What is Language?

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We are all insiders to language, so for many purposes, we have the right to take this term for granted. For instance, we all know English. Yet, English is not spoken the same way In Glasgow as it is in say Jamaica. There are no single forms of speech or writing for ‘English’ instead there are many ‘Englishes’.

“We must, in reality, distinguish as many languages as there are individuals” (Hermann Paul, 1880).

Linguists are often asked just how many languages there are. The answer they give tends to centre on around 5000 to 6000. Definitions of languages can vary from one country to another.

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” (Max Wenreich, 1945).

It is best not to worry too much about what we call things; both dialect and language are terms applied to ways of speaking we perceive as different. So, in reality, how many languages are there?

In conclusion, everyone speaks language in a different way. It could be argued that every human being on earth has their own language, but the differences are small so communication is still possible. Language, therefore, is the general structure of words and sounds that are commonly understood by speakers of the language.

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An Appreciation of Diversity

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I will begin by introducing noticeable affects on language that have come about due to explorers and the like that journeyed from their motherlands many years ago. The journey of Christopher Columbus in 1492 was one that would herald the changing of the times for world languages. Such were these countries, a la, Great Britain with its English language and the colonies, and Spain with its Spanish in South America that they spread their voice over many continents. However, we can not forget that there is still an emphasis that language had existed long before the arrival of these powerful empires to far away lands. Languages such Chinese, Hindu and Arabic that remains spoken by millions of people around the world. It also has to be recognized that many indigenous people still use their native language, and highlighted that any of these rarer languages relatively speaking could have spread through the world as much as English and Spanish.

So, what distinguishes languages? I should allude to some of the aspects of many languages that although they evolved generally on their own, there is a general likeness found; for example the use of singular and plural nouns. English, French and Spanish retain in their language the distinction of one or more of something. I should also explain that in these languages there is sometimes not a clear distinction as to what we are talking about, as with ‘I have some flowers’. There could be array of different types of flowers and no actual number. This is opposed to Chinese which can use the same word for one or more than one. There are also other languages that will distinguish between the flowers being all of one kind or a mixed bunch.

Moreover, looking at world speech, there are some languages that make a clear distinction with a sentence to show that an object can be seen as the speaker speaks or not in eye sight. Visibility is central to their language. One example is of a woman with her arm in a sling, and how would an English speaker refer to this picture. English people could say ‘she has broken her arm’, but there is no certainty.  English people can report the evidence and assume. Other languages have to make it clear how they know the information and not let a statement be glossed over.

Furthermore, it is seen that over the world within languages related words may take on different meanings. The sentences the ‘The colors are nice’ and the ‘The curtains are red’ have the same structure and relate to the same word types; nouns, verbs and adjectives, but they are not the same in meaning. It can be shown that other languages do not see the same as an English speaker sees, and end up putting the same sentences into other grammatical orders to explain the same sentence such that it may end up  as ‘it is nice in colors’.  This can also cross over to objects in space and the angle that people see objects in the world. All people look at a picture differently and can only give a subjective view. Also, some languages do not have words like the English ‘inside’ or ‘between’ thus their explanation is different for spatial objects. What’s more, some speakers only see an object from their exact position in the world. English speakers may not need to be so accurate.

These examples thus far, have tried to go a little way to highlight the diversity of language throughout the world, and the myriad of approaches to explain any situation where language is used.

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