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Features of Human Language (Charles Hockett)



1. Definitions of Language

Ferdinand de Saussure

"A sign is the basic unit of language (a given language at a given time). Every language is a complete system of signs. Parole (the speech of an individual) is an external manifestation of language."

A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas."

"Language furnishes the best proof that a law accepted by a community is a thing that is tolerated and not a rule to which all freely consent. "

"When, following the lead of F. de Saussure, linguists began to envisage language in and of itself, they recognized what was to become the basic for any language, no matter in what culture it is in use, at whatever historical forms of expression, language is a systematic arrangement of parts. It is made up of formal elements put together in variable combinations, according to certain principles of structure. Here is the second key term in linguistics - structure. By this is meant primarily the structure of the linguistic system gradually revealed, starting from the principle that a language always has a limited number of basic elements, but that these elements, few in number in themselves, yield a large number of combinations. They are, indeed, only grasped within these combinations." (Emile Benveniste (1971), Problems in General Linguistics. (translate: Mary Elizabeth Meek), University of Miami, Florida, p. 19.)

It is a storehouse filled by the members of a given community through their active use of speaking, a grammatical system that has a potential existence in each brain, or, more specifically, in the brains of a group of individuals. For language is not complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity. (Translate: Laurie Bauer (2007), The Linguistics Student's Handbook. Edinburgh University Press, p.3)

‘C’est un trésor déposé par la pratique de la parole dans les sujets appartenant à une même communauté, un système grammatical existant virtuellement dans chaque cerveau, ou plus exactement dans les cervaux d’un ensemble d’individus; car la langue n’est complète dans aucun, elle n’existe parfaitement que dans la masse.’ (Original text: Ferdinand de Saussure, (1969 [1916]). Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot, p.30)

Edward Sapir

"Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols."(Edward Sapir (1921) Language. New York: Harcourt Brace, p.8)

"Language is primarily a cultural or social product and must be understood as such." (Edward Sapir (1929), "The Status of Linguistics as a Science", Language, Volume 5, No. 4, December 1929, p.214.)

Otto Jespersen

"The essence of language is human activity—activity on the part of one individual to make himself understood by another, activity on the part of that other to understand what was in the mindof the first…” (Otto Jespersen (1924/1992), The Philosophy of Grammar, University of Chicago Press, p. 17)

G. Trager

"A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which the members of a society interact in terms of their total culture."(G.Trager, (1949) The Field of Linguistics. Norman, OK: Battenberg Press, p.5)


"Problems raised by this special mode of action are usually assigned to the field of speech or language. Unfortunately, the term "speech" emphasizes vocal behavior and is only awkwardly applied to instances in which the mediating person is affected visually, as in writing a note. "Language" is now satisfactorily remote from its original commitment to vocal behavior, but it has come to refer to the practices of a linguistic community rather than the behavior of any one member. The adjective "linguistic" suffers from the same disadvantage. The term "verbal behavior" has much to recommend it." (B.F.Skinner (1957), Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, p.2)

"Man Thinking is simply Man Behaving." (B.F.Skinner (1957), Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, p. 452)

Noam Chomsky

“A language is "a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements." (Noam Chomsky (1957) Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton, p.13)

"The language faculty appears to be a species property, common to the species and unique to it in its essentials, capable of producing a rich, highly articulated, and complex language on the basis of quite rudimentary data. The language that develops in this manner, largely along lines determined by our common biological nature, enters deeply into thought and understanding and forms an essential part of our nature." (Noam Chomsky (1988), Language and Problems of Knowledge-Managua Lectures. MIT Press, p. 39-40.)

R.A. Hall

"Language is "the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory arbitrary symbols."(R.Hall (1964) Introductory Linguistics.  Philadelphia, PA: Chilton.)

Michael Halliday

"Language is a range of possibilities, an open-ended set of options in behavior that are available to the individual in his existence as social man. The context of culture is the environment of any particular selection that is made from within them ... The context of culture defines the potential, the range of possibilities that are open. The actual choice among these possibilities takes place within a given context of situation."(Michael A.K. Halliday (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Arnold.)

