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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary

Theories of Language

Herman Parret

The term language refers to man’s faculty for expressing himself and communicating his thought and feelings through systems of conventional signs. By extension, language began to refer, in a more or less systematic way, to any semiotic system. Yet a language is the implicit, grammatical system, common to all its speakers. Owing to the importance the concept gained within human sciences, it was imbued with multiple, broadened meanings. However, the specificity of human language comprises structuring traits such as: the ability to express, beyond the real, the possible; the ability to speak about language itself; the logical and argumentative ability; and still the possibility to express memory and prospection. Given its versatility, the origin of language was since always discussed in three possible ways: as divine origin; as animal origin; as origin and essence of the human.    

Keywords: oral communication; origin of languages; sign; writing; meaning; code; relief


The term language sets us before a serious problem of translatability. As in French there is a wide range of concurring terms (language, discourse, speech), each with a subtly different meaning, the determination of language will necessarily be specific to French . In German there is only one term, Sprache, that covers the meaning of the four terms in French, while the only difference we can identify in English is a minimal grammatical variation between language, generic term, and a language, specific term. Therefore, language refers to a human behaviour, an ability of the human race which makes society possible, precisely because it is a system that unequivocally allows coding and decoding, even if the number of produced and comprised sentences is infinite, as Chomsky’s grammatical theory claims. Moreover, this ability is often presented as biological in psycholinguistics or in ‘philosophy of mind’. A language, on the contrary, refers to one language or one specific idiolect.    
Therefore, it will be of prime importance to understand the semantics of language, bearing in mind the semantic particularities of French, Portuguese, Romanic and other languages. We notice that, from the Middle Ages, multiple meanings of language emerge very quickly. The suffix –age (-aticus in Latin) means that which operates, that which acts. Undoubtedly, this nuance always operates in language while active, dynamic and productive capacity. First written lentguage (around 980), the term refers in fact to man’s faculty for expressing himself and communicating by means of a sign system - by analogy, equally applied to animals. Later on, the term refers to the form of expression of an individual and, from the seventeenth century, to that of a group or of a profession. From the nineteenth century and, by extension, language was able to refer, in a more or less systematic way, to any semiotic system as, for example, the language of scents, the language of colours. All these meanings of language will be organized in the pages that follow.       
 However, before suggesting this organisation, it is important to realize that two oppositions, certainly in French , are essential: that of language vs a language, and that of language vs speech (and eventually, discourse). As for language vs a language, the difference is not always very clear and it is only from the nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth century that dictionaries become more consequential. Whereas the term a language is usually reserved to the «verbal» and defined by its vocal, linear and doubly articulated character (see further ahead), the term language is increasingly «semiotized» (any sign system allowing expression and communication is a language) or «psychologized» (language thus becomes a universal faculty, a psychological ability to produce and understand).         
 Ferdinand de Saussure, in his Cours de linguistique générale (1916), clarified the definitions of language, a language and speech, and we still follow today, in the exercise of human sciences, most of his proposals. Quoting Saussure, each language is a particular system, with its own structures, which performs in its own way the universal faculty of language. A language, expressed through a system of conventional and arbitrary signs, is described by Saussure as a social product originating from the faculty of language. This set of necessary conventions of a language is adopted by society in order to allow its members to exercise their faculty of language. This faculty is thus a deep, manifold, psychic reality, hard to analyse and rather presupposed in the empiric work of linguistics. A language, on the contrary, while instrument created and provided by the collectivity, is a homogeneous system and a principle of classification for linguistics. Therefore, it is an object reconstructed in a theoretical manner from the realm of the observable, provided to it by the materiality of the implied sounds and senses.

