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Social Sci LibreTexts

5: Language

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Explain the relationship between human language and culture.
    • Identify the universal features of human languages and the design features that make them unique.
    • Describe the structures of language: phonemes, morphemes, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
    • Assess the relationship between language variations and ethnic or cultural identity.
    • Explain how language is affected by social class, ethnicity, gender and other aspects of identity.
    • Evaluate the reasons why languages change and efforts that can be made to preserve endangered languages.

    • 5.1: Language
      Human language can be considered a culture’s most important feature since complex human culture could not exist without language and language could not exist without culture. They are inseparable because language encodes culture and provides the means through which culture is shared and passed from one generation to the next.
    • 5.2: Biological Basis of Language and Language Aquisition
      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 brainpower is required to process, store, produce, and comprehend the complex system of any human language and its associated culture.
    • 5.3: Human Language Compared with Other Species
      All animals communicate whether it is through the use of meaningful sounds or visual signs, such as facial expressions, color changes, body postures and movements. Great apes and other primates have relatively complex systems of communication that use varying combinations of sound, body language, scent, facial expression, and touch. Humans share a number of forms of non-verbal system with the great apes.
    • 5.4: Language Universals and the Structure of Language
      Languages we do not speak or understand may sound like meaningless babble to us, but all the human languages that have ever been studied by linguists are amazingly similar. They all share a number of characteristics, which linguists call language universals. Descriptive linguistics studies the structure of the different languages and look at things like of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
    • 5.5: Language Variation
      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. Language variation is the topic of study for sociolinguistics.
    • 5.6: Linguistic Relativity
      The most important aspects of each culture are similarly reflected in the lexicon of its language. Language relativity is the idea that the structures and words of a language influence how its speakers think, how they behave, and ultimately the culture itself.
    • 5.7: Language In Its Social Setting
      The way we speak can be seen as a marker of who we are and with whom we identify. We talk like the other people around us, where we live, our social class, our region of the country, our ethnicity, and even our gender. No one speaks the same way in all situations and contexts, but there are some consistencies in speaking styles that are associated with many of these categories.
    • 5.8: Historical Linguistics
      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.
    • 5.9: Language Death, Revitalization and the Digital Age
      Of the approximately 6,000 languages still surviving today, about half the world’s more than seven billion people speak only ten.  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.
    • 5.10: End of Chapter Discussion
    • 5.11: About the Author

    Image: Detail of the Rosetta Stone inscription. Major advances in the decoding were recognition that the stone offered three versions of the same text; that the demotic text used phonetic characters to spell foreign names; that the hieroglyphic text did so as well, and had pervasive similarities to the demotic; and that, in addition to being used for foreign names, phonetic characters were also used to spell native Egyptian words. Image used with permission (CC BY-SA 3.0; Kajk).​​​​​​