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What Is a Language?

As users of a language, native speakers know a lot more than they think they do about it. Look at this example:

*Bill handed the Kim to book.

Any native English speaker–whether seven years old or seventy-seven, and of any variety–can tell you that this is an ungrammatical sentence. We automatically understand who the people are in the sentence (due in part to our familiarity with the proper nouns Kim and Bill), we know the event was in the past; we understand the book to be a direct object, and we know that the phrase “the book” cannot be separated by the indirect object (Kim) or a preposition (to). This kind of knowledge is in the mind of any speaker of any language. So how do we know so much?

The only things that children need to absorb a complete grammar of any language is exposure to the language and participation in social situations that make use of it (Tallerman 2015). With these, over the course of the first few years of their lives, young humans develop a wide lexicon, an understanding of all of a language’s syntactic rules, and a grasp of verbal morphology (if it seems like children are way better at learning language than adults, keep in mind the thousands of hours kids have at their disposal to learn language in their early years).  But as with any scientific discipline, there are two ways of looking at language: through a “folk” lens (the name given to common, or lay, theories of things) and through a scientific lens.

The difference between the two is significant, though it may not look like it at first. A basic–and deceptively complex–question that gets different answers from the two vantage points is, what is a language?

where language lives

It’s tempting to think of language as existing as an entity all its own, a stand-alone thing that doesn’t depend on anything else to tell it how to function or what to look like. We think of “Arabic” or “Welsh” or “English”. We say that each language has a set of rules, and that the rules must be followed in order to use the language correctly. We have dictionaries and grammar references, and even foreign-language materials for non-native speakers.

But the reality is that language does not exist all alone, and it isn’t created by the resources we use to understand it. These things–rules, dictionaries, how-tos–are simply reflections of language. Language has its seat in the mind, and not just one mind, but in many, many minds. We create language, and as a group, native speakers decide what stays and what goes. We decide what’s right and wrong, and we get rid of old forms (radical dude) and institute new ones (‘kay). This is what we find when we look at language linguistically: language is not “top-down,” where some mass of rules exists somewhere and we have to find them and learn them; language is “bottom-up,” where the individual usages of everyday life get mixed together, and a complex structure comes out the other side.

As Preston (2010) discusses, it is likely this folk theory of language as an “extra-cognitive reality” that causes negative evaluations of and discriminations against language varieties. Imagining that language is a “thing” that has obvious boundaries and set rules can lead someone to just not get why a speaker of a non-standard variety can’t “do it right”. If you believe that Standard American English (or UK Standard English) is the only correct English, then you will judge other varieties and their speakers (they go together, as I pointed out here) as somehow inferior. Realizing that the reality of a language lies in the minds of its speakers can help us see that different varieties are correct according to their own grammars; we come to understand that language is what we make it. We don’t do what language tells us to–language becomes what we decide. Hopefully, understanding that will help us understand one another too.



Preston, Dennis R. 2010. Language with an attitude. In Miriam Meyerhoff and Erik Schleef (eds.), The Routledge Sociolinguistics Reader, pp.112-131. New York: Routledge.

Tallerman, Maggie 2015. Understanding Syntax. New York: Routledge.

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