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Chapter 4: Language

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    Remix Authors

    Vanessa Martínez, Holyoke Community College,

    Demetrios Brellas, Framingham State University,

    Original Author

    Linda Light, California State University, Long Beach,

    Learning Objectives
    • Explain the relationship between human language and culture.
    • Describe the structures of language: phonemes, morphemes, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
    • Assess the relationship between language variations and ethnic or cultural identity
    • Examine the mechanisms of language change and adaptation
    • Explain how language is affected by social class, ethnicity, gender and other aspects of identity
    • Examine the role of Anthropology in the preservation of endangered languages

    4.1 What Is Non-Verbal Communication?

    All animals communicate and many animals make meaningful sounds. Others use visual signs, such as facial expressions, color changes, body postures and movements, light (fireflies), or electricity (some eels). Many use the sense of smell and the sense of touch. Most animals use a combination of two or more of these systems in their communication, but their systems are closed systems in that they cannot create new meanings or messages. Human communication is an open system that can easily create new meanings and messages. Most animal communication systems are basically innate; they do not have to learn them, but some species’ systems entail a certain amount of learning. For example, songbirds have the innate ability to produce the typical songs of their species, but most of them must be taught how to do it by older birds.

    Great apes and other primates have relatively complex systems of communication that use varying combinations of sound, body language, scent, facial expression, and touch. Their systems have therefore been referred to as a gesture-call system. Humans share a number of forms of this gesture-call, or non-verbal system with the great apes. Spoken language undoubtedly evolved embedded within it. All human cultures have not only verbal languages, but also non-verbal systems that are consistent with their verbal languages and cultures and vary from one culture to another. We discuss the three most important human non-verbal communication systems – kinesics, proxemics, and paralanguage.

    4.1.1 Kinesics: Body Language

    Kinesics includes all forms of human body language, including gestures, body position and movement, facial expressions, and eye contact. Although all humans can potentially perform these in the same way, different cultures may have different rules about how to use them. For example, eye contact for Americans is highly valued as a way to show we are paying attention and as a means of showing respect. But for the Japanese, eye contact is usually inappropriate, especially between two people of different social statuses. The lower status person must look down and avoid eye contact to show respect for the higher status person.

    Facial expressions can convey a host of messages, usually related to the person’s attitude or emotional state. Hand gestures may convey unconscious messages, or constitute deliberate messages that can replace or emphasize verbal ones.

    4.1.2 Proxemics: Study of Social Use of Space

    Proxemics is the study of the social use of space, specifically the distance an individual tries to main- tain around himself in interactions with others. The size of the “space bubble” depends on a number of social factors, including the relationship between the two people, their relative status, their gender and age, their current attitude toward each other, and above all their culture. In some cultures, such as in Brazil, people typically interact in a relatively close physical space, usually along with a lot of touching. Other cultures, like the Japanese, prefer to maintain a greater distance with a minimum amount of touching or none at all. If one person stands too far away from the other according to cultural stan- dards, it might convey the message of emotional distance. If a person invades the culturally recognized space bubble of another, it could mean a threat. Or, it might show a desire for a closer relationship. It all depends on who is involved.

    I (Vanessa) remember taking a college trip to Russia and traveling on a train. The train was packed and everyone was struggling to find space. While most of the Americans were uncomfortable and complaining, the majority of Russians seemed relaxed and accustomed to the limited space. Such a difference from trying to catch a bus in Sunderland, Massachusetts to get to the University of Massachusetts. I had to ask someone to move their book bag from a seat because the Americans seemed to think that they needed a large space bubble on a crowded bus. How would you define your “space bubble” in relation to others and when? How much of your “space bubble” is informed by your culture and when might you decide to push the space bubble?

    4.1.3 Paralanguage: Speech Beyond Words

    Paralanguage refers to those characteristics of speech beyond the actual words spoken. These include the features that are inherent to all speech: pitch, loudness, and tempo or duration of the sounds. Varying pitch can convey any number of messages: a question, sarcasm, defiance, surprise, confidence or lack of it, impatience, and many other often subtle connotations. An utterance that is shouted at close range usually conveys an emotional element, such as anger or urgency. A word or syllable that is held for an undue amount of time can intensify the impact of that word. For example, compare “It’s beautiful” versus It’s beauuuuu-tiful!” Often the latter type of expression is further emphasized by extra loudness of the syllable, and perhaps higher pitch; all can serve to make a part of the utterance more important. Other paralinguistic features that often accompany speech might be a chuckle, a sigh or sob, deliberate throat clearing, and many other non-verbal sounds like “hm,” “oh,” “ah,” and “um.”

