Quick Reference

1. The phenomenon of human symbolic communication, including speech, writing, and sign language. In face-to-face interaction, language is arguably inseparable from nonverbal communication, often referred to as body language. Language as a field of study is termed linguistics. Human language is a conventional system based on the use of words according to a complex system of rules. Linguists regard the faculty of language (sometimes referred to with the French term langage) as a defining feature of the human species: other animals are restricted to a particular set of predefined messages. Language is central to human experience, and in constructionism is seen as constitutive of social reality and identity. Human language has specific design features and functions (seelinguistic functions). Whereas in behaviourism language is seen as learned rather than innate, following Chomsky, most linguists argue that we are born with a knowledge of basic language structures: see alsodeep structure.

2. The particular system of spoken and written communication used by those within a speech community, such as Welsh and Arabic. Despite their surface differences, all human languages share certain basic properties, and most linguists argue that universal grammars underlie them all. Saussure distinguished langue, the abstract system underlying a language, from parole, instances of its use (seelangue and parole). Verbal signs within a language have a shared denotation for members of the same linguistic group, acquired (together with many cultural connotations) through socialization. Language is central to every culture. It is an institution which is independent of any individual user but subject to historical change. Different languages frame reality in different ways—a feature emphasized by Saussure as highlighting the arbitrariness of linguistic signs—but the extent to which language influences our worldview is a matter of debate (seeSapir-Whorf hypothesis). Most radically, in structuralism, language is seen as the agency that produces subjectivity by positioning individuals as subjects. Even without adopting such linguistic determinism, contemporary cultural theorists reject the notion of language as a neutral medium for ‘conveying’ meanings (seeconduit metaphor), seeing it as constitutive of meanings, identities, and relationships in particular social contexts. See alsoconstitutive models; symbolic interactionism.

3. Computer programming systems (contrasted with natural language).

4. The codes used by media such as photography, television, and film: many refer to these, often merely metaphorically, as ‘languages’ or to ‘reading’ such media. In semiotics, the linguistic model led structuralists to seek units of analysis in such media analogous to those used in linguistics; others have argued that non-linguistic systems of communication lack the double articulation of human language and cannot be reduced to discrete non-meaningful units analogous to phonemes. See alsopictorial communication; visual communication; visual language.

5. Specialized vocabulary and phraseology, such as scientific language, journalese, and slang.

6. Usage seen as socially inappropriate: ‘bad language’.

7. Sometimes a synonym for animal communication (denied the designation of language by most linguists because such systems lack the combinatory creativity of human language).

Subjects: Media Studies.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »