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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, 2015). This article will focus on natural languages within a
context with brief exposure to linguistics. The study of language can be found in many disciplines such as linguistics,
, psychology, anthropology, political science, and even legal fields (Oxford English Dictionary, 2015; 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 (2015) defines the concept of language as: “The
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
of signs” (as cited in Thompson, 2003, p. 37, emphasis added); and lastly
3. Fromkin et al. (2007): “a
that relates sounds or gestures to meanings” (p. 22, emphasis added).
All of these definitions support the notion of language as a
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
Language is both a phenomenon and research focus emphasis. Some common theories one might encounter in
on the concept of language are outlined below but this list is by no means exhaustive. The study of language and its relationship to society and human perception have long captivated the attention of researchers and philosophers. One important theory from the early 20th century is the Sapir-Whorf Linguistic Hypothesis (a.k.a. linguistic determinism and linguistic relativism), which states that the structure of one’s language determines the way he or she perceives the world (Fromkin et al., 2007, p. 26). Compared to determinism, linguistic relativism is regarded as the weaker version, for it maintains that “different languages encode different categories and that speakers of different languages therefore think about the world in different ways” (Fromkin et al., 2007, 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 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) 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).
The nature of language is described as heteroglossic and dialogical due to the social and historical life of language, a move away from monoglossic accounts which locates the nature of language in static features (Joseph & Taylor, 1990). Those who study language-in-use, such as conversation analysts, linguistic anthropologists, interactional sociolinguists, discourse analysts, tend to conceptualize language as mobile and dynamic rather than fixed and static (Blommaert & Backus, 2013). This means that language is best understood in terms of complexity, such that one does not have different languages, but rather unique repertoires:
“individual, biographically organized complexes of resources, and they follow the rhythms of actual human lives” (
Blommaert & Backus, 2013,
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
), 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
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
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
scholars are currently using it in researching many matters, including not only personal presentation or
(Koven, 2005, p. 11;18; 31-33) but also
(Thompson, 2003, p. 17-18) and Language and Gender (Thompson, 2003, p. 112-116; Wood, 2007, p. 113-134).
Blommaert, J., & Backus, A. (2013). Superdiverse Repertoires and the Individual.
Multilingualism and Multimodality
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.
Joseph, J. E., & Taylor, T. J. (Eds.). (1990).
Ideologies of language
(1st ed.). New York: Routledge.
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:
language, n. (and int.) (2015). In
Oxford English Dictionary Online
. Retrieved from
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.
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