    Most non-verbal behaviors are unconsciously performed and not noticed unless someone violates the cultural standards for them. In fact, a deliberate violation itself can convey meaning. Other non-verbal behaviors are done consciously like the U.S. gestures that indicate approval, such as thumbs up, or making a circle with your thumb and forefinger—“OK.” Other examples are waving at someone or putting a forefinger to your lips to quiet another person. Many of these deliberate gestures have different meanings (or no meaning at all) in other cultures. For example, the gestures of approval in U.S. culture mentioned above may be obscene or negative gestures in another culture.

    Watch this short video on Paralanguage using the TV show The Office

    4.2 How Do We Learn Language?

    The human anatomy that allowed the development of language emerged six to seven million years ago when the first human ancestors became bipedal—habitually walking on two feet. Most other mammals are quadrupedal—they move about on four feet. This evolutionary development freed up the forelimbs of human ancestors for other activities, such as carrying items and doing more and more complex things with their hands. It also started a chain of anatomical adaptations. One adaptation was a change in the way the skull was placed on the spine. The skull of quadrupedal animals is attached to the spine at the back of the skull because the head is thrust forward. With the new upright bipedal position of pre-humans, the attachment to the spine moved toward the center of the base of the skull. This skeletal change in turn brought about changes in the shape and position of the mouth and throat anatomy.

    Humans have all the same organs in the mouth and throat that the other great apes have, but the larynx, or voice box (you may know it as the Adam’s apple), is in a lower position in the throat in humans. This creates a longer pharynx, or throat cavity, which functions as a resonating and amplifying chamber for the speech sounds emitted by the larynx. The rounding of the shape of the tongue and palate, or the roof of the mouth, enables humans to make a greater variety of sounds than any great ape is capable of making.

    Speech is produced by exhaling air from the lungs, which passes through the larynx. The voice is created by the vibration of the vocal folds in the larynx when they are pulled tightly together, leaving a narrow slit for the air to pass through under pressure. The narrower the slit, the higher the pitch of the sound produced. The sound waves in the exhaled air pass through the pharynx then out through the mouth and/or the nose. The different positions and movements of the articulators—the tongue, the lips, the jaw—produce the different speech sounds.

    Along with the changes in mouth and throat anatomy that made speech possible came a gradual enlargement and compartmentalization of the brain of human ancestors over millions of years. The modern human brain is among the largest, in proportion to body size, of all animals. This development was crucial to language ability because a tremendous amount of brain power is required to process, store, produce, and comprehend the complex system of any human language and its associated culture. In addition, two areas in the left brain are specifically dedicated to the processing of language; no other species has them. They are Broca’s area in the left frontal lobe near the temple, and Wernicke’s area, in the temporal lobe just behind the left ear.

    4.3 How Can We Describe Language?

    Recall the language universal stating that all languages change over time. In fact, it is not possible to keep them from doing so. How and why does this happen? The study of how languages change is known as historical linguistics. The processes, both historical and linguistic, that cause language change can affect all of its systems: phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactic, and semantic.

    Historical linguists have placed most of the languages of the world into taxonomies, groups of languages classified together based on words that have the same or similar meanings. Language taxonomies create something like a family tree of languages. For example, words in the Romance family of languages, called sister languages, show great similarities to each other because they have all derived from the same “mother” language, Latin (the language of Rome). In turn, Latin is considered a “sister” language to Sanskrit (once spoken in India and now the mother language of many of India’s modern languages, and still the language of the Hindu religion) and classical Greek. Their “mother” language is called “Indo-European,” which is also the mother (or grandmother!) language of almost all the rest of European languages.

    4.4 How Do Languages Change?

    Why do people from different regions in the United States speak so differently? Why do they speak differently from the people of England? A number of factors have influenced the development of English dialects, and they are typical causes of dialect variation in other languages as well.

