Observations on What Is Language

Language is the communication tool that makes us human.

language sign
(Mark Williamson/Getty Images)

Language—more specifically human language—refers to the grammar and other rules and norms that allow humans to make utterances and sounds in a way that others can understand, notes linguist John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Or as Guy Deutscher said in his seminal work, "The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention," language is "what makes us human." Discovering what is language, then, requires a brief look at its origins, its evolution through the centuries, and its central role in human existence and evolution.

Greatest Invention

If language is mankind's greatest invention, it is supremely ironic that it was actually never invented. Indeed, both Deutscher and McWhorter, two of the world's most renowned linguists, say the origin of language remains as much as mystery today as it was in biblical times.

No one, says Deutscher, has come up with a better explanation than the tale of the Tower of Babel, one of the saddest and most significant stories in the Bible. In the biblical fable, God—seeing that people of the earth had become skilled in construction and had decided to build an idolatrous tower, indeed an entire city, in ancient Mesopotamia that stretched to the heavens—infused the human race with a myriad of tongues so that they could no longer communicate, and could no longer build a massive edifice that would replace the almighty.

If the tale is apocryphal, its meaning is not, as Deutscher notes:

"Language often seems so skilfully drafted that one can hardly imagine it as anything other than the perfected handiwork of a master craftsman. How else could this instrument make so much out of three dozen measly morsels of sound? In themselves, these configurations of the mouth—i, f, b, v, t, d, k, g, sh, a, e and so on—amount to nothing more than a few haphazard spits, splutters, random noises with no meaning, no ability to express, no power to explain."

But, if you run these sounds "through the cogs and wheels of the language machine," says Deutscher, arrange them in some special way and define how they are be ordered by rules of grammar, you suddenly have language, something that an entire group of people can understand and use to communicate—and indeed to function and a viable society.

Chomskyan Linguistics

If language's mysterious origin sheds little light on its meaning, it can be helpful to turn to Western society's most renowned—and even controversial—linguist: Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is so famous that an entire subfield of linguistics (the study of language) has been named after him. Chomskyian linguistics is a broad term for the principles of language and the methods of language study introduced and/or popularized by Chomsky in such groundbreaking works as "Syntactic Structures" (1957) and "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax" (1965).

But, perhaps Chomsky's most relevant work for a discussion on language is his 1976 paper, "On the Nature of Language." In it, Chomsky directly addressed the meaning of language in a way that foreshadowed the later assertions of Deutscher and McWhorter.

"The nature of language is considered as a function of knowledge attained...[T]he language faculty may be regarded as a fixed function, characteristic of the species, one component of the human mind, a function which maps experience into grammar."

In other words, language is all at once a tool and the mechanism that determines how we relate to the world, to each other, and, even to ourselves. Language, as noted, is what makes us human.

Expressions of Humanity

Famed American poet and existentialist, Walt Whitman, said that language is the sum total of all that humans experience as a species:

"Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground."

Language, then, is the sum of all human experience since the beginning of humankind. Without language, humans would be unable to express their feelings, thoughts, emotions, desires, and beliefs. Without language, there could be no society and possibly no religion.

Even if God's wrath at the building of the Tower of Babel led to a plethora of tongues throughout the world, the fact is that they are still tongues, languages that can be deciphered, studied, translated, written, and communicated.

Computer Language

As computers communicate with humans—and with each other—the meaning of language may soon change. Computers "talk" through the use of programming language. Like human language, computer language is a system of grammar, syntax, and other rules that allow humans to communicate with their PCs, tablets, and smartphones, but also allows computers to communicate with other computers.

As artificial intelligence continues to advance to a point where computers can communicate with each other without the intervention of humans, the very definition of language may need to evolve also. Language will still always be what makes us human, but it may also become the tool that allows machines to communicate, express needs and wants, issue directives, create, and produce through their own tongue. Language, would then, become something that was initially produced by humans but then evolves to a new system of communication—one that has little or no connection to human beings.