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What is language

Language spoken or written is our primary means of communication. Writing has existed for about 6000 years. Language originated thousands of years ago but no known origin. Language is transmitted through learning as part of enculturation. It is based on arbitrary learned associations between words and the things for which they stand. The complexity of language absent in the communication systems of other animals allows humans to conjure up elaborate images to discuss the past and the future, to share our experiences with others and to benefit from their experiences. Anthropologists study language in its social and cultural context. Linguistic anthropology illustrates anthropology’s characteristics interest in comparison, variation, and change. A key feature of language is that it is always changing. Some anthropologists reconstruct ancient languages by comparing their contemporary descendants and in doing make discoveries about history. Some study linguistic differences to discover the varied world views and patterns of thought in a multitude of cultures. Sociolinguists examine linguistic diversity in nation states ranging from multi lingualism to the varied dialects and styles used in a single language to show how speech reflects social differences. They also explore the role of language in colonization and in the expansion of the world economy. Only humans speak. No other animal has anything approaching the complexity of language. The natural communication systems of other primates (monkeys and apes) are call systems. These vocal systems consist of a limited number of sounds- calls that are produced only when environmental stimuli are encountered. Such calls may be varied in intensity and duration, but they are much less flexible than language because they are automatic and can’t be combined. At some point in human evolution our ancestors began to combine calls and to understand the combinations. The number of calls also expanded eventually becoming too great to be transmitted even partly through the genes. Communication came to rely almost totally on learning. Language offered a tremendous adaptive advantage to Homo Sapiens. Language permits the information stored by a human society to exceed by far that of any non-human group. Language is a uniquely effective vehicle for learning. Adaptation can occur more rapidly in Homo than in the other primates because our adaptive means are more flexible. Language is our principal means of communicating but it isn’t only one we use. We communicate when we transmit information about ourselves to others and receive such information from them. 

Human language 

  • Has the capacity to speak of things and events that are not present (displacement)
  • Has the capacity to generate new expressions by combining other expressions (productivity)
  • Is group specific in that all humans have the capacity for language, but each linguistic community has its own language which is culturally transmitted.

Deborah Tannen ( 1990) discusses differences in the communication styles of American men and women and her comments go beyond language. She notes that American girls and women tend to look directly at each other when they talk whereas American boys and men do not. Males are more likely to look straight ahead rather than turn and make eye contact with someone especially another man seated beside them. Also in conversational groups, American men tend to relax and sprawl out .American women may adopt a similar relaxed posture in all female groups.