Defining Language


Language defines human existence. Yet defining language is a fraught project. I use the term "language" to refer to a specific mode of information transfer. First, it is a communicative mode. By communication I mean the information transfer serves a function, that is, an activity that occurs because it has increased the evolutionary fitness of ancestors. Secondly, while all communication is governed by norms, human communication, as opposed to biological communication, is governed by norms that have evolved within the learned traditions of individual cultures. The meaning of an assertion in a culture’s language is the set of commitments to which that culture holds its speakers when they utter that assertion. Syntax has appeared in recent evolution to facilitate and enrich the communicative function, but it is a secondary aspect of language. The defining characteristic of human communication, of "language," -- is its capacity to constitute meaning.

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David L. Thompson
Memorial University of Newfoundland


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