The epistemological work of Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of structural linguistics, mainly focused on the delimitation of language  and speech, founding dichotomy of every scientific construction that is linguistics. However, it is important to bear in mind that the linguist must start from a study of speech in order to reach a language. He must deconstruct concrete statements produced in speech in order to reconstruct the differential system of a language. With a language, says Saussure, we touch social ties. He often describes a language «as a treasure placed by the practice of speech within individuals belonging to the same community, a grammatical system existing virtually within each brain or, more precisely, within the brains of a group of individuals». In fact, a language is never complete in any individual taken separately, it only exists perfectly within the mass. A language is thus the implicit, grammatical system, common to all speakers, whereas speech is an individual act. It is impossible to change a language individually: to change this «social product» would be to condemn oneself to no longer being able to communicate. However, it is obvious that speakers never use all possibilities offered by a language, whether lexically or syntactically.     
Before systematizing some of the meanings of «language», it is important to note that several disciplines claim this concept in human sciences. Linguistics strives to reconstruct the nature and functions of language in general, concentrating, however, on the languages - not only standard languages used in the daily life of cultures and societies, but also language disorders such as aphasia, dysphasia, dyslalia, dyspraxia. These language disorders are often studied within the perspective of cognitive psychology as it is important to postulate an instrinsic relationship between these disorders and the «mental life» of individuals. Cognitive psychology (from where so-called «cognitive linguistics» derive), often resulting in neuropsychology, claims a great power of explanation of the linguistic phenomena, just as psychoanalysis, often perceived as the very methodological antipode of cognitive psychology. Jacques Lacan, «reader of Freud» and essential theoretician of psychoanalytical theory and practice, placed language at the center of his understanding of the human individual: «The unconscious is structured like a language». Freud had already underlined the importance of language in the analytical discovery of the unconscious by proposing that language errors (for example, lapses) reveal an unconscious desire. Nevertheless, in Lacan the place of language in psychic life becomes even more pregnant. In so being, he adapts a theorem of Saussure where the sign is defined as the symmetrical relationship between a signifier and a signified, and destroys this symmetry: for Lacan, the signifier precedes the signified, i.e. the child is immersed in a bath of language (essentially, a set of sound images) and this will determine forever the development of his psychic life.     

The meanings of «language».

We have just outlined the theoretical distinctions between language, a language and speech, as they were proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of scientific linguistics. If we now pay attention to the use of the term «language» in daily life, reflected in dictionaries, we will notice a great abundance of ocurrences which we will now try to organize, in an order of semantic derivation. We distinguish five stages in that derivation.

I. The basic meaning of «language».

As we suggested previously, language is a faculty of men to express their thought and feelings and to communicate among themselves by means of a system of conventional signs (vocal or written) forming a language. This faculty can be regarded as a characteristic and essential function of the human species. This function is «natural», like walking and seeing, and is necessarily exerciced with the help of an external support (mainly, voice or writing). In general, we consider this faculty innate, not acquired through learning. To simplify, for the time being (we will come back to this point), we say the functioning of language is double: it includes a function of expressivity and a function of communicability. «Faculty» and «function» are two notions that do not cover at all the same content: with «faculty» we refer to a psychological, mental or cognitive ability, whereas with «function» we suggest a depth generating level which is presupposed, reconstructed and abstract.  
The functions of language are considered universal and so they cover all the empirical languages of the world. A big debate was started already in the seventeenth century – we think of the Port-Royal idea of language – regarding the universality of grammar, of its subdivisions like phonetics, morphology, even prosody, and of its particular phenomena like conjugation, the order of words in a sentence, etc. Chomsky’s idea of grammar is termed «Cartesian», i.e. it claims the universality of grammar that would thus exist in the depth of the human spirit as such. Evidently, there is not a consensus on this point and most philosophers of language uphold instead the universality of the functions of language without engaging in the universality of grammar.
We have already mentioned that the functionality of language is double: a function of expressivity and a function of communicability. The question of knowing how this function of expressivity should be determined or, in other words, the relationship between language and thought (where we say language «expresses» thought), remains a point of epistemological controversy in many philosophies of language. On the one hand, there is the view of certain psycholinguists termed «cognitivists» (as, among others, Jerry Fodor) who claim that thought is a sort of mental algebra, prior to the process of acquiring language: the «life of thought» precedes in complete autonomy the «life of language». According to this view, language, as a means to «express» thought, is in fact no more than the instrument of thought. This is by no means the conviction of phenomenologists, such as the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who states clearly: «Thought has nothing of internal, it does not exist outside the world and outside words. To think is ‘to talk to yourself’, to somehow tell yourself things. Language is therefore indispensible to thought and to its deployment: if it is true that language is the expression of thought, it must be added that thought is an internal speech». This means that language «shapes» thought, that language is a very active, transforming faculty. There are many instances where language seems to overtake thought. If we consider the lapsus, for example, it is obvious we say something different from what we want to say. When one speaks without saying anything (in daily and conversational talk), language is evidently no longer connected to a thought to be expressed. That «mental life» is dependant and even determined by the «life of language» is an idea we find in Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure tries to convince us that language, amid the external signs through which thought can be expressed, constrains thought from close distance. According to him, there is a huge area of thought that would not be possible in language. Evidently, this was the view vigorously defended since the sixties by the different types of structuralisms, consistent with Saussure’s teaching. Consequently, to propose a «function of expressivity» of language (essentially, the «expression of thought») entails epistemological risks.            
Surely, language still has other functions, besides expressing thought or emotions and communicating. Some language theoreticians have suggested subtle and adequate schemes. We will mention two: Karl Bühler and Roman Jakobson. Bühler, traditionally enough, distinguishes three functions of language: the emotional function, the conative function and the referential function. The emotional function corresponds to the first person, the addresser: it characterizes the speaker’s attitude (the use of exclamations is a typical example). The conative function refers to the addressee (the use of the vocative and of the imperatif witnesses it). The referential function is centered on the referential context, it describes the world as it is. Jakobson’s scheme is more elaborate. It adds three functions to Bühler’s list: the phatic function, the poetic function and the metalinguistic function. The phatic function is found in messages that «serve essentially to establish, prolong or interrupt communication, to verify if the circuit is functioning». It is thus attached to the «communication channel». The metalinguistic function takes language as object. It offers, for example, a reflection on the meaning of a word. As for the poetic function, it is attached to the enhancement of the message itself. We will understand these functions of language are universal as they are present in any language situation and in any culture and society.

