Language: A Definition from First Principles - Three Grand Over the Truckstop
Published in philoso.philica.com
It is appropriate to begin this essay with a statement about that which the author does not propose to address: His objective is not to consider the origins of language: whether the human race evolved in the way it has because of the nature of language—as has been hypothesised by some authorities—or whether language evolved in the way it has because of the nature of the human race—as has been suggested by others. Nor is he asking the reader to consider cognitive processes involved in communications between individual humans or whether something such as a universal grammar exists. His interest is solely in an unambiguous, non-circular definition for language.
The author is a lecturer in Mathematics at a further education college in the United Kingdom. In his efforts to try to understand why many people, particularly young people, seem to have so much difficulty understanding and applying mathematical concepts, even, for example, something as apparently simple as manipulating fractions, he has become interested in the dynamics of language, particularly similarities and differences between the language of mathematics and the lingua franca.
It is convenient to think about language as a process or system, and crucial to the consistency of any such system is a set of unambiguous, non-circular definitions for terms and operations that define the system.
All definitions for language examined by the author are circular (see, for example, Britannica, 1962): Language. The whole body of words and of methods of combining them; Words. Speech, utterance, verbal expression; Speech. The utterance of words or sentences; Utterance. The action of uttering with the voice, vocal expression, speaking, speech; Vocal. Produced by the voice, of the nature of words or speech. Under the assumption the total number of words in this dictionary is finite, any examination such as this which begins with language must necessarily return at some point to language (the reader is invited to confirm this is, in fact, true).
This circularity may be acceptable when interest is in how a word is presently used by people within a language culture, but fully unacceptable as the basis for any philosophical enquiry.
Accordingly, the author proposes this definition for language:
This existence of symbols is assumed. Symbols shall be taken to describe discrete and distinct vocal activities—sounds—uttered by human beings and related non-verbal activities such as pauses, stress and changes in pitch, and other body-related activities such as gestures, and arm and hand movements.
Also, since it is safe to assume that prehistorically vocal symbols preceded written symbols (Wilson, 1941, pp. 174-180), it is appropriate to treat written symbols as attempts to represent specific antecedent vocal symbols.
Symbols are purely arbitrary; symbols, in and of themselves, are meaningless.
Few, if any, readers question that a symbol such as, for example, horse is arbitrary and meaningless until the people of a culture in which it is uttered attach a meaning to it. However, it is sometimes the case that users feel that other sorts of symbols such as, for example, 2 + 2 = 4 or e = mc2, are not arbitrary and meaningless but express intrinsic truths about the universe in which they live. According to this axiom, the latter two are no different in this respect from the first.
A communication takes place when one individual, a sender, displays, transmits or otherwise directs a set of symbols to another individual, a receiver, with the aim of changing something, either something the receiver is doing (or not doing) or changing his or her world view. This set of symbols is typically described as a message.
A conversation between two individuals is obviously consistent with this definition. However, the reader may appropriately question how such activities as the recitation of poetry, the performance of rock music or the delivery of a university lecture comply with it. Further to any pecuniary considerations, an individual recites, performs or delivers because he or she has a need to send a message of some sort to another member of his or her culture.
A communication always take place between two individuals: a sender and a receiver.
Many example of communication from familiar circumstances appear to take place between groups of people rather than between individuals. The concert by the rock group and lecture cited above are two. Another is the delivery by a committee spokesperson of a report compiled by the entire committee. Although others are present, and in some cases acting simultaneously as either senders—the rock group—or receivers—unversity students listening to a lecture, nevertheless, each communication must necessarily be between two individuals.
A communication exists only when the sender and receiver agree on the meanings assigned to the symbols used.
If the aim of the sender of a message is to effect a change in something the receiver is doing, then there must be an expectation the message will have meaning for the receiver: that the receiver will make sense of the message and act in some way consistent with the aim of the sender. This can only happen when both agree on the meanings assigned to the symbols that form the message and the schema used to arrange them.
Language is the process or set of processes used to ensure there is agreement between the sender and receiver for meanings assigned to the symbols and the schema for combining them used for each communication.
The symbols themselves, although typically not the accompanying non-verbal activity, are usually described as words. The schema for combining them is usually described as a grammar.
There are two further considerations that are discussed here in anticipation of many readers' comments: the language of animals and the metalanguage used in this essay.
Firstly, if investigations support an hypothesis that animals of any particular species send and receive unique messages then according to this definition they are using language.
Secondly, when considering, for example, a mathematics topic such as the development of the real number system, one works with a deductive system of logic starting with a number of undefined terms and unproven axioms. These are the basis of the language of the system being created and are stated in a metalanguage chosen by the author of the system. For this essay, the definition for language is stated in English which is also the metalanguage used. This will no doubt provide a basis for some criticisms, particularly by philosophers among readers. The author offers no rebuttal for these anticipated criticisms except to invite definitions optional to his.
Consider the subtitle of this essay, Three Grand Over the Truckstop. Unless the reader is, or was at some time in the past a glider pilot flying from Bandel Field in southwestern Pennsylvania, this set of symbols—this message—is meaningless. To any reader other than members of this group this is not language even though he or she will be familiar with the individual symbols: there has been no agreement between the sender, in this case the author, and the receiver, in this case the reader, for the meanings of the symbols being used.
The reader is invited to cite examples from his or her own experience.
Britannica World Language Edition of the Oxford Dictionary (1962), Oxford: Clarenden Press.
Wilson, R.A. (1941) The Miraculous Birth of Language, London: The British Publishers Guild.
Information about this Article
Published on Saturday 23rd August, 2008 at 16:54:14.
Peer review added 13th December, 2008 at 11:53:56
Interdisciplinarity is a good thing. I appreciate it very much that a mathematician writes about language. However, he should have read at least some introductory literature about linguistics, semiotics or language philosophy before, rather than just a popular dictionary from 1962.
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