Language and Communication

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For the communication field, language can be understood as an organized system of symbols used for creating and transmitting meaning. Language involves the meaningful arrangement of sounds into words according to rules for their combination and appropriate usage. James Bradac (1999, p. 12) captured the multiplicity of conceptions of language when he noted three ways of defining it:

Language1: "[The] communicative agency[… that] allows speakers to accomplish routinized purposes (e.g., exchange greetings) and other purposes that are completely novel.… It is highly flexible and adaptable."

Language2: "[The] biologically based, hierarchical system studied by linguists. It has multiple levels, each complexly structured and interrelated with the others. The structures at each level can be represented by construction rules [… and] constitute part of the tacit knowledge of speakers."

Language3: "[A] collection of verbal features that are often influenced or even determined by environmental, physical, or psychological variables that are not under the conscious control of speakers.

A variety of aspects of language are studied in the communication field. These include consideration of the origins of language, language acquisition, phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, language and culture, language and diversity, and language and relationships.

Approaches to Language Study in the Communication Field

A variety of different methodological perspectives have been brought to bear on the study of language. Psycholinguists study the psychological principles that are involved in how language is processed and represented. Noam Chomsky's theory of transformational generative grammar emphasized cognitive aspects of language use, theorizing that linguistic competence (i.e., the ability to produce proper sentences in any language) is innate in all humans. This led linguists to study linguistic performance (i.e., actual sentences) in order to infer what may be going on in the brain. That is, the study of surface structure provides information about the deep structure of language.

Some scholars in the communication field take a cognitive approach to language, examining perceptions of and attitudes toward a speaker based on the language they use.

Sociolinguists in the communication field couple the social characteristics of communicators with features of how they communicate. One example of this is the search for a gender-linked language effect. That is, scholars have examined language to see if particular features of it can be tied to the gender of the speaker.

Other researchers employ a descriptive approach (i.e., ethnography of speaking) to examine how culture may influence different aspects of language use. "Discourse analysis" can be thought of as an umbrella term that refers to a range of different approaches, including speech act theory, interaction analysis, and critical approaches. Stephen Levinson (1983, p. 286) describes discourse analysis as "a series of attempts to extend the techniques so successful in linguistics beyond the unit of the sentence."

Harvey Sacks (1984) recognizes that the study of the language used in poetry, literature, and rhetoric often seems to be given priority over the study of the language used by individuals in their everyday talk. However, he makes the case that the language of everyday talk is in fact an immensely important field of study because it is the fundamental medium through which social life is enacted. It is for this reason that conversation analysts focus on the seemingly mundane talk that is used in everyday and institutional settings. Using videotapes and audiotapes (of conversations that would have happened whether or not they were taped) as data, conversation analysts describe in detail the practices that communicators use for enacting a wide range of activities in a variety of settings.

The Origins of Language

There is much speculation about the origins of language. Two theories exist regarding the evolution of language in humans. First, it is claimed by some that language was the result of a pivotal development in the human brain, at which point humans gained the capacity for language. Chomsky (1957) is an important proponent of this theory. Others suggest that language developed gradually as humans developed. It is thought by some, such as Philip Lieberman (1998), to be a result of the evolution of the brain, nervous system, and vocal cords. Regarding the character of language itself, some propose that language "expresses" the character of nature itself, in the manner that an onomatopoeic word such as "whoosh" captures the character of the sound it is designed to name. Others suggest that languages are largely conventionalized, with the relationship between the object and the word that names it being arbitrary. Animals also use symbolic forms of communication to signal one another. For example, bees may dance in a particular pattern to signal to other bees the location of a food source. The different songs of birds may have different meanings. The major difference between animal language and human language is that humans can create new messages for new situations, while animals cannot.