II. Enlargement by metonomy.

The basic meaning we have just outlined is enlarged by metonomy: language is thus considered the realization of this faculty. In this case, «language» refers to: the human, linguistic codes in their totality, or still, the totality of languages in the world or, more generally, the totality of vocal, gestual and graphic sign systems in the world. We can narrow this class of sign systems by adding an extra criterion. We can demand, for instance, the imposition of social normativity. Only the sign system which is sanctioned by social norm is «language». In other words, the use of this language must be accepted and recognized by a community whose size can vary. An additional criterion could be that of double articulation, as formulated by the French linguist and phonologist André Martinet. For there to be language, Martinet demands a double structure: the language must be analysable in minimal, signifying structures, monemes, themselves analysable in minimal, distinctive unities, phonemes. This «double articulation» is the essential quality of language as such. Obviously, other linguistic theories, such as Noam Chomsky’s transformational-generative grammar, proposed different criteria, mainly grammatical and syntactical.

III. Enlargement by specification.

We all employ in daily and conversational life far more specific ocurrences of «language». These ocurrences weaken, divert or narrow the basic meaning we just presented. There is a long list to be made of these more specific uses and it seems it varies significantly, depending on the languages (French, Portuguese, English, etc.). Thus, the problem of translatability arises in all evidence in this domain. We will list a number of these specific uses without aiming to be exhaustive. A. The expression manner of speaking («the specific twists and turns of someone’s language») evidently expresses someone’s way of speaking, the particular and idiosyncratic use of language by an individual. B. The language of the French enlarges the sphere of the individual to a collectivity and thus refers to common traits of speech within a group, a people, a geographical region, a nation. These characteristics are not purely grammatical and lexical. They also suggest a certain stereotyped psychology which does not exist except for simplification. C. In the language of a city we refer to a coherent and homogeneous set of signs bearing a meaning which is interpretable within its unity. It is obvious this unity is not so much the expression of a real (even realistic) quality but rather the product of an imaginary projection that «idealizes» the states which in fact are heterogeneous. D. Even more specific are expressions like eloquent language, familiar language, academic language and court language. This specification thus concerns a formal aspect of the use of language, often associated to a social class or a profession. Eloquent language evidently alludes, often ironically, to social class, just as ornate language, archaic language, pompous language. Other designations are a little less «colourful» as they are less evaluating, as familiar language, flowery language, standard language, conversational language or crude language. In fact, these are formal characteristics of a type of speech. Still more «objective» are the specifications referring to particular forms of expression of groups of men (mainly professional), of a discipline or subject matter, precisely as in court language. This use often refers to characteristic, lexical and syntactic elements of a certain field of knowledge or of activities, such as academic language or administrative language. In surveilling one’s language, there is a sure individualization: it is the way of expressing oneself, the style, tone, accent, characteristic of a single person. E. Another use does not concern so much the form and style but the content of what is said. It is language considered in terms of the communicated content, referring to a given circumstance, as in cynical, direct, hypocritical, lying, flattering, ambiguous, frank language. In the expression to associate a level of language with somebody we refer to the ideas expressed, to the content of communication. F. Finally, language becomes fully derogatory when the term refers to empty words or waffle as in the expression  it is only chitchat. All these enlargements of the meaning of language emphasize certain semantemes or semantic virtualities of the term which we can only understand with a pragmatic contextualization.              