    Typical Causes of Dialect Variation

    Settlement patterns: The first English settlers to North America brought their own dialects with them. Settlers from different parts of the British Isles spoke different dialects (they still do), and they tended to cluster together in their new homeland. The present-day dialects typical of people in various areas of the United States, such as New England, Virginia, New Jersey, and Delaware, still reflect these original settlement sites, although they certainly have changed from their original forms.
    Migration routes: After they first settled in the United States, some people migrated further west, establishing dialect boundaries as they traveled and settled in new places.
    Geographical factors: Rivers, mountains, lakes and islands affected migration routes and settlement locations, as well as the relative isolation of the settlements. People in the Appalachian mountains and on certain islands off the Atlantic coast were relatively isolated from other speakers for many years and still speak dialects that sound very archaic compared with the mainstream.
    Region and occupation: Rural farming people may continue to use archaic expressions compared with urban people, who have much more contact with contemporary lifestyles and diverse speech com- munities.
    Language contact: Interactions with other language groups, such as Native Americans, French, Span- ish, Germans, and African-Americans, along paths of migration and settlement resulted in mutual borrowing of vocabulary, pronunciation, and some syntax.

    Have you ever heard of “Spanglish”? It is a form of Spanish spoken near the borders of the United States that is characterized by a number of words adopted from English and incorporated into the phonological, morphological and syntactic systems of Spanish. For example, the Spanish sentence Voy a estacionar mi camioneta, or “I’m going to park my truck” becomes in Spanglish Voy a parquear mi troca.

    Many other languages have such English-flavored versions, including Franglais and Chinglish. Some countries, especially France, actively try to prevent the incursion of other languages (especially English) into their language, but the effort is always futile. People will use whatever words serve their purposes, even when the “language police” disapprove. Some Franglais words that have invaded in spite of the authorities protestations include the recently acquired binge-drinking, beach, e-book, and drop-out, while older ones include le weekend and stop.

    Social class: Social status differences cut across all regional variations of English. These differences reflect the education and income level of speakers.
    Group reference: Other categories of group identity, including ethnicity, national origin of ancestors, age, and gender can be symbolized by the way we speak, indicating in-group versus out-group identity. We talk like other members of our groups, however we define that group as a means of maintaining social solidarity with other group members. This can include occupational or interest-group jargon, such as medical or computer terms, or surfer talk, as well as pronunciation and syntactic variations. Failure to make linguistic accommodation to those we are speaking to may be interpreted as a kind of symbolic group rejection even if that dialect might be relatively stigmatized as a marker of a disrespected minority group. Most people are able to use more than one style of speech, also called register, so that they can adjust depending on who they are interacting with: their family and friends, their boss, a teacher, or other members of the community.
    Linguistic processes: New developments that promote the simplification of pronunciation or syn- tactic changes to clarify meaning can also contribute to language change.

    These eight factors of linguistic variation do not work in isolation. Any variation is the result of a number of social, historical, and linguistic factors that might affect individual performances collectively and therefore dialect change in a particular speech community is a process that is continual.

    Activity: Which of these terms do you use – pop or soda or coke? Do you use pail or bucket? Do you say “vayse” or “vahze” for the vessel you put flowers in? Do you say “ant” or “a-unt” for your endearing mother’s sister or father’s sister?

    4.5 How Does Cultural Context Shape Language?

    As we have seen, language is ever-evolving and adapting to changes in our lives. Socio-cultural markers of difference, such as race, gender, class, age, economic status, sexuality, and religion, shape the words we use and how we communicate. Cultural norms, taboos, group dynamics, and power relationships also impact language acquisition and rules. In this chapter, we will focus on gender as an example of language difference.

    Language represents a marker of identity, an emblem of group membership and solidarity, but that marker may have a downside as well. If the majority look down on the minority as inferior in some way and discriminate against them, some members of the minority group may internalize that attitude and try to blend in with the majority by adopting the majority’s culture and language. Others might more highly value their identity as a member of that stigmatized group, in spite of the discrimination by the majority, and continue to speak their language as a symbol of resistance against the more powerful group. One language that is a minority language when spoken in the United States and that shows no sign of dying out either there or in the world at large, is Spanish. It is the primary language in many countries and in the United States, it is by far the largest minority language.

    4.5.1 Gender and Language

    In any culture that has differences in gender role expectations—and all cultures do—there are differences in how people talk based on their sex and gender identity. These differences have nothing to do with biology. Children are taught from birth how to behave appropriately as a male or a female in their culture, and different cultures have different standards of behavior. It must be noted that not all men and women in a society meet these standards, but when they do not they may pay a social price. Some societies are fairly tolerant of violations of their standards of gendered behavior, but others are less so.

