System of Symbols
Language is a system of symbols that are used to communicate information and concepts among two or more individuals. Language is also used for venting emotions, joke telling, and social greeting. Humans use language along with other images for thinking.
Language uses both mental and external representations and images of objects or events. An author communicates with a reader using the symbols of letters and words to get across ideas. In conversation, the speaker and listener exchange mental representations using spoken rather than written symbols. Languages share four rudimentary properties.
1. A language could be learned by children.
2. It must be able to be spoken and understood readily by adults.
3. It must capture the ideas that people normally communicate.
4. It must enable communication among groups of people in a social cultural context.
The Essence of Language
Some factual knowledge is very difficult to convey with language. For example, try describing to a friend what a spiral is, without resorting to gestures or drawing a diagram. Or, try instructing someone, in words alone, how to tie a reef knot.
Such visual-spatial knowledge is not easily conveyed in words alone.
The essence of language is the use of symbols to convey meaning. Humans use words, or patterns of sound, to refer to objects, events, beliefs, desires, feelings, and intentions. The words carry meanings. If our friend says he is happy, then you interpret this to mean something about his emotional state. If instead of speaking, your friend whistles a tune, than his behaviour may say something about his emotional state, but it is less meaningful. Your friend might whistle by habit or whistle when he is angry, sad, or happy. Unlike speech whistling is not specialized to convey a clear meaning.
Words Are Arbitrary
The words used by humans lack any connection between the symbols and the meaning they carry and so differ across languages. “Uno”, “ein”, “onnu” and “one” are arbitrary sounds referring to the same numerical concept. A single scratch in the dirt or mark on a clay tablet would be a nonarbitrary way of referring to the number one. Ten such marks would nonarbitrarily refer to ten. But the use of nonarbitrary symbols can get very cumbersome. For example to convey the number 100 one hundred scratches have to be marked. The invention of Arabic numerals for representing numerical qualities vastly simplified the task of representing, say, 543 cups of tea. Another specialism of the language is that by putting together strings of words in different orders, one can express a very large number of different meanings.
Origins of Language
Linguists have restructured early languages by studying the relationships among the written records of ancient languages dating back about 5000 years. It is presumed that the early languages existed 10,000 years ago. A long debated idea on the origin of language claims that it developed from gestures. Jean Aitchison, Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford, says that language and gestures may well have evolved together. When our ancestors first began to communicate their thoughts to other individuals, they needed a way to refer to specific objects and to relate those objects. It is known that gestures are synchronized in time with oral statements to convey meaning. Spoken words and gestures are synchronized even in congenitally blind individuals who have never seen anyone gesturing. It could that gestural and spoken output developed in tandem.
Another argument is that language evolved as a consequence of the larger brain of humans. This is tying the horse behind the cart. A plausible alternative is that language and large brain emerged more or less simultaneously. As our ancestors lived together in increasingly larger groups, the degree of social interaction increased. Deception possibly became more important, in order to gain an advantage in getting the food, water, and shelter needed for survival. These kinds of social forces may have selected for slightly larger brain but at the same time selected for increased means of communication. Thus, language and brain size may have fed off each other in evolution. Increasingly sophisticated means of communication demanded increasingly complex brain structures. Internet may bring about subtle changes in the human brain.