What Is Language?

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  • 0:04 What is Language?
  • 1:34 Combinability
  • 2:02 Vervet Monkeys
  • 3:16 Phonemes and Morphemes
  • 4:11 Semantics
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Bautista
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.'

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