Any verbal or non-verbal communication engaged in by humans, animals, or even machines. The general field of study which deals with the socio-cultural functions and construction of language is known as sociolinguistics. Sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and psychologists all contribute to this area.
The ability of the human race to structure sentences out of essentially arbitrary words which are themselves constructed from individually meaningless sounds (phonemes) is sometimes thought to be the feature that most distinguishes it from other species. All societies have languages that allow humans to express ideas of equal complexity: there is no such thing as a ‘primitive’ language, although societies may need to borrow or invent new words, in order to express new concepts .
All human beings possess the ability to learn languages, although brain damage or severe retardation may affect certain areas of language competence. According to Noam Chomsky, children are born with an innate, biological programme that prepares them for how languages are structured. His first book, Syntactic Structures (1957), analysed three models of language, arguing that only the third and most complex, involving what he called transformational grammar, is capable of accounting for the infinite range of sentences contained in natural languages. In the same year, the psychologist B. F. Skinner published a study of the acquisition of language (Verbal Behaviour), which Chomsky reviewed. Skinner offered a behaviourist account of language acquisition that was incompatible with Chomsky's ideas about language. Against the behaviourist view that language was acquired through learning in early childhood, Chomsky convincingly argued, in a series of subsequent publications, that a child must be born with an innate linguistic competence-an innate knowledge of the structures of language. It was not possible, he contended, for young children to infer from the language to which they are exposed in the first years of life-its surface structure-the underlying rules or deep structure of language that is necessary to be able to use the language correctly (see especially Rules and Representations, 1980).
Others maintain that it is just the child's natural intelligence that enables it to learn the often very complicated rules and exceptions that structure all language systems. Small children, such as those of international parentage, often have the ability to learn more than one language system. There is fierce debate among linguists as to whether this bilingualism affects the child intellectually-although the basis for some arguments would appear to be more political than scholarly.
The political considerations of bilingualism is just one aspect of the relationship between language and culture . Languages in many ways reflect the culture of a society, hence the importance that anthropologists place on learning the local language, when studying other societies. For example, languages show how societies classify and evaluate their environment, including kinship relations, the animal kingdom, colours, food, and the natural world. Each society has its own distinctive system of classification which serves in part to maintain boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Mutual comprehension of the cultural as well as the linguistic significance of language used is therefore essential in order to avoid misunderstanding; the translation of culturally constructed concepts and ideas into terms comprehensible to members of another society is a major element of the work not only of anthropologists, but also cross-cultural specialists.
The power of language can be seen in political rhetoric or slogan-making, where single words (such as ‘democracy’) or phrases (such as ‘Black is Beautiful’) can mobilize large and diverse groups to political action. Language also demonstrates important divisions within societies that reflect broader political and economic factors. For example, Basil Bernstein has shown that, although middle-class and working-class speech codes are linguistically of equal validity, the working-class (or restricted) code is liable to be discriminated against in the educational arena. A similar phenomenon may be perceived in the relationship between language and regional, ethnic, or religious background. On the other hand, ethnic groups may utilize their languages as a symbolic means of fostering or developing their own self-identity, or as a means of defence against encroachment by outsiders (as, for example, in the case of Cockney rhyming slang or the rapping style of West Indian youth in Britain). See also conversation analysis ; elaborated and restricted speech codes ; ethnomethodology ; Sapir-Whorf hypothesis ; semiology ; structuralism ; Wittgenstein , Ludwig.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.


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