    In the United States, men are generally expected to speak in a low, rather monotone pitch; it is seen as masculine. If they do not sound sufficiently masculine, American men are likely to be negatively labeled as effeminate. Women, on the other hand, are freer to use their entire pitch range, which they often do when expressing emotion, especially excitement. When a woman is a television news announcer, she will modulate the pitch of her voice to a sound more typical of a man in order to be perceived as more credible. Women tend to use minimal responses in a conversation more than men. These are the vocal indications that one is listening to a speaker, such as m-hm, yeah, I see, wow, and so forth. They tend to face their conversation partners more and use more eye contact than men. This is one reason women often complain that men do not listen to them.

    Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has done research for many years on language and gender. Her basic finding is that in conversation women tend to use styles that are relatively cooperative, to emphasize an equal relationship, while men seem to talk in a more competitive way in order to establish their positions in a hierarchy. She emphasizes that both men and women may be cooperative and competitive in different ways.[1]

    Other societies have very different standards for gendered speech styles. In Madagascar, men use a very flowery style of talk, using proverbs, metaphors and riddles to indirectly make a point and to avoid direct confrontation. The women on the other hand speak bluntly and say directly what is on their minds. Both admire men’s speech and think of women’s speech as inferior. When a man wants to convey a negative message to someone, he will ask his wife to do it for him. In addition, women control the marketplaces where tourists bargain for prices because it is impossible to bargain with a man who will not speak directly. It is for this reason that Malagasy women are relatively independent economically.

    In Japan, women were traditionally expected to be subservient to men and speak using a “feminine” style, appropriate for their position as wife and mother, but the Japanese culture has been changing in recent decades so more and more women are joining the workforce and achieving positions of relative power. Such women must find ways of speaking to maintain their feminine identities and at the same time express their authority in interactions with men, a challenging balancing act. Women in the United States do as well, to a certain extent. Even Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of England, took speech therapy lessons to “feminize” her language use while maintaining an expression of authority.

    Self Reflection: Now we have just covered some of the reasons these linguistic variations exist above. Where are you from? Pick one of the examples above and learn about which parts of the United States uses which variations. Can you find other regional differences like these? Share one.

    4.6 What Is the Impact of Globalization on Language?

    Globalization is the spread of people, their cultures and languages, products, money, ideas, and information around the world. Globalization is nothing new; it has been happening throughout the existence of humans, but for the last 500 years it has been increasing in its scope and pace, primarily due to improvements in transportation and communication. Beginning in the fifteenth-century, English explorers started spreading their language to colonies in all parts of the world. English is now one of the three or four most widely spoken languages. It has official status in at least 60 countries, and it is widely spoken in many others. Other colonizers also spread their languages, especially Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, and Russian. Like English, each has its regional variants. One effect of colonization has often been the suppression of local languages in favor of the language of the more powerful colonizers.

    In the past half century, globalization has been dominated by the spread of North American popular culture and language to other countries. Today it is difficult to find a country that does not have American music, movies and television programs, or Coca Cola and McDonald’s, or many other artifacts of life in the United States, and the English terms that go with them.

    In addition, people are moving from rural areas to cities in their own countries, or they are migrating to other countries in unprecedented numbers. Many have moved because they are refugees fleeing violence, or they found it increasingly difficult to survive economically in their own countries. This mass movement of people has led to the on-going extinction of large numbers of the world’s languages as people abandon their home regions and language in order to assimilate into their new homes.

    4.7 Cultural Impact of Language Loss

    Of the approximately 6,000 languages still surviving today, about half the world’s more than seven billion people speak only ten. These include Mandarin Chinese, two languages from India, Spanish, English, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and German. Many of the rest of the world’s languages are spoken by a few thousand people, or even just a few hundred, and most of them are threatened with extinction, called language death. It has been predicted that by the end of this century up to 90 percent of the languages spoken today will be gone. The rapid disappearance of so many languages is of great concern to linguists and anthropologists alike. When a language is lost, its associated culture and unique set of knowledge and worldview are lost with it forever. Remember Whorf’s hypothesis. An interesting website shows short videos of the last speakers of several endangered languages, including one speak- ing an African “click language.”