"Language serves for the expression of 'content': that is, of the speaker's experience of the real world, including the inner world of his own consciousness. [ideational function]...Language serves to establish and maintain social relations. [interpersonel function]...Finally, language has to provide for making links with itself and with features of the situation in which it is used. [textual function]." (Michael A.K. Halliday (1970), "Language Structure and Language Function", New Horizons in Linguistics. edited by John Lyons, Penguin Books, p.143).

“…A functional approach to language means, first of all, investigating how language is used: trying to find out what are the purposes that language serves for us, and how we are able to achieve these purposes through speaking and listening, reading and writing. But it also means more than this. It means seeking to explain the nature of language in functional terms: seeing whether language itself has been shaped by use, and if so, in what ways—how the form of language has been determined by the function it has evolved to serve…” (Michael A.K. Halliday (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language, London: Arnold, p. 7)

Steven Pinker

"The story I will in this book has, of course, been deeply influenced by Chomsky. But it is not his story exactly, and I will not tell it as he would. Chomsky has puzzled many readers with his skepticism about whether Darwinian natural selection (as opposed to other evolutionary process) can explain the origins of the language organ that he argues for; I think it is fruitful to consider language organ evolutionary adaptation, like the eye, its major part designed to carry out important functions. And Chomsky’s arguments about the nature of the language faculty are based on technical analyses of word and sentence structure, often couched in abstruse formalisms. His discussions of flesh-and-blood speakers are perfunctory and highly idealized. Though I happen to agree with many of his arguments, I think that a conclusion about the mind is convincing only if many kinds of evidence converge on it." (Steven Pinker (2007), The Language Instinct, How The Mind Creates Languages, Harper Perennial: New York, (First published 1994), p.11)

According to Jerry Fodor, "Chomskian nativists and computational nativists [Steven Pinker and Henry Plotkin] both view themselves as inheriting the tradition of philosophical rationalism, but they do so for rather different reasons. Chomsky’s account (so I’ll suggest) is primarily responsive to questions about the sources and uses of knowledge, and so continues the tradition of rationalist epistemology. Computational nativism, by contrast, is primarily about the nature of mental processes (like thinking, for example) and so continues the tradition of rationalist psychology." (Jerry Fodor (2001), The Mind Doesn't Work That Way, MIT Press, p.6.)"

2. Other Definations

source: (09 January 2007)

"The language of truth is unadorned and always simple."

Ammianus, Marcellinus quote

“"I do not mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is an language I do not understand."

Appleton, Sir Edward  quote

“All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of a beggar's teeth.”

Artaud, Antonin quote

“A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language.”

Bachelard, Gaston quote

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”

Barthes, Roland quote

“All official institutions of language are repeating machines: school, sports, advertising, popular songs, news, all continually repeat the same structure, the same meaning, often the same words: the stereotype is a political fact, the major figure of ideology.”

Barthes, Roland quote

“If everything is perfect, language is useless. This is true for animals. If animals don't speak, it's because everything's perfect for them. If one day they start to speak, it will be because the world has lost a certain sort of perfection.”

Baudrillard, Jean quote

“Never resist a sentence you like, in which language takes its own pleasure and in which, after having abused it for so long, you are stupefied by its innocence.”

Baudrillard, Jean quote

“No language is rude that can boast polite writers.”

Beardsley, Aubrey quote

“Drawing on my fine command of the language, I said nothing.”

Benchley, Robert quote

“One can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man.”

Berger, John quote

“Because language is the carrier of ideas, it is easy to believe that it should be very little else than such a carrier.”

Bogan, Louise quote

“The English language is rather like a monster accordion, stretchable at the whim of the editor, compressible ad lib.”

Burchfield, Robert quote

“The downtrodden, who are the great creators of slang.”

Burgess, Anthony quote

“Language is a virus from outer space.”

Burroughs, William S. quote

“Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one's mother's womb.”

