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  Language (medieval Latin linguaticum, ‘tongue-equipment’) is a way of communication by symbols. Feelings, ideas, thoughts and wishes are encoded, sometimes manipulated (for example by syntax) and passed on by the utterer; the receiver then decodes them. In simple languages (such as semaphore) the code is simple, and there is little scope for misunderstanding; in complex languages, the state of mind and the circumstances of utterer and receiver, and the nuances of the code used all affect the ‘meaning’ of the message. (The English language, for example, has many hundreds of thousands of individual words, even before grammar and syntax, never mind such further subtleties as irony or metaphor, are deployed on them.)

Until recently, it was commonly held that ‘language’ exclusively meant symbolic communication by means of patterns of words, either spoken or written, and that its use was confined to human beings. Rousseau famously said that we differ from the rest of the animal kingdom in two main ways, the use of language and the prohibition of incest. Other forms of communication, for example Morse Code or the sign language used by the deaf, were considered to be dependent on ‘real’ language, and to need conscious or subconscious translation into ‘real’ language before they could be understood. It was believed that language was one of the principal survival-attributes of the human race (the only beings able to think in the abstract, and to pass on those thoughts), and that the ability to learn a language—usually something done subconsciously, as a young child—was one of our species\' most remarkable achievements. Some 5,000 languages are currently spoken in the world, and there is thought to have been a similar number of now-‘dead’ languages.

In the 20th century, the narrow meaning of the word ‘language’, as sketched above, has been widely challenged. If language is a code for the communication of ideas, should the term not include (for instance) the warning-calls of birds, the purring of cats, and at a more complex level the ‘song’ of whales or dolphins and the honey-dance of bees? Are such things as camouflage or the use of pheromones not ‘languages’, fulfilling a similar purpose to patterns of spoken or written words? In short, is it not a (characteristic) example of human speciesism to claim that language is exclusively what we possess, and what we do with it? Such questions are not merely examples of political correctness. They raise the fundamental issues of where the boundary blurs between communication in general and language in particular, and of whether encoding and decoding complex messages (either sent by other people or received from our surroundings or our memories) is not, in fact, the way we think. Perhaps calling bee-dances and monkey-shrieks ‘languages’ is merely playing with words—an activity which is itself a function of human language and human thought, and therefore restricted to our species.

Teasing out such conundrums is the work of philosophers of language, and perhaps more scholasticism than science. In the practical world, language studies concentrate on the human encodification of ideas in words, on the use of verbal symbols. One sub-branch of this work has been the attempt to see whether animals can be taught to understand, and use, human language. It has been shown that pets, for all the wishful thinking of their owners, do not ‘understand every word I say’. Their apparent response to verbal signals is actually to tone of voice and body language: it is instinctive, and no different from the response they make to similar stimuli in the wild. By contrast, scientists have had some success learning, and using, dolphin ‘language’, though communication is restricted to practical and immediate matters, with no transmission of abstract ideas. Chimps have been taught human language—not spoken (their larynxes are the wrong shape to make human sounds) but signed—and have achieved vocabularies in the low hundreds, and the construction of ‘sentences’ involving concepts of past and future and the description of emotional and physical states. But a barrier seems to arise at about the language-level of a human toddler, and whether the breakthrough is into more self-aware abstract reasoning, or into a wider concept of what language is and what can be done with it, chimps fail to surmount it, whereas toddlers move on to more complex linguistic abstraction in a matter of weeks or months.

The scientific study of language, linguistics, is concerned above all, in hierarchical sequence, with phonetics (the sound of language), phonology (the significance of sounds in a given language), morphology (language structure), semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (context). Language studies also take in varieties of language (for example, dialects and foreign languages) and translation. A related study is the development and use of artificial languages (such as computer ‘languages’). Some authorities say that this is cognitive science or computer science rather than linguistics; others claim that useful comparisons can be made with human language, and that the way computers use ‘language’ gives valuable insights into the way human beings think and communicate.