    Some minority languages are not threatened with extinction, even those that are spoken by a relatively small number of people. Others, spoken by many thousands, may be doomed. What determines which survive and which do not? Smaller languages that are associated with a specific country are likely to survive. Others that are spoken across many national boundaries are also less threatened, such as Quechua, an indigenous language spoken throughout much of South America, including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. The great majority of the world’s languages are spoken by people with minority status in their countries. After all, there are only about 193 countries in the world, and over 6,000 languages are spoken in them. You can do the math.

    The survival of the language of a given speech community is ultimately based on the accumulation of individual decisions by its speakers to continue using it or to abandon it. The abandonment of a language in favor of a new one is called language shift. These decisions are usually influenced by the society’s prevailing attitudes. In the case of a minority speech community that is surrounded by a more powerful majority, an individual might keep or abandon the native language depending on a complex array of factors. The most important factors will be the attitudes of the minority people toward themselves and their language, and the attitude of the majority toward the minority.

    Korean Immigrants & Language Loss

    A former student of Linda Light, James Kim, illustrates some of the common dilemmas a child of immigrants might go through as he loses his first language. Although he was born in California, he spoke only Korean for the first six years of his life. Then he went to school, where he was the only Korean child in his class. He quickly learned English, the language of instruction and the language of his classmates. Under peer pressure, he began refusing to speak Korean, even to his parents, who spoke little English. His parents tried to encourage him to keep his Korean language and culture by sending him to Korean school on Saturdays, but soon he refused to attend. As a college student, James began to regret the loss of the language of his parents, not to mention his relationship with them. He tried to take a college class in Korean, but it was too difficult and time consuming. After consulting with me, he created a six-minute radio piece, called “First Language Attrition: Why My Parents and I Don’t Speak the Same Language,” while he was an intern at a National Public Radio station. He interviewed his parents in the piece and was embarrassed to realize he needed an interpreter.[2] Since that time, he has started taking Korean lessons again, and he took his first trip to Korea with his family during the summer of 2014. He was very excited about the prospect of reconnecting with his culture, with his first language, and especially with his parents.

    The Korean language as a whole is in no danger of extinction, but many Korean speaking communities of immigrants in the United States, like other minority language groups in many countries, are having difficulty maintaining their language and culture. Those who are the most successful live in large, geographically coherent neighborhoods; they maintain closer ties to their homeland by frequent visits, telephone, and email contact with relatives. There may also be a steady stream of new immigrants from the home country. This is the case with most Spanish speaking communities in the United States, but it is less so with the Korean community.[3]

    4.8 Revitalization of Indigenous Languages

    Another example of an oppressed minority group that has struggled with language and culture loss is Native Americans. Many were completely wiped out by the European colonizers, some by deliberate genocide but the great majority (up to 90 percent) by the diseases that the white explorers brought with them, against which the Native Americans had no immunity. In the twentieth-century, the American government stopped trying to kill Native Americans but instead tried to assimilate them into the white majority culture. It did this in part by forcing Native American children to go to boarding schools where they were required to cut their hair, practice Christianity, and speak only English. When they were allowed to go back home years later, they had lost their languages and their culture, but had not become culturally “white” either. The status of Native Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries as a scorned minority prompted many to hide their ethnic identities even from their own children. In this way, the many hundreds of original Native American languages in the United States have dwindled to less than 140 spoken today, according to UNESCO. More than half of those could disappear in the next few years, since many are spoken by only a handful of older members of their tribes. However, a number of Native American tribes have recently been making efforts to revive their languages and cultures, with the help of linguists and often by using texts and old recordings made by early linguists like Edward Sapir. How can such languages be revitalized?

    A fascinating example of a tribal language revitalization program is that of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. The Wampanoag were the Native Americans who met the Puritans when they landed at Plymouth Rock, helped them survive the first winter, and who were with them at the first Thanksgiving. The contemporary descendants of that historic tribe still live in Massachusetts, but bringing back their language was not something Wampanoag people had ever thought possible because no one had spoken it for more than a century.

