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What Is Language?

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  • 0:45 What is Language?
  • 1:55 Combinability
  • 2:42 Vervet Monkeys
  • 4:20 Phonemes and Morphemes
  • 4:58 Semantics
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Have you ever wondered how human language is constructed to form meaning? Why is language more complex than animal calls? In this lesson, we'll take a look at the basic units language and learn how meaning is formed.

Let's start with a quick experiment. Try to think about a chair, but don't let yourself use any words. Can you do it? It should be pretty difficult. Human language and human thought are so tightly bound together that it can be really hard to separate them from each other. This makes the question of what language is, and how it functions, a particularly challenging one for psychologists.

Because language is so complex, it has been defined in various ways. Let's understand it as a system of communication that requires the ability to produce and understand spoken, signed or written utterances. So we're talking about spoken languages, like English and Spanish, or non-spoken languages, like American Sign Language.

There are many systems of communication; traffic signs, for example, are a system of visual symbols that tell us where and how we can drive. But traffic signs are not a language. They fail an important test: though they can be combined with each other to make new meanings in some limited cases, they do not have the flexibility to be combined into lots of new meanings. A 'no turn on red' sign modifies a traffic light to tell you that when the light is red, you can't make a right turn; this is similar to how an adjective modifies a noun, like how a 'tree' becomes a 'big tree.' But 'big' can be used to modify almost any noun, while 'no turn on red' can only be used to modify a traffic light. Traffic signals are limited to a few specific contexts in a way that words are not.

Let's return to the 'chair' from our first example to think more about combinability. 'Chair' may be combined with other words to produce distinct meanings. Adjectives modify the chair itself: 'brown chair.' Verbs define how the chair is used: 'I picked up the chair.' But even these statements are able to be further modified: 'I picked up the brown chair.' It's possible to add additional information to a statement: 'I picked up the brown chair in the morning.'

The idea that combinability is an important characteristic of language probably still seems a little abstract. But it might be easier to understand when we compare human language to even the most complex animal communication systems. Vervet monkeys use three distinct alarm calls: one for leopard, one for snake and one for eagle. The vervets react differently when they hear the different calls; the 'leopard' call prompts a retreat into the treetops, while 'eagle' prompts a dash into the underbrush. It's tempting to view these calls as words. Doesn't the 'snake' call signify a snake in the same way that the word 'chair' signifies a chair? It does signify 'snake,' but in a very limited way - what it actually means is 'look down at the ground and watch out!' The vervets can't combine the 'snake' call with other calls to produce any meaning other than 'watch out.' You can modify 'chair' to mean 'brown chair,' 'red chair,' 'small chair,' 'big chair' or any other kind of chair. The vervet calls are limited to the context of escaping danger just as the traffic signals are limited to the context of an intersection. This is the difference between a call and a word.

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