Definition

Language as a concept has many definitions depending on the discipline and the context within which it is used. Language can be seen in terms of animal language, natural languages (also called human languages), computer languages, forms of expression (i.e. language of dance) among other things (Oxford English Dictionary, 2010). This article will focus on natural languages within a Communication context with brief exposure to linguistics. The study of language can be found in many disciplines such as linguistics, communication, psychology, political science, and even legal fields (Oxford English Dictionary, 2010; Thompson, 2003, p. 116). You will find in this article a brief history of some common theories on language within Communication, followed by how language is being studied in more recent years. This said, the following are three definitions that can be helpful in understanding language as a concept:

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary (2010) defines the concept of language as: “The system of spoken or written communication used by a particular country, people, community, etc., typically consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactic structure. Also fig.” (emphasis added).
  2. Martin Montgomery (1995) defines language as: “A set of interlocking relationships in which a linguistic form takes on the meaning it does by virtue of place within the total system of signs” (as cited in Thompson, 2003, p. 37, emphasis added); and lastly
  3. Fromkin et al. (2007) defines language in their book “An Introduction to Language” as, “a system that relates sounds or gestures to meanings” (p. 22, emphasis added).

All of these definitions support the notion of language as a system and together offer a more complete view of language that includes multiple language modalities whether, spoken, written, or “gestured”, such as sign languages (Fromkin et al., 2007, p. 22). In fact, patient research by Hickok et al. (2001) indicates that sign languages and spoken languages activate the same main brain regions for language and that signed languages are on the same linguistic level as spoken languages (p. 60).


Historical and Current Theories

Some common theories one might encounter in Communication on the concept of language are outlined below but this list is by no means exhaustive. One thought provoking theory on language and cognition, postulated in 1929, was the Worf-Sapir Linguisitc Hypothesis (a.k.a. Linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism). Linguistic determinism argues that one’s language actually determines how he or she views the world (Fromkin et al., 2007, p. 26). Fromkin et al. (2007) explain it as “act[ing] like a filter on reality” (p. 26) and Worf-Sapir used the Hopi Indians as support for this claim (Fromkin et al, 2010, p. 30). The Hopi Indians’ view of time differed from “speakers of European languages” and this was attributed to the fact that the Hopi Indians did not have tense markers in their language (Fromkin et al., 2007, p. 26). Linguistic relativism, Fromkin et al. (2007) call a “weaker form of the Worf-Sapir Hypothesis” in that it argues that, “different languages encode different categories and that speakers of different languages therefore think about the world in different ways” (p. 26). A famous example used for this was the claim that the Inuit language has a larger vocabulary for snow than English does and this larger range of vocabulary then “affects the worldview of the Inuit people” (Fromkin et al., 2007, p. 26).

Since the time these were postulated however, there has been evidence discovered to contradict them (Fromkin et al., 2010, p. 30-33). For example, the Hopi language, although it did not have tense markers, still expressed this information through other means, and the Inuit language actually did not have more words for snow than English (Fromkin et al., 2010, p. 32). Color vocabularies were also used as evidence against this theory, stating that even if a language did not have the color “red”, speakers of that language could still identify the color (Fromkin et al. 2010, p. 31-32). Despite these flaws in the theory, there does seem to be some sort of “influence” that one’s language exerts on cognition (Thompson, 2003, p. 49-50). Fromkin et al. (2010) in their 9th edition of “Introduction to Language” again indicate that people whose native language lacks a particular color, can indeed identify the color, but it is harder for them to “re-identify” it if it is not in their vocabulary (p. 33).

Interestingly, more recent research by Michéle Koven at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign seems to indicate that language can play a role in how a person presents him or herself (i.e. one’s Identity), at least within a narrative context (Koven, 2007, p.11;18; 31-33). Previous studies by Koven (1998, 2001, 2004), talk about Portuguese-French bilinguals who tell the same story but with significant differences in it depending on the language it is told in (as cited in Koven, 2007, p. 35).


Language, Power, and Gender

Another way Communication scholars are using language in their research is by looking at Power as well as Language and Gender (Thompson, 2003, p.17-18; 112-116; Wood, 2007 p. 113-134). According to Wood (2007), after the 1980’s, research on Language and Gender boomed (Wood, 2007, p. 16) and Campbell (2002) says over 110,000 studies were published since 1980 (as cited in Wood, 2007, p. 16). Although there are numerous ways that researchers have investigated this topic, some studies on language and gender give attention to traditional wordings (e.g. salesman; “I now pronounce you man and wife” etc.) and the implications that these might have (Wood, 2007, p. 113; For example, Wood (2007) argues that wording such as “I now pronounce you man and wife” “[d]esignates man as an individual, whereas wife is defined only by her relationship to the man” (p. 113). This kind of language is termed Male generic language (Wood, 2007, p. 114). Thompson (2003) argues that this kind of language is also a matter of power, and that using such terms as “chairman” “not only reflect[s] the fact that the majority of positions of power are held by men, but also [reinforces] the discourse which makes it legitimate for men to be seen as the powerholders in society” (p. 18). Related to this, a “classic study” by Schneider & Hacker (1973) asked children to “select photographs for a textbook with chapters entitled “Urban Man” [or] “Urban Life” (as cited in Wood, 2007, p. 114). The researchers indicated that the children “almost always chose pictures of men when the titles included male generic language [and ones that represented both men and women when it did not]” (as cited in Wood, 2007, p. 114). Apparently, these findings were confirmed by several researchers in the 1990’s (Wood, 2007, p. 114).

In summary, language is a complex concept that can be seen as a system that includes multiple sign modalities (Oxford English Dictionary, 2010; Fromkin et al., 2007, p. 22; Montgomery, 1995, as cited in Thompson, 2003, p. 37), is useful to a number of fields (Oxford English Dictionary, 2010; Fromkin et al, 2007, p. 26), and communication scholars are currently using it in researching many matters, including not only personal presentation or identity (Koven, 2005, p. 11;18; 31-33) but also power (Thompson, 2003, p. 17-18) and Language and Gender (Thompson, 2003, p. 112-116; Wood, 2007, p. 113-134).


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References

Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., & Hyams, N. (2007). An introduction to language (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., & Hyams, N. (2010). An introduction to language (9th ed.).Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Hickok et al., (2001). Sign language in the brain. Scientific American, (June), 58-65.

Koven, M. (2007). Selves in two languages: Bilinguals' verbal enactments of identity in French and Portuguese (pp. 11-35). Amsterdam: John
Benjamins Publishing Co. Retrieved from Course Reading List Online Web site: https://courses.las.illinois.edu/file.php/538/ch2-CR13.pdf

Language, n. (and int.) (2009). In Oxford English Dictionary Online. Retrieved from http://dictionary.oed.com/

Thompson, N. (2003). Communication and language: A handbook of theory and practice. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian.

Wood, J. T., (2007). Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.