Calvino, Italo quote

“There is no such thing as an ugly language. Today I hear every language as if it were the only one, and when I hear of one that is dying, it overwhelms me as though it were the death of the earth.”

Canetti, Elias quote

“It is a mass language only in the same sense that its baseball slang is born of baseball players. That is, it is a language which is being molded by writers to do delicate things and yet be within the grasp of superficially educated people. It is not a natural growth, much as its proletarian writers would like to think so. But compared with it at its best, English has reached the Alexandrian stage of formalism and decay.”

Chandler, Raymond quote

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

Charlemagne quote

“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

Charles V quote

“If English is spoken in heaven. God undoubtedly employs Cranmer as his speechwriter. The angels of the lesser ministries probably use the language of the New English Bible and the Alternative Service Book for internal memos.”

Charles, Prince Of Wales quote

“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”

Chomsky, Noam quote

“One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland --and no other.”

Cioran, E. M. quote

“Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.”

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor quote

“As the language of the face is universal, so 'tis very comprehensive; no laconism can reach it: 'Tis the short hand of the mind, and crowds a great deal in a little room

Collier, Jeremy quote

“To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.”

Conrad, Joseph quote

“The common faults of American language are an ambition of effect, a want of simplicity, and a turgid abuse of terms.”

Cooper, James F. quote

“And who in time knows whither we may vent the treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores this gain of our best glories shall be sent, 't unknowing Nations with our stores? What worlds in the yet unformed Occident may come refined with the accents that are ours?”

Daniel, Samuel quote

“Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?

Darrow, Clarence quote

“It is still not enough for language to have clarity and content... it must also have a goal and an imperative. Otherwise from language we descend to chatter, from chatter to babble and from babble to confusion.”

Daumal, Rene quote

“Language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is a great and efficient instrument in thinking.”

Davy, Sir Humphrey quote

“The individual's whole experience is built upon the plan of his language.”

Delacroix, Henri quote

“Male supremacy is fused into the language, so that every sentence both heralds and affirms it.”

Dworkin, Andrea quote

“There is the fear, common to all English-only speakers, that the chief purpose of foreign languages is to make fun of us. Otherwise, you know, why not just come out and say it?”

Ehrenreich, Barbara quote

“The words of language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images.”

Einstein, Albert quote

“Might, could, would --they are contemptible auxiliaries.”

Eliot, George quote

“The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.”

Eliot, George quote

“I like to be beholden to the great metropolitan English speech, the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven.”

Emerson, Ralph Waldo quote

“Language is the archives of history.”

Emerson, Ralph Waldo quote

“Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone.”

Emerson, Ralph Waldo quote

“The language of truth is simple.”

Euripides quote

“I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”

Fanon, Frantz quote

“The learned fool writes his nonsense in better language than the unlearned, but it is still nonsense.”

Franklin, Benjamin quote

“Words are the leaves of the tree of language, of which, if some fall away, a new succession takes their place.”

French, John quote

“Those who know nothing of foreign languages, knows nothing of their own.”

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von quote

“Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men's language. Of course women learn it. We're not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man's world, so it talks a man's language.”

Guin, Ursula K. Le quote

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Hardy, Thomas quote

“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.”

Heidegger, Martin quote

“If the Romans had been obliged to learn Latin they would never have found time to conquer the world.”

Heine, Heinrich quote

“The eyes have one language everywhere.”

Herbert, George quote

“After all, when you come right down to it, how many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language?

Hoban, Russell quote

“Language is an archeological vehicle... the language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.”

Hoban, Russell quote

“The proverbial German phenomenon of the verb-at-the-end about which droll tales of absentminded professors who would begin a sentence, ramble on for an entire lecture, and then finish up by rattling off a string of verbs by which their audience, for whom the stack had long since lost its coherence, would be totally nonplussed, are told, is an excellent example of linguistic recursion.”

Hofstadter, Douglas quote

“Life and language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide --that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life --are alike forbidden.”

