocks, but if one goes outside their flock, they can't communicate (I took this a little looses, but I believed the principal). My view was that socialization how the parrots associate ideas with sounds depends on how they were socialized and with. Do animals have degrees of communication? Yes. Do they write and have explicit rules of grammar they explain? No. So written language is out. Though maybe monkeys can have some capacity for that, and even elephants can paint, but they don't have it at the same level we do. Now how much can they communicate, animal. Um I haven't see the reseatch, but just logically, I don't think there are things going on with bugs.

I get sick of some the institucional linguisted definitons, but finding out what is a word technically might add to that quote. But the thing is, we are all comunicating on different levels. And the effectiveness of transfering meaning, reception capacity,, just gets into a mire of where someone wants to draw a line. Are there differences between human and animal communication—well first off humans are animals, so that is important—so human and other animal communication, yes. We have an explainable organizational structure and symbols (though there have been languages that have not had writing).

Its all kind of lines in the sand and one can go and find the right definitions to be correct in there own, way. That is how I look at it.

But do animals have languages, not in the way we do.


One of the things that I have heard is that the main difference between non human communication and human communication is the ability to talk about something out of context, and also with an arbitrary system. Ex: If I say "airplane", you understand what i am talking about without the presence of an airplane even though the sounds in that word give no representation of what an airplane really is. While animals can use mimicry of sounds that they hear, they cant arbitrarily bring something into a conversation that isnt present.


It's not a matter of "finding out what is a word", so much as agreeing upon a definition of "word". There's nothing to "find out" or discover...it's just an incredibly difficult concept to accurately describe that accounts for human language as a whole. Linguists, the very people who study language as a science, can't even agree on what a word is, so what hope is there?

The fact that we have writing systems definitely makes us different than animals, but it would be pretty easy to argue that our communication is still different than that of animals even if writing didn't exist.


It's true that we linguists haven't developed a satisfactory definition of 'word' that applies to all languages, but for individual languages it's usually not too problematic to find a good way of defining 'word', although it may be necessary to define a couple of types of word, eg phonological word and grammatical word.

Writing is not considered by linguists to be a part of language, most humans for most of history have not used writing and it's merely a technology that uses visible marks to represent some aspects of speech.


I would say that language is something that helps use communicate and understand others and the world around us and under stand the things that happen and help us make sense of it.


By your definition Whales and dolphins have languages, and many more animals


Language is a sub genre of communication. But, not all communication systems are language.

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