    Photo of Jessie Little Doe Baird with daughter Mae. Photo courtesy of Cultural Survival and Make Peace Productions
    Figure 4.1. Jessie Little Doe Baird with daughter Mae. Photo courtesy of Cultural Survival and Make Peace Productions

    A young Wampanoag woman named Jessie Little Doe Baird (pictured in Figure 4.1 with her daughter Mae) was inspired by a series of dreams in which her ancestors spoke to her in their language, which she of course did not understand. She eventually earned a master’s degree in Algonquian linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and launched a project to bring her language back from the dead. This process was made possible by the existence of a large collection of documents, including copies of the King James Bible, written phonetically in Wampanoag during the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. She also worked with speakers of languages related to the Algonquian family to help in the reconstruction of the language. The community has established a school to teach the language to the children and promote its use among the entire community. Her daughter Mae is among the first new native speakers of Wampanoag.[4]

    4.9 Technology and Language Change

    The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth-century was just the beginning of technological transformations that made the spread of information in European languages and ideas possible across time and space using the printed word. Recent advances in travel and digital technology are rapidly transforming communication; now we can be in contact with almost anyone, anywhere, in seconds. However, it could be said that the new age of instantaneous access to everything and everyone is actually continuing a social divide that started with the printing press.

    In the fifteenth-century, few people could read and write, so only the tiny educated minority were in a position to benefit from printing. Today, only those who have computers and the skills to use them, the educated and relatively wealthy, have access to this brave new world of communication. Some schools have adopted computers and tablets for their students, but these schools are more often found in wealthier neighborhoods. Thus, technology is continuing to contribute to the growing gap between the economic haves and the have-nots.

    There is also a digital generation gap between the young, who have grown up with computers, and the older generations, who have had to learn to use computers as adults. These two generations have been referred to as digital natives and digital immigrants.[5] The difference between the two groups can be compared to that of children versus adults learning a new language; learning is accomplished much more easily by the young.

    Computers, and especially social media, have made it possible for millions of people to connect with each other for purposes of political activism, including “Occupy Wall Street” in the United States and the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East. Some anthropologists have introduced computers and cell phones to the people they studied in remote areas, and in this way they were able to stay in contact after finishing their ethnographic work. Those people, in turn, were now able to have greater access to the outside world.

    Facebook and Twitter are becoming key elements in the survival of a number of endangered indigenous languages. Facebook is now available in over 70 languages, and Twitter in about 40 languages. For example, a website has been created that seeks to preserve Anishinaabemowin, an endangered Native American language from Michigan. The language has 8,000-10,000 speakers, but most of the native speakers are over 70 years old, which means the language is threatened with extinction. Modern social media are an ideal medium to help encourage young people to communicate in their language to keep it alive.[6] Clearly, language and communication through modern technology are in the forefront of a rapidly changing world, for better or for worse. It’s anybody’s guess what will happen next.

    Discussion Questions

    1. How is language related to social and economic inequality? Do you think that attitudes about language varieties have affected you and/or your family?
    2. How has the use of specific terms in the news helped to shape public opinion? For example, what are the different implications of the terms terrorist versus freedom fighter? Downsizing versus firing staff at a company? Euphemistic terms used in reference to war include friendly fire, pacification, collateral damage? Can you think of other examples?
    3. Think about the different styles you use when speaking to your siblings and parents, your friends, your significant other, your professors, your grandparents. What are some of the specific differences among these styles? What do these differences indicate about the power relationships between you and others?
    4. How do you think modern communication technologies like cell phones and computers are changing how people communicate? Is the change positive or negative?


    Arbitrariness: the relationship between a symbol and its referent (meaning), in which there is no obvious connection between them.

    Bound morpheme: a unit of meaning that cannot stand alone; it must be attached to another morpheme.

    Closed system: a form of communication that cannot create new meanings or messages; it can only convey pre-programmed (innate) messages.

    Code-switching: using two or more language varieties in a particular interaction.

    Creole: a language that develops from a pidgin when the pidgin becomes so widely used that children acquire it as one of their first languages. Creoles are more fully complex than creoles.

    Critical age range hypothesis: research suggesting that a child will gradually lose the ability to acquire language naturally and without effort if he or she is not exposed to other people speaking a language until past the age of puberty. This applies to the acquisition of a second language as well.

    Cultural transmission: the need for some aspects of the system to be learned; a feature of some species’ communication systems.

    Design features: descriptive characteristics of the communication systems of all species, including that of humans, proposed by linguist Charles Hockett to serve as a definition of human language.

    Dialect: a variety of speech. The term is often applied to a subordinate variety of a language. Speakers of two dialects of the same language do not necessarily always understand each other.

