Note: The following entry appeared in the Encyclopedia of Anthropology, ed by James H. Birx. Sage Publications, 2006, pages 1401-4.


Definition and characteristics

Language, like culture, is something that is easier to discuss than define, and no unitary definition will be offered here. Instead, what anthropologists and linguists mean by language is better understood by trying to be clear about what does, and doesn’t, count as language. In some cases, this involves disentangling folk uses of the term language from scientific uses.

In its folk sense, language is often used to mean any communication system: the “dance” of honeybees; the significance of type and color of flowers given to someone; computer codes; the posture and gestures included in “body language,” and so on. While these are indeed communication systems, they are not examples of language because they lack specific properties of human language, including especially:

Š       Discreteness, or discrete infinity. The elements of language (phonemes, words, phrases) are perceptually discrete and can be combined and recombined without limit.

Š       Dual patterning. A relatively small number of phonemes (as few as 15 for Hawaiian; English has about 35), which are without intrinsic meaning, are combined to form units that bear meaning (morphemes, words, etc.). In other animal systems each call is a meaningful unit

Š       Hierarchical structure. Linguistic elements are nested within each other. For example, the Noun Phrase [the gray cat] contains the nested constituents [the] and [gray cat]; [gray cat] in turn contains [gray] and [cat].

Š       Structure dependence. The rules that govern the formation of words, phrases, and sentences operate on structural categories like Noun or Verb Phrase, not on individual words like cat or eat.

Some features of human language that are hinted at in other animal communication systems include:

Š       Displacement. Linguistic expressions can have referents that are not present in either space or time, like the moons of Saturn or Attila the Hun.

Š       Prevarication. Linguistic expressions can have referents that exist only in the imagination, like Tolkien’s hobbits or Darth Vader.

The displacement feature may be present in the communication of direction and distance to the source made by honeybees. And many animals “lie” by disguising themselves as more dangerous animals. Some monkeys learn to give false warning calls to the troop when they are under threat from another monkey, and, some of the primates who have acquired elements of human sign language seem able to use it for both displacement and prevarication, although they appear to be proficient at about the level of a two-year-old human child.

For anthropologists and linguists, then, one sense of language is the species property: the apparently uniquely human, innate capacity to acquire and use the entities that we label with words like “English,” “Tagalog,” or “American Sign Language.” Darwin called this our “instinctive tendency to acquire an art.” This is not an entirely uncontested view, but most linguists agree that language is innate in humans, although all agree equally that the specific language variety that people acquire as children depends on the social context within which they are enculturated.


Studying language

Scholars who study the structural aspects of language generally focus on one or more of the traditional core areas: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. These core areas represent most of what users of a language must know about their language:

Š       Phonetics. Speakers must know how to articulate the sounds of their language. English speakers must know that the first sound of a word like top is alveolar, rather than dental as in Spanish.

Š       Phonology. Speakers of a language must know what the distinctive sounds of their language are. English speakers must know that the sounds [p] and [b] contrast in words like pat and bat.

Š       Morphology. Speakers have to know how to combine the sounds of their language into meaningful units: words, prefixes, suffixes, etc. English speakers know how to form the plural of words like cat, dog, and bush by adding the appropriate suffix to form cat[s], dog[z], and bush[iz].

Š       Syntax. Speakers have to know how to combine their words into sentences that call attention to something and then provide information about it. Again using English as an example, English speakers "know" how to form yes-no questions from statements like She is in the kitchen (is she in the kitchen?) by the appropriate movement of is.

Š       Semantics. Speakers must know the meanings of the words they use. Speakers of English know that foot refers to a small part of the leg, while speakers of some forms of Creole English know that foot refers to the entire leg and foot.

It is also possible to study how people use their language appropriately to accomplish what they want in a given social situation (pragmatics); how language shapes and is shaped by social context (sociolinguistics); the acquisition and mental processing of language (psycholinguistics); language variation across space or between social groups (dialectology); and language variation through time (historical linguistics).

The knowledge native speakers have is mostly unconscious knowledge; they "know" how to use language, but they (usually) can’t tell you how or why they do what they do. The scientific description and explanation of this knowledge, as possessed by a language’s native users, is known broadly as descriptive grammar. In its folk sense, however, grammar often refers to prescriptive rules of usage that are, in fact, social rules, rather than linguistic rules. One example is the rule against using double negatives in English. Like most such rules, this one wrongly took language to be a logical (rather than patterned) system. Prescriptive rules sometimes try to make one language fit the patterns of another, more prestigious one (like the Latin-inspired rule against ending English sentences with prepositions). Still others attempt to impose social values on language, such as the English rules promoting man and he as “generic” forms.