The study of language is of particular importance in anthropology. The way people speak, and spoke, is a clue to the way they see and saw their world, and linguistic analysis is one of the anthropologist\'s most vital skills. The simplest problem to solve is actually learning the language involved, and much useful work was done in this area by 19th-century anthropologists and missionaries, writing dictionaries and transcribing oral narratives from aboriginal languages throughout the world. The hardest problem is that of assessing context, taking into account the circumstances of the speaker or writer, the envelope of ideas in which each utterance is contained, and, not least, the circumstances and preconceptions of the receiver, that is the anthropologist himself or herself. For example, it was only late this century that Margaret Mead and others realized that the people from some of the ‘remote’ societies they visited, often societies unvisited by outsiders ever before, were fabricating or embroidering accounts to fit what they thought their visitors would like to hear: in short, in an all-too-human version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the observer was unconsciously affecting and therefore distorting what was being observed.

Anthropologists in the 19th century were concerned, above all, to study the historical development of language and language families, especially those of exotic peoples. In the 20th century these interests were largely abandoned in favour of treating language as an essential part of communication in the society under investigation, and so making language studies a central way of understanding that society. Cultural anthropologists, especially in the US, focused on the way language encodes ideas about people\'s physical and conceptual universe. When, for example, Benjamin Whorf studied the Hopi language in the 1950s, he concluded that the Hopi people had a very different sense of reality, space and time from English-speaking people. (This led to his development of Edward Sapir\'s 1920s theories into the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’, that every language creates and represents a distinct way of thinking.)

In the 1960s, Claude Lévi-Strauss adapted theories about language structures in a different way. He was interested in Ferdinand Saussure\'s view that language is a set of systematic relations between elements, and attempted to apply it to social and cultural practices. His intentions were to use linguistic models to illuminate structures of all human minds. In his study of myth, for example, and on the analogy of phonemes (the minimal sound-units in language, without any intrinsic meaning of their own), he coined the word ‘mythemes’ to describe the basic components present in myths from diverse cultures and different times. From this work, he evolved the theory that human minds use pairs of contrasts (for instance, hot/cold, male/female, nature/culture) to order all phenomena. A fascinating offshoot of this work, by others, was the attempt to reconstruct (from computer analysis of mythemes in the world\'s myths and phonemes in the world\'s languages) the original language of the entire human race. A couple of hundred words have so far been suggested, for such concepts as ‘god’, ‘fire’, ‘mother’ and ‘sky’. The parallels with and implications for Jung\'s theory of the collective unconscious are intriguing to contemplate.

Since the 1950s, some anthropologists have begun to query how far linguistic models can in fact be applied to social and cultural systems or to the structures of the human mind. Instead, they investigate language for the kinds of metaphors it contains, metaphors which reflect but do not determine people\'s world-views. (A typical such metaphor in English is that of time as a commodity to be budgeted, saved or wasted.) Even in theoretical or literal language and thought, metaphors are central. For instance, the idea of knowledge as a landscape is conveyed in phrases such as ‘landmarks in history’ or ‘intellectual horizons’; understanding is rooted in the metaphor of seeing, as in ‘I focus on this point’ or ‘I see what you mean’. Comparison with metaphor-use across languages leads to valuable insights. The Maori language, for example, metaphorizes knowledge in terms of how it is inherited from ancestors and is a precious part of the individual, not to be shared with strangers.

Other anthropological perspectives on language concentrate on how it is not just a reflection of the world, but is used to give directions and commands, to make changes. This is shown, for example, in the precision of the language used in religious ritual, magic, prayers and curses. Another field is the ethnography of speaking: the study of language codes present in communities. The choice of words we make indicates the degree of familiarity between us and the people with whom we are communicating; it also reflects our social status and the situation we (and the other members of the group) are in. Anthropologists borrow the linguists\' terms dialect (the language characteristic of regions or social classes) and idiolect (the language characteristic of an individual speaker). KMcL

See also artificial intelligence; exchange; fiction; folk literature; interpretative anthropology; literacy/orality; structuralism; symbolism; thought.Further reading David Crystal, Encyclopedia of Language; , George Lakoss and , Michael Johnson, Metaphors We Live By; , Edmund Leach, Culture and Communication; , David Parkin, Semantic Anthropology.



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