IV. Enlargement by transposition.

Thus we enter an extremely fruitful field of linguistic creativity: certain qualities of language in strict sense (categories I and II, above) are «transposed» to «objects» or «phenomena» that are in fact of a whole different nature. Thus, we presuppose a great resemblance between language in its own sense and these transposed «languages». Some examples of prime importance follow. A. Artificial language. Philosophically, we could claim there is «language» every time two individuals, having assigned by convention a certain meaning to a given act, accomplish this act in order to communicate between themselves. Artificial languages, as Esperanto, do no more. We resort more and more to these «languages» based upon axioms and rules orienting the making of statements that avoid the ambiguities of natural languages and aim at great, formal coherence. This is the case of programming languages that serve as intermediary between the natural language of programmers and computers. B. We can also employ the term secret language or ciphered language referring to a communication system where the code is only known by a certain number of people: the codifier constructs the secret message and the decoder tries to reconstruct it. C. Quite interesting is the transposition of «language» to the sign system in sign language. This phenomenon has been studied extensively (by, among others, André Leroi-Gourhan, Le geste et la parole, 1964-65, two volumes, focusing, by the way, on the Palaeolithic). No one will contest that sign language or eye language express sensations and feelings of individuals. Let us accept that not all gestures can be considered language. There are gestures which are no more than «actions» or «acts» without expressive or signifying value. However, a gesture soon becomes a signifier: to make a sign with the hand to salute or to applaud is already a «language». Semioticians interested in gestuality have suggested some typologies and it has become custommary to distinguish two types of sign languages. We could characterize the first as the class of enunciative gestures: the gesture corresponds to a statement, a unity which will be a sentence or a sequence of sentences in spoken language - thus, there is a gesture that «says»: «I do not agree with you». According to the method of phonology, we will now distinguish between the gesture’s relevant traits and what belongs to the realm of personal variants. A second type will be the class of gestures which present a symmetry with the structure of spoken language as, for example, the «sign language» of the deaf. We could call them substitutive gestures as they substitute written or spoken language. Other classifications are possible as, for instance, on the one hand natural gestures, accompanying conversation (in general, optional and quite personal) and, on the other hand, conventional gestures. The great linguist Roman Jakobson called these conventional gestures symbolic gestures, given their arbitrariness. Furthermore, he termed expressive gestures (expressing the internal life of the individual but also a real, external situation) iconic gestures. D. We proceed along the axis of transposition by introducing the language of the arts (of music, painting, etc.). Most philosophers of art accept the idea that the definition of art as a language is grounded, knowing that the «language of art» is not a general and collective language. On the contrary: in fact, the artist, in his creativity, promotes more his originality and his uniqueness and tries to communicate the secret richness of his inner life. It is true, however, that the expression «language of art» is mostly employed for the set of the particular means of expression of one art, as in the chromatic language and the language of drawing, referring instead to the canonical proceedings that help the artist give form to his creative ideas. E. We arrive to the end of the chain of transpositions with expressions like language of flowers or language of scents. It is common to almost conventionally attribute meanings to flowers, according to a generally recognizable symbology. A good florist will compose a bouquet bearing in mind this symbolic value of each type of flower. Furthermore, colours and scents generally bear a meaning that is more or less stable in the feeling of individuals. It cannot be avoided not to associate chrysanthemums with cemmiteries and the red of roses is generally felt as serving a love declaration. It is true that this meaning can evolve, that it fluctuates in the diversity of cultures, and the question of the universality of these values remains open: does the fact that red expresses passion, white purity, blue friendship, yellow unfaithfulness, make these associations universal? Nevertheless, expressions like language of flowers, language of colours, language of scents are perfectly acceptable as ultimate transposition of the basic meaning of «language» (I and II).

