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I.7.1 Nature, origin and characteristics of language;

Language is called a social phenomenon, because it has relevance only in a social setting. Language undergoes a continuous, though unnoticed, process of growth and change.


“language may be said to be any means of expression or mental concepts by any living beings whatsoever and of communicating them to, or receiving them from, other living beings.”


1. “Language is a primarily human and non- instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols” (Sapir).

2. “Language, in its widest sense, means the sum total of such signs of our thoughts and feelings as are capable of external perception and as could be produced and repeated at will” (A. H. Gardiner).

3. “Language may be defined as the expression of thought by means of speech-sounds” (Henry Sweet).

4. “A system of communication by sound i.e., through the organs of speech and hearing, among human beings of a certain group or community, using vocal symbols possessing arbitrary conventioal meanings.” (Mario A Pei & Frank Gaynor).

5. Language is human…a verbal systematic symbolism… a means of transmitting
information…a form of social behaviour… (with a) high degree of convention” (J.

6. “A language (is a) symbol system… based on pure or arbitrary Convention… infinitely extendable and modifiable according to the l bunging needs and conditions of the speakers” (R. H. Robins).

7. “A language is a device that establishes sound-meaning correlations, pairing meanings with signals to enable people to exchange ideas through observable sequences of sound” (Ronals W. Langacker).

8. “A language is “audible, articulate human speech as produced by the action of the
tongue and adjacent vocal organs… The body of words and methods of combining
words used and understood by a considerable community, especially when fixed and elaborated by long usage; a tongue” (Webster).

Nature of Language

A language consists of words, idioms and syntax. It is through language that we think, feel, judge and express. Hence language is one of the most important and characteristic form of human behaviour we use words and idioms as tool to perform and share experience among a people possible.

1. Language is speech – Language is speech and is distinct from the signs, gestures and sounds produced by animals or pets to convey a particular feeling or emotion. It is distinct from the sign language even amongst the humans at any point of social and  biological evolution. It restricts itself to recognised expression and communication to or from human beings by means of speech and hearing. This communication, therefore, has to be from man to man, from a person to another person by means of speech, and hearing. Speech, therefore, is language.

2. Living Language – As seen earlier, a language undergoes a continuous and unnoticed change for its refinement and depth. It responds to the demands and requirements of the group that it represents. As the human utterances became complex and varied, a language to be living must move with the group, must grow with the group, should be alive to their needs and aspirations. In this process of change and growth, language acquires new shape, new approach, new significance and new application.

3. Language and Society – “Language is one of the most important and characteristic forms of human behaviour”. With widening range and horizon of human thought and action, the language has to keep in step with its social calling. As “language is activity, a purposeful activity”, it must help man to express himself in a variety of new and different kinds of situations. It is the society, that in its turn, bestows meaning towards and idioms by conventionalising them to mean what they mean today to a group or a community, in a variety of complex contexts.

4. Operation of Language – As language has relevance only in social context, it is necessary for its operation, that a social necessity or scenario exists. There should be a corresponding situation for the language to operate upon. It is a conventional arrangement between the speaker and the listener.

5. Sounds and Signals – Sounds produced by human beings differ from the ‘signal-like’ sounds and actions of the animals. A lot of research is going on to establish if the animals also have similar conventionalised arrangement in their expression. According to Bloomfield, “In human speech, different sounds have different meanings. To study this coordination of certain sounds with certain meanings is to study language”. In other words, a study of a language consists in giving meaning to a meaning. The meaning already exists, we have to give it a meaning to be intelligible to us as a language.