Language, dialect, and idiolect

In another folk sense, language refers to any of a number of entities with labels like English or Tagalog. But these are really labels of convenience; what counts as English is contestable within a sociocultural context. The points at which language can be thought of as a natural object are (1) the linguistic knowledge possessed by individual persons (their idiolects); and (2) the property universal to the human species, human language. In between these extremes, entities such “English,” American English,” or “African American Vernacular English” are fuzzy categories that are socially and culturally defined and whose membership may expand or contract, depending on social and cultural consensus. They are all “dialects” since, at different levels, they all represent forms of language acquired and used across speech communities.

Since all people speak dialects, the reasons why particular forms of language get labeled languages and others dialects must be sought in the context in which they are embedded. The people who wield political, economic, and social control speak the "language"; non-elites speak a "dialect" of the language. As the old linguistic saying suggests, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”


Language as biology and culture

It seems clear that language is a part of the human biological endowment. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this can be found in the area of children's acquisition of language. All normal human children, everywhere, acquire the language of their social setting at about the same pace and in the same way. They do so without formal training, and they do so in social and cultural contexts that differ in terms of what kinds of linguistic interactions are supposed to be appropriate between parents/caregivers and infants. These differences do not seem to affect the rate or quality of children's acquisition of language; in a sense, children acquire language in much the same way as they acquire the skill of walking. However, children who are isolated, for some reason, from all forms of linguistic interaction do not acquire language, and if they reach puberty without exposure to language they may never be able to acquire more than a very rudimentary linguistic ability.


By the time they are around 3-4 years of age, children have mastered some of the most complex and subtle rules of their language, rules that no teacher of language could ever teach them. Of course, they still have lots of vocabulary to learn, as well as some of the pragmatic rules of language use in different social situations, and the literacy practices of their culture.


While the underlying shape of language is biological, any given language itself is a cultural artifact. The best way to illustrate this is to take the words for the domesticated animal that English speakers refer to as a dog. All languages have a word for this animal; no language has a word for "half-a-dog." This seems to result from a property of the human brain that guides our perception and representation of natural objects in the world, like dogs, which come to us in whole "packages" (other candidates might be rocks, trees, birds, and so on). At the same time, the words we find in different languages are as different as dog (English), perro (Spanish), anu (Aymara), kelb (Arabic), and sobáka (Russian). None of these words has a privileged connection to the animal itself. Each is an arbitrary but conventional answer to the problem of naming these familiar domesticated animals.


Apes and language

Investigators have made numerous attempts to teach our phylogenetically closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, to use language. Early efforts to teach them oral language were unsuccessful, due in part to the fact that their vocalization behavior is not under fully voluntary control. Beginning in the 1960s with the chimpanzee Washoe, some of these fellow hominids have shown that they can acquire and use a limited subset of a signed language, such as American Sign Language (ASL); they have also demonstrated some proficiency with other symbolic systems using computerized images or plastic tokens. Their linguistic capacity seems to limit them to a “two-word” or “telegraphic” use of the signs or tokens, although at least one bonobo (Pan paniscus) seems to understand some complex spoken English sentences.



In the formative years of anthropology, the study of language was at the core of ethnology done by researchers such as Boas, Kroeber, and others. Notions about language developed alongside the broader precept of cultural relativism, under which it was believed that languages, like cultures, could vary infinitely. It was also assumed that language acquisition was primarily a product of external forces. Noam Chomsky’s 1958 review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior challenged this view by amassing evidence that language acquisition is driven primarily by an innately provided universal grammar, and that enculturation fills in the surface details, determining whether a person acquires “Japanese” or “American Sign Language” or some other system. In order to account for the fact that human children can easily acquire, without formal teaching, whatever happens to be the language of their community, most of language must be innate and languages must be, at some level, far more alike than they are different. Some anthropologists resisted this approach to language, preferring instead to continue focusing on the features that make languages different from each other, in keeping with the broader interest in cultural differences over cultural universals.

Ronald Kephart

University of North Florida




Further reading and references:

Chomsky, Noam. 1986. Knowledge of Language. New York: Praeger.

Chomsky, Noam. 2000. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, David. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge University Press.

Foley, William A. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers.

Lieberman, Philip. 1984. The Biology and Evolution of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: W. Morrow and Company.

Sapir, Edward. ? [1921]. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.