    Discreteness: a feature of human speech that they can be isolated from others.

    Displacement: the ability to communicate about things that are outside of the here and now.

    Duality of patterning: at the first level of patterning, meaningless discrete sounds of speech are combined to form words and parts of words that carry meaning. In the second level of patterning, those units of meaning are recombined to form an infinite possible number of longer messages such as phrases and sentences.

    Gesture-call system: a system of non-verbal communication using varying combinations of sound, body language, scent, facial expression, and touch, typical of great apes and other primates, as well as humans.

    Historical linguistics: the study of how languages change.

    Interchangeability: the ability of all individuals of the species to both send and receive messages; a feature of some species’ communication systems.

    Kinesics: the study of all forms of human body language.

    Language: an idealized form of speech, usually referred to as the standard variety.

    Language death: the total extinction of a language.

    Language shift: when a community stops using their old language and adopts a new one.

    Language universals: characteristics shared by all languages.

    Larynx: the voice box, containing the vocal bands that produce the voice.

    Lexicon: the vocabulary of a language.

    Linguistic relativity: the idea that the structures and words of a language influence how its speakers think, how they behave, and ultimately the culture itself (also known as the Whorf Hypothesis).

    Minimal response: the vocal indications that one is listening to a speaker.

    Morphemes: the basic meaningful units in a language.

    Morphology: the study of the morphemes of language.

    Open system: a form of communication that can create an infinite number of new messages; a feature of human language only.

    Palate: the roof of the mouth.

    Paralanguage: those characteristics of speech beyond the actual words spoken, such as pitch, loudness, tempo.

    Pharynx: the throat cavity, located above the larynx.

    Phonemes: the basic meaningless sounds of a language.

    Phonology: the study of the sounds of language.

    Pidgin: a simplified language that springs up out of a situation in which people who do not share a language must spend extended amounts of time together.

    Pragmatics: how social context contributes to meaning in an interaction.

    Productivity/creativity: the ability to produce and understand messages that have never been expressed before.

    Proxemics: the study of the social use of space, including the amount of space an individual tries to maintain around himself in his interactions with others.

    Register: a style of speech that varies depending on who is speaking to whom and in what context.

    Semanticity: the meaning of signs in a communication system; a feature of all species’ communication systems.

    Semantics: how meaning is conveyed at the word and phrase level.

    Speech act: the intention or goal of an utterance; the intention may be different from the dictionary definitions of the words involved.

    Standard: the variant of any language that has been given special prestige in the community.

    Symbol: anything that serves to refer to something else.

    Syntax: the rules by which a language combines morphemes into larger units.

    Taxonomies: a system of classification.

    Universal grammar (UG): a theory developed by linguist Noam Chomsky suggesting that a basic tem- plate for all human languages is embedded in our genes.

    Unbound morpheme: a morpheme that can stand alone as a separate word.

    Vernaculars: non-standard varieties of a language, which are usually distinguished from the standard by their inclusion of stigmatized forms.

    About the Original Author

    photo of author Linda Light

    Linda Light has been a lecturer in linguistic and cultural anthropology at California State University Long Beach since 1995. During much of that period she also taught as adjunct professor at Cypress College, Santa Ana College, Rancho Santiago College, and Golden West College, all in Orange County, California. She was a consultant to Coastline Community College District in the production of thirty-five educational videos that were used in three series, including the cultural anthropology series Our Diverse World. Her main areas of interest have been indigenous language loss and maintenance, language and gender, and first language attrition in the children of immigrants.

    Media Attributions

    1. 1. For more information see Deborah Tannen, Gender and Discourse (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996). Or, Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (New York: Harper Collins, 2010). ↵
    2. You can hear the 6-minute piece at
    3. From François Grosjean, Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982), chapter two. ↵
    4. Filmmaker Anne Makepeace created a documentary of the story, called We Still Live Here: s Nutayuneân, which PBS broadcast in 2010. You can watch the clips from the video online. ↵
    5. Terms first coined by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Native(New York, Basic Books, 2008). ↵
    6. Lydia Emmanouilidou, For Rare Languages, Social Media Provide New Hope. More information at this link - techconsidered/2014/07/26/333732206/for-rare-languages-social-media-provide-new-hope ↵

    This page titled Chapter 4: Language is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Linda Light, Vanessa Martínez, Demetrios Brellas, & Demetrios Brellas (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.