Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On Language

(A multi-part series on language)

To precisely define language may do harm to the diversity and fluidity by which it is characterized. I will try not to be too rigid in my definition, but I also don’t want to be so flexible as to make it pointless to talk about language as its own topic. Language is basically a means of encoding a concept in terms of smaller representative units (physical, orthographical, artistic, or spoken). Language seems to have been the invention of conscious beings with the intent to understand, communicate, manipulate, and encode anything capable of being perceived by said beings. This may be the intrinsic reason for the inherent imperfection or incompleteness of any language. However, it may also be a window to understanding how consciousness originates or can exist. I will not delve too far into these very deep arguments for now, as it would make the article quite long. There are several very subtle facts I wish to convey in this article about language, but to understand every aspect of language would likely take more than an entire lifetime. The main purpose of this two-article series, however, is to give one an appreciation for the limits of languages both formal and informal, but also provoke one to think about how the limits of any language may also endow it with certain beneficial properties.

The smallest indivisible unit of a language is known as a symbol or a letter (commonly referred to as characters). An alphabet is a listing of all of these units. There is a certain hierarchy which is characteristic of languages. In general, languages can be built up in the following way. Letters can be assimilated to form words, which in turn form sentences or statements. Grammar is the rules which govern the flow from one area of a language’s hierarchy to another. A language’s syntax describes the way in which its sentences (propositions in formal languages) can be formed and manipulated. Morphology describes the formation of words and seeks rules governing how words are formed by combinations of other words and word components (bases, prefixes, infixes, suffixes). The subtleties of morphology make it such that it is typically studied for informal languages. Its goal is to find rules which govern the understanding of relations. Semantics makes the distinction between denotation (rigid definitions) and connotation (a non-rigid social or contextual definition). The meaning to be obtained by symbols or collections of symbols is described by semantics. For formal languages, the whole of grammar (which includes syntax, morphology, and semantics) is called syntax. This is likely due to the elimination of semantics as a necessity for formal languages and the combination of syntax and morphology as they can rarely be accurately distinguished. Phonology is a description of how sound is utilized to acoustically encode the meaning of written languages.

Now I will examine briefly pragmatics, one of the more subtle (and in my opinion, more interesting) topics of linguistics. Pragmatics is the study of the meaning of any characters or strings of characters as dependent on specific contexts. It is sometimes taken to be a sub-field of semantics, but it involves a somewhat more intricate relationship between those involved in communication. It involves the extent to which they mutually understand the language, the topic being discussed, mutual knowledge of the given topic, intent, sarcasm, and any other ambiguities which can come up in discussion. Realize also that any of the fields mentioned are much deeper and more far-reaching than the brief descriptions I have allotted them. Now that a very basic understanding of the terminology and fields of linguistics has been touched upon, the distinction between formal and informal languages can be studied and appreciated.

The images were obtained from the following sites:



If the websites which posted these desire their removal for any reason, it will be done.