IATE Term of the Week: Language

September 30, 2016 9:30 am

IATE Term of the Week: Language

On the occasion of the European Day of Languages, which fell on this week’s Monday (26th September), today’s entry of the IATE Term of the Week is simply language – a notion so basic and obvious that everybody would have great difficulties actually defining it.sculpture-university-of-houston-a-a_l

The word itself comes from Old French langage “words, what is said, conversation, talk,” which presumably has its roots in Latin lingua. The Latin word carried the ambiguity of both “tongue” (the body part) and also “speech, language” – in a similar way to tongue in modern English (mother tongue, speaking in tongues). However, it is worth noting that the usage of tongue when referring to a language is now archaic. The Latin lingua is the first one to have an attested abstract meaning, as it presumably comes from Proto-Indo-European *dnghu- “tongue (body part)”.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers several definitions of language. It could be a foreign language, body language, sign language, bad language (swearwords), legal language, everyday language, or a programming language. In each case of the above, it is a specific term naming the system through which communication is achieved. A language is a codified system of communication, used amongst a certain nation or people. It represents the particular ways in which humans choose to communicate – a surface form of a broader underlying ability. So what about that broader concept at the root of everything else?

Language, the mass noun without the preposition, means that ability itself. It would be defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way. It is worth noting the word human in the definition – language is the sole domain of humankind. Despite the very fashionable efforts to conclude that animals also have it, there are several adjectives that define language and separate it definitely from animal communication: language is arbitrary, displaced, and creative.

Arbitrary means that there is no direct connection between the meaning and the medium by which it is conveyed. An utterance /sʌn/ bears little to no resemblance to the idea of ‘a male human to whom I gave birth’; similarly, /grɑːs/ is just a sequence of sounds that brings forward the idea of a short green plant. In no way, shape, or form do they relate to the objects they describe. The only exception is the category of onomatopoeia, i.e. ‘mimicking a sound’, such as cock-a-doddle-doo or woof. However, if one takes a look at onomatopoeias across languages, one can see that although an English rooster may sound like this, the German one would cry kickeriki, the Indian: kukruukuu, and the Chinese-Cantonese: gokogoko. Noting the variation, we might indeed decide that any word (even an onopatopeic one) incorporated into the human language becomes, at least in some level, arbitrary.

Displaced means that language describes abstract, intangible mental constructs that have no equivalent in the physical world: the ideas of hope and justice and niceness, but also words such as idea, equivalent, law, or sufficiency. As humankind is the sole species than has not only developed abstract reasoning, but also transferred it into an equally abstract system of communication, the quality of displacement is one of the main features differentiating language from other ways of communicating. Spatiotemporal displacement is a particularly interesting quality; thanks to it, humans are not only able to comment or express their reactions at what has just happened, like animals do, but can also refer to things that happened at a different point in time or space regardless of where they are. For example, talking about going on vacation abroad would be a display of spatiotemporal displacement: it is an event located in the future, in another place. Conversely, animal communication is context-driven—they react to stimuli or indexes.

Finally, creative means that new words can be invented easily, and language evolves along with human society. Animals, on the other hand, have to evolve themselves in order for their signs to change. Linguistic creativity also means that out of a finite set of symbols, humans are able to string an infinite number of sentences – utterances that are completely original and have never been said before. It is sometimes referred to as discrete infinity. Creative output or meaningful arbitrary signs is completely original to the human race; even though parrots or chimpanzees could to some extent master the language system (whether spoken or signed), the signs produced by them would lack creativity, and would remain limited to a narrow margin of taught expressions.

In summation, language is the uniquely human capacity to communicate in an arbitrary, displaced, and creative way, which is different across nations, cultures, and social groups. But whereas there is a great deal of diversity between languages, the ability itself is shared universally and equally by the entirety of human race.


written by Anna Wawrzonkowska

Trainee at TermCoord, DG TRAD at the European Parliament

Italian and Linguistics at the University of Oxford, Oriel College

Contribute to IATE! We would welcome your contribution if you know the correct term in your language and it is among the missing ones or if it needs an update. A terminologist for the respective language will revise your answer and validate it. Given the implications of the process, a delay is to be expected.

Languages to be completed for this term in IATE: BG, CS, DA, EL, ET, FI, GA, HR, HU, IT, LA, LT, LV, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, SV.


Hockett F. Charles, A Course in Modern Linguistics, 1970, The Macmillan Company.

Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Language’: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/language (28.09.2016)

Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘Language’: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=language (28.09.2016)

The Difference Between Animal and Human Communication, https://owlcation.com/stem/The-difference-between-animal-and-human-communication (28.09.2016)


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