Holmes, Oliver Wendell quote

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”

Holmes, Oliver Wendell quote

“Grammar and logic free language from being at the mercy of the tone of voice. Grammar protects us against misunderstanding the sound of an uttered name; logic protects us against what we say have double meaning.”

Huessy, Rosenstock quote

“To rescue from oblivion even a fragment of a language which men have used and which is in danger of being lost --that is to say, one of the elements, whether good or bad, which have shaped and complicated civilization --is to extend the scope of social observation and to serve civilization.”

Hugo, Victor quote

“Language is the pedigree of nations.”

Johnson quote

“Language most shows a man, speak that I may see thee.”

Johnson, Ben quote

“Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas.”

Johnson, Samuel quote

“I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigrees of nations.”

Johnson, Samuel quote

“Language is the dress of thought.”

Johnson, Samuel quote

“Language is political. That's why you and me, my Brother and Sister, that's why we supposed to choke our natural self into the weird, lying, barbarous, unreal, white speech and writing habits that the schools lay down like holy law. Because, in other words, the powerful don't play; they mean to keep that power, and those who are the powerless (you and me) better shape up --mimic/ape/suck --in the very image of the powerful, or the powerful will destroy you --you and our children.”

Jordan, June quote

“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains the reason why.”

Joyce, James quote

“Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden.”

Kraus, Karl quote

“Language is a form of human reason, which has its internal logic of which man knows nothing.”

Levi-Strauss, Claude quote

“Language is the inventory of human experience.”

Lockhart, L. W. quote

“Any language is necessarily a finite system applied with different degrees of creativity to an infinite variety of situations, and most of the words and phrases we use are prefabricated in the sense that we don't coin new ones every time we speak.”

Lodge, David quote

“No literature is complete until the language it was written in is dead.”

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth quote

“Language, the machine of the poet, is best fitted for his purpose in its rudest state. Nations, like individuals, first perceive, and then abstract. They advance from particular images to general terms. Hence the vocabulary of an enlightened society is philosophical, that of a half-civilized people is poetical.”

Macaulay, Thomas B. quote

“Curiously enough, it seems to be only in describing a mode of language which does not mean what it says that one can actually say what one means.”

Man, Paul De quote

“An art whose medium is language will always show a high degree of critical creativeness, for speech is itself a critique of life: it names, it characterizes, it passes judgment, in that it creates.”

Mann, Thomas quote

“Syntax and vocabulary are overwhelming constraints --the rules that run us. Language is using us to talk --we think we're using the language, but language is doing the thinking, we're its slavish agents.”

Mathews, Harry quote

“There is in every child a painstaking teacher, so skilful that he obtains identical results in all children in all parts of the world. The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!

Montessori, Maria quote

“Poetry is all nouns and verbs.”

Moore, Marianne quote

“Language is the Rubicon that divides man from beast.”

Muller, Max quote

“The problems of society will also be the problems of the predominant language of that society. It is the carrier of its perceptions, its attitudes, and its goals, for through it, the speakers absorb entrenched attitudes. The guilt of English then must be recognized and appreciated before its continued use can be advocated.”

Ndebele, Njabulo quote

“The significance of language for the evolution of culture lies in this, that mankind set up in language a separate world beside the other world, a place it took to be so firmly set that, standing upon it, it could lift the rest of the world off its hinges and make itself master of it. To the extent that man has for long ages believed in the concepts and names of things as in aeternae veritates he has appropriated to himself that pride by which he raised himself above the animal: he really thought that in language he possessed knowledge of the world.”

Nietzsche, Friedrich quote

“To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. There are no reliable words. Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up.”

Orwell, George quote

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

Orwell, George quote

“Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.”

Orwell, George quote

“We invent the world through language. The world occurs through language.”

Pancoast, Mal quote

“Man, even man debased by the neocapitalism and pseudosocialism of our time, is a marvelous being because he sometimes speaks. Language is the mark, the sign, not of his fall but of his original innocence. Through the Word we may regain the lost kingdom and recover powers we possessed in the far-distant past.”

