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4.S: Language (Summary and Exercises)

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    1. How do you think modern communication technologies like cell phones and computers are changing how people communicate? Is the change positive or negative?
    2. How is language related to social and economic inequality? Do you think that attitudes about language varieties have affected you and/or your family?
    3. 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?
    4. 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?


    • 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 pidgins.
    • 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 process by which aspects of culture are passed from person to person, often generation to generation; 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 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 linguists.
    • 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).
    • Middle English: the form of the English language spoken from 1066 AD until about 1500 AD.
    • Minimal response: the vocal indications that one is listening to a speaker.
    • Modern English: the form of the English language spoken from about 1500 AD to the present.
    • Morphemes: the basic meaningful units in a language.
    • Morphology: the study of the morphemes of language.
    • Old English: English language from its beginnings to about 1066 AD.
    • Open system: a form of communication that can create an infinite number of new messages; a feature of human language only.
    • Oralist approach: an approach to the education of deaf children that emphasizes lip reading and speaking orally while discouraging use of signed language.
    • 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.
    • Pragmatic function: the useful purpose of a communication. Usefulness is a feature of all species’ communication systems.
    • 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 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 template 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.


    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.


    1. 1. You can find a documentary film about Genie via Google or YouTube under the title Genie, Secret of the Wild Child, a NOVA production.
    2. 2. Adapted here from Nick Cipollone, Steven Keiser, and Shravan Vasishth, Language Files (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 1998), 20-23.
    3. 3. John McWhorter, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt, 2001), 53.
    4. 4. William Labov, The Social Stratification of English in New York City (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1964).
    5. 5. Trudy Ann Parker, Aunt Sarah, Woman of the Dawnland (Lancaster, NH, Dawnland Publications 1994), 56.
    6. 6. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 4-5.
    7. 7. 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).
    8. 8. From Wikipedia: History of the Lord’s Prayer in English.
    9. 9. You can hear the entire prayers in Old English and Middle English read out loud in YouTube files: The Lord’s Prayer in Old English from the Eleventh Century, and The Lord’s Prayer/Preier of Oure Lord in Recorded Middle English.
    10. 10. You can hear the 6-minute piece at
    11. 11. From François Grosjean, Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982), chapter two.
    12. 12. Filmmaker Anne Makepeace created a documentary of the story, called We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân, which PBS broadcast in 2010. You can watch the clips from the video online.
    13. 13. Terms first coined by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Native (New York, Basic Books, 2008).
    14. 14. Lydia Emmanouilidou, For Rare Languages, Social Media Provide New Hope.