Language functions-

language functions

1. Social Function – It has been said time and again that language is social’ it operates in a social setting; it acquires meaning and significance in a social interaction. It is a means of communication between members of a community, or between a community and community. It is “capable of handling all references and meanings” (Sapir) of a given culture. It is a means of expression.
2. Cultural Function – As a “language is a part of the culture of a people and the chief means by which the members of a society communicate”, it is wedded to culture, is inseparable from it and, hence performs a cultural function. The content of every culture is expressable in its language.
3. Language and the Individual – As a symbolic system, language either reports to, refers to or substitutes for, direct experience. Whatever the case may be, language cannot “stand apart from or run parellel to direct experience, but completely interpenetrates with it.”
4. The Expressive Function – Language is a great force of socialisation. “language is primarily a vocal actualisation of the tendency to see realities symbolically”. There cannot be any meaningful social interaction without language. The language binds the people into one large group called nation. The national language socialises the behaviour of the whole nation, whereas, the regional languages help integrate regional groups. Language is the greatest and most potent force of integration.
5. Aesthetic Aspect- Language helps store culture experiences in the form of literature and other written records for the posterity. These cultural experiences form the nexus of individual realisation. It breathes life into our poets and dramatists. Short of a language, such fine arts were not possible. Aesthetic experiences are the treasure for the posterity to feel proud of it as a national treasure-house.


There are two main hypothesis concerning the origin of language:

I. Divine Creation Hypothesis

  1. Many societies throughout history believed that language is the gift of the gods to humans. This belief predicates that humans were created from the start with an innate capacity to use language.
  2. It is impossible to prove that the first anatomically modern humans possessed creative language. It is also impossible to disprove the hypothesis that primitive languages might have existed at some point in the distant past of the Homo sapiens development.

II. Natural Evolution Hypothesis

  1. According to this, at some point in their evolutionary development, humans acquired a more sophisticated brain which made language invention and learning possible.
  2. The simple vocalizations and gestures inherited from our primate ancestors then gave way to a creative system of language.

There are several hypotheses as to how language might have been consciously invented by humans, which are divided into two sets:

A. The IMITATION HYPOTHESES – believe that language began through some sort of human mimicry of natural occurring sounds or movements. Some of them are:

  1. The DING-DONG HYPOTHESIS – says that language began when humans started naming objects, actions and phenomena after a recognizable sound associated with it in real life. eg. boom for explosions, crash for thunder.
  2. The POOH-POOH HYPOTHESIS – holds that the first words came from involuntary exclamations of dislike, hunger, pain or pleasure, eventually leading to the expression of more developed ideas and emotions. eg. ha-ha-ha, wa-wa-wa
  3. The BOW-BOW HYPOTHESIS – holds that vocabulary developed from the imitations of animal noises such as Moo, hiss, meow, quack-quack etc
  4. TA-TA HYPOTHESIS – speech may have developed from gestures that began to be imitated by the organs of speech i.e. the first words were lip icons of hand gestures

B. The NECESSITY HYPOTHESES – believe that language began as a response to some acute necessity in the community. Some of them are:

  1. WARNING HYPOTHESIS – Language may have evolved from warning signals such as those used by animals. Such as look out, run, help etc to alert members of the tribe when some beast was approaching.
  2. YO-HE-HO HYPOTHESIS – Language developed on the basis of human cooperative efforts. The earliest language was chanting to simulate collective effort like moving great stones to block off cave entrances, repeating warlike phrases to inflame the fighting spirit etc.
  3. THE LYING HYPOTHESIS – Since all real intentions or emotions get involuntarily expressed by gesture, look or sound, voluntary communication must have been invented for the purpose of lying or deceiving.

Characteristics of Language

1. Language is learned — The learning process may be natural or structured.
2. Language is a system—The complexity of the various facets of it are organically inter-related, such as, sounds, words and structures in integrated with one another and constitute the complex and organic whole which is called language.
3. Language is a system of symbols —Its effectiveness consists in its usage when the symbols are commonly shared and known to all those who are sharing a common experience.
4. The system is arbitrary—There is no logical relation between the words and the objects they stand for except for the Chinese and the other pictorial languages. Here again, the characters, though pictorial, do have any resemblance with the reality that they stand for. However, in sound languages, it is necessary that the sounds have a specific meaning.
5. Language symbols are vocal—Language is primarily speech-Oriented. Its graphical representation comes later. In many languages there is no graphical expression at all. They are only spoken and are considered adequate as they perform the basic function of communication.
6. Language is relevant in a social setting and has meaning in as far as it expresses common cultural experiences. Languages, therefore, differ because cultures differ.

7. Language is unique feature of humans.

8. It is based on rules of grammer.




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