Paz, Octavio quote

“I wonder what language truck drivers are using, now that everyone is using theirs?

Pfizer, Sydney quote

“You can't write about people out of textbooks, and you can't use jargon. You have to speak clearly and simply and purely in a language that a six-year-old child can understand; and yet have the meanings and the overtones of language, and the implications, that appeal to the highest intelligence.”

Porter, Katherine Anne quote

“We might hypothetically possess ourselves of every technological resource on the North American continent, but as long as our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be revolutionary but not transformative.”

Rich, Adrienne quote

“When a language creates -- as it does -- a community within the present, it does so only by courtesy of a community between the present and the past.”

Ricks, Christopher quote

“My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn't just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you've got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren't only bombs and bullets -- no, they're little gifts, containing meanings!

Roth, Philip quote

“If you want to tell the untold stories, if you want to give voice to the voiceless, you've got to find a language. Which goes for film as well as prose, for documentary as well as autobiography. Use the wrong language, and you're dumb and blind.”

Rushdie, Salman quote

“The secret of language is the secret of sympathy and its full charm is possible only to the gentle.”

Ruskin, John quote

“Language furnishes the best proof that a law accepted by a community is a thing that is tolerated and not a rule to which all freely consent.”

Saussure, Ferdinand De quote

“A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas.”

Saussure, Ferdinand De quote

“The word of man is the most durable of all material.”

Schopenhauer, Arthur quote

“It was Greek to me.”

Shakespeare, William quote

“The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it.”

Shaw, George Bernard quote

“If the announcer can produce the impression that he is a gentlemen, he may pronounce as he pleases.”

Shaw, George Bernard quote

“Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence.”

Steiner, George quote

“We are armed with language adequate to describe each leaf of the filed, but not to describe human character.”

Thoreau, Henry David quote

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.”

Tillich, Paul quote

“The genius of democracies is seen not only in the great number of new words introduced but even more in the new ideas they express.”

Tocqueville, Alexis De quote

“I wish life was not so short, he thought. languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.”

Tolkien, J. R. quote

“Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.”

Tomlin, Lily quote

“Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. It has arrested ten thousand lightning flashes of genius, which, unless thus fixed and arrested, might have been as bright, but would have also been as quickly passing and perishing, as the lightning.”

Trench, Richard Chevenix quote

“There is no such thing as the Queen's English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!

Twain, Mark quote

“How many languages are there in the world? How about 5 billion! Each of us talks, listens, and thinks in his/her own special language that has been shaped by our culture, experiences, profession, personality, mores and attitudes. The chances of us meeting someone else who talks the exact same language is pretty remote.”

Unknown, Source quote

“The universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are carried over from bodies and from the properties of bodies to express the things of the mind and spirit. The order of ideas must follow the order of things.”

Vico, Giambattista quote

“As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests

Vidal, Gore quote

“The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.”

Walcott, Derek quote

“We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

Washington, Booker T. quote

“A mind enclosed in language is in prison.”

Weil, Simone quote

“Numbers constitute the only universal language.”

West, Nathanael quote

“The living language is like a cowpath: it is the creation of the cows themselves, who, having created it, follow it or depart from it according to their whims or their needs. From daily use, the path undergoes change. A cow is under no obligation to stay

White, E(lwyn) B(rooks) quote

“Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.”

Whitman, Walt quote

“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.”

Whorf, Benjamin Lee quote

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”

Whorf, Benjamin Lee quote

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”

Wilde, Oscar quote

“As advertising blather becomes the nation's normal idiom, language becomes printed noise.”

Will, George F. quote

“Poetry is the language of feeling.”

Winter, W. quote

“Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it.”

Wittgenstein, Ludwig quote

“If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.”

Wittgenstein, Ludwig quote

“Methinks the human method of expression by sound of tongue is very elementary, and ought to be substituted for some ingenious invention which should be able to give vent to at least six coherent sentences at once.”

Woolf, Virginia quote

“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.”

Yeats, William Butler quote