What Makes a Language Language

One of the biggest age old questions has always been, “What makes a language a language?”. A language must have many different aspects that separate it from being just any other communication system. With so many different requirements for a language to be considered a “language”, here are just a few examples: language can be used interchangeably by all users of that language; it has the ability to evolve and change over time; symbols can be broken down into smaller parts; etc. With that being said, now we can dig into the juicy details of each one of those important requirements.

First off, a language must be able to be used interchangeably by all the users of the language. Some communication systems, like bees dancing to communicate, only happen on a one way scale. The only bees that do the communication are the males that go out hunting for the food, which means that that is one of many reasons why bee dancing can’t be considered a language. It’s simply because the males are the only ones to communicate, and the women don’t do that. A language must have a multiway communication flow, meaning that any one person or thing can talk to another in some way. For example, in English; ASL; French; Chinese; Japanese; German; and so many other languages, any user of the language can talk to any other user of the language, no matter if they are different in any other way. Just like a language must be able to be used interchangeably by all users, it also needs to be able to morph and change over time.

Secondly, a language must have the ability to change and evolve over time. A communication system like morse code can’t be considered a language because you can’t just change it over the years. Morse code has a set amount of symbols and a set amount of ideas you can convey. Morse code will never change and that’s one of the biggest reasons why it can’t be considered a language. On the other hand, if you look at ASL, it has been changing over the years for quite some time. Signs change sometimes to different meanings and signs can morph and change over the years to fit to the needs of the community and what makes it easier to sign for people. For example, the signs for BROTHER and SISTER have changed from the combined sign for BOY-SAME and GIRL-SAME to now being one smooth motion becoming a new sign over many years. Another example is the sign for CHINESE. This sign used to be signed up by your temple as a way to show the eyes of a Chinese person like they were squinting because they tend to have very narrow eyes. Over the years, this became not just controversial, but people also wanted to start following what signs the other countries used and ASL has now adopted most of those and so the sign for CHINESE is different because times changed. As much as a language needs to be able to change and adapt over time, it also needs to have the ability of breaking down the symbols.

Lastly, a language needs to be able to break down the symbols into smaller parts. A great example of these is Phonemes and Morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest meaningful units of a language, whereas Phonemes are the smallest unit of a language. For example, in English, each word is a morpheme because they are the smallest units of English that have meaning, whereas if you broke that word down into each symbol (letter) they don’t have meaning in itself (phonemes). A good example of that might be that you might say the word “yellow” and that has meaning of a specific color, but if you took it apart and just looked at any of the letters like “y” there is no meaning to that letter in and of itself. This breaking down of symbols into smaller parts is one of the many reasons why English can be considered a language.

To conclude, a language needs to have many things including, being able to be used interchangeably among all users of the language, the ability to change over times, and it must have the ability to break down symbols into smaller parts. Of course, those are only a few of the requirements, but those are some of the biggest ones that stick out most to me.


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