V. Enlargement by analogy.

Animal language is undoubtedly the most difficult to theorize. Polemics and controversy in this respect are countless. We claim that the expression animal language is not the result of a transposition but of an analogy which means that, in our opinion, there is no true continuity between human language and animal language. These two types of language are in a relationship of analogy, not of continuity. We realize that in the animal world cries and singing are means of expression and communication and we are right to regard bees and dolphins as perfect communicators. However, it would be abusive to consider the so-called «animal language» a true language (according to the analysis in I and II). We firmly follow Emile Benveniste, important linguist of structuralism in France, when he states: «Applied to the animal world, the notion of language only occurs by the abuse of terms» (Diogène, 1952). For Benveniste, the limits of animal communication are multiple and determinant. He lists: «the fixity of content [there is no ‘creativity’ in the sense of Chomsky’s understanding of grammar]; the invariability of the message; the relation with one unique situation (the message never refers to a distant past or future); the indecomposable nature of the statement; its unilateral transmission; the absence of articulation [Benveniste undoubtedly alludes to Martinet’s idea of the double articulation of language, i.e. in meaningless unities (phonemes) and in meaningful unities (monemes)]...». And Benveniste concludes: «the messages of animals are global, indecomposable, they have only a poor repertoire and, above all, there is total absence of analysis».      
However, there have been, since decades, in zoolinguistics and zoosemiotics, many theoretical efforts that privilege (mainly quantitative) empirical results based upon the hypothesis of «animal language». We know how dolphins have an acoustic communication system with signs in form of whistles and even the possibility of imitating human phonemes and associating them to certain, specific situations. The same happens with bees who communicate through danses and sound signals, mostly when searching for food. These «languages» serve mainly the expression of emotional states such as sex appeal, alarm, interdictions, rivalries. Some zoolinguists, as W. H. Thorpe who very much impressed Chomsky, consider that animal communication systems enjoy the same qualities as human language: he notes that messages in animal communication are fully «intentional» (as their goal is to modify an attitude or a behaviour), that they also have a syntax (as there is internal coherence), that they are «enunciative» (as they systematically convey an information). Truth is undoubtedly found amid radical positions. We have to admit that anthropoid apes acceed a symbolic expression that is close to the sign language of the deaf. They express perfectly their needs (hunger and thirst, sexual desire) and even their emotions (sadness and joy) but they are certainly not able to express and communicate judgements linking concepts. Aristotle had already noticed: «if animals can express pleasure and pain that are sensations, they cannot do the same with the just and the unjust that are ideas». That is to say, and this is also our view, that human language preserves its specificity. Human beings have, through language, an ability to alternate: in conversation and in dialogue, there is a back and forth flow between speakers, a true, double-sense communication, whereas in «animal language» signals are emitted unilaterally, obviously triggering a reaction, without entering the mode of language. Furthermore, the language of humans expresses the possible and not only the present reality, making fiction and abstraction possible. It is capable of composing an infinity of discourses, it expresses logical and argumentative links and it achieves the communication of memory and prospection. And, in the end, human language culminates in this «noblest» ability which is writing. It is important to realize that these superior capacities in man are not based on a physical or physiological aptitude, specific to the human race, but on its anthropological structure as we will see while briefly discussing the question of the «origin of language». For all these reasons, we uphold that the so-called «animal language» is only language in an analogical sense.
We should in fact approach the question of the (dis)continuity of human language and of the so-called «animal language» by briefly invoking the problem of the «origin of language» which caused turmoil in many philosophies since Antiquity. From Lucretius to the eighteenth century (with Condillac, Rousseau, Herder, Humboldt and many others), thought on language was dominated by the question of the origin of language. Not only through the reconstruction of the origin of languages - an obsession of comparative linguistics (Indo-Europeanist, for example) that brought the huge variety of languages back to some «mother-tongues» or even to one sole «language of origin» - but also through speculation concerning the origin (of the faculty) of language. Three positions are possible on this matter: either language is of divine origin (a gift from God as today’s «creationists» believe), or it is of animal origin (the continuist thesis discussed above, position that must be regarded as «naturalist» and reductionist), or yet, language is enrooted in human nature and constitutes the very essence of the human being. This last view obviously generates an ethics of language production (rich in values) and of communication among men.  


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