Language Acquisition

Most children have acquired spoken language by the time they are five years of age. This suggests that children are born with the neural prerequisites for language. On the basis of the fact that feral children (i.e., children who have grown up separated from any human contact) do not speak any sort of language when they are found, it has been suggested that social stimulation of language is essential. Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman (1993) have identified the following stages in language acquisition:

  1. Babbling Stage. At around six months of age, infants begin to babble. Many of the sounds they make resemble the sounds of human language. This babbling occurs in deaf children and in the hearing children of deaf parents who do not speak, so it is thought not to depend on auditory input. However, for language to develop, children appear to need either auditory input or sign language.
  2. Holophrastic Stage. At approximately one year of age, children begin to produce apparently meaningful words that often stand as "sentences." At first, these words may be used simply to label ("cheerio"), but as the children develop, these words may provide such communicative functions as asking flir things (e.g., indicating "I want a cheerio"). At this stage, words may also be used to convey emotion.
  3. Two-word Stage. At about twenty-four months of age, children may begin to produce two-word combinations. At first, these appear to be two holophrastic utterances— two isolated words produced together. Soon though, children begin to produce the appropriate intonation contours for the two words to be heard as a grammatically and semantically connected "sentence."
  4. Telegraphic Speech. As children continue to mature, they begin to build strings of words that may be longer than three words. The name for this type of speech comes from the fact that the strings are often missing such "function" words as "to," "the," "is," and "can."

There are various theories about how children acquire language. Some suggest that it is acquired through imitation. Others suggest that it is acquired through positive reinforcement (i.e., acceptance of "correct" sentences and "correction" of incorrect ones). Children appear to acquire the rules of grammar in stages that become increasingly complex. The mechanism that enables this process is thought to be a process of generalizing or overgeneralizing grammatical rules ranging from simple to complex.

Language is made up of various components. These have been studied under the rubrics of phonetics, phonemics, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.


Phonetics is the study of the sounds of language. This involves determining the discrete sounds that can be made in a language and assigning a symbol to each sound. The International Phonetic Alphabet is a compilation of symbols that represent the sounds that are made in all languages. For each language, the collection of sounds that are unique to that language can be represented by symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet. Sounds may be distinguished according to how they are made—which airstream mechanisms are used and whether the sounds are voiced, voiceless, nasal, oral, labial, alveolar, palatal, velar, uvular, glottal, and so on. Pitch, tone, intonation, and stress are also important features of phonetics.


Phonology is the study of the sound patterns that are found in language. It may also be used to refer to a speaker's knowledge of the sound patterns in their specific language. While humans can make an almost infinitely wide variety of spoken sounds, the regularity of the sounds that are made in a given language represent some agreement as to which sounds are meaningful in a consistent way. Fromkin and Rodman (1993, p. 35) point out that "[phonetics] provides the means for describing speech sounds; phonology studies the ways in which speech sounds form systems and patterns in human language." It is on the basis of phonological knowledge that individuals are able to produce sounds that form meaningful utterances, recognize foreign accents, make up new words, and so on. Individuals recognize different sounds on the basis of their difference from other sounds. For example, the words "pill" and "bill" are distinguished by the difference between "p" and "b," making them "distinctive" sounds in English. Distinctive sounds are phonemes, and pairs of words of this sort are minimal pairs. Studying phonology involves laying out the sets of minimal pairs that make up a language, or the phonological rules that make different sounds meaningfully discriminated.


The basic unit of grammar is the morpheme. A morpheme is a minimal linguistic sign: "a phonological form which is arbitrarily united with a particular meaning and which cannot be analyzed into simpler elements" (Fromkin and Rodman, 1993, p. 114). Thus, the word "lady" consists of one morpheme, while the word "ladylike" consists of two—"lady" and "-like". In order for language to be used for communication, though, morphemes must be organized in a particular order. Strings of morphemes are organized according to the rules of grammar (i.e., syntactic rules). The grammar of English, for example, results in "The car drove on the street" having a different meaning from "The street drove on the car." The placement of a word in a sentence influences whether it is understood as the subject or object of the sentence. The study of syntax involves laying out the grammatical structures that are meaningful and permissible in a given language (i.e., the phrase-structure rules).


While the phrase "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is grammatical, it is conventionally contradictory and meaningless. This suggests that knowing the syntactic rules of a language is not sufficient. It is also necessary to know how meaning works. The study of meaning is complex. On the one hand, a "dictionary" approach to meaning suggests that all words have objective definitions. This approach, structural semantics, is based in formal logic. In contrast, lexical semantics is concerned with explaining "how people understand words and what cognitive processes interact with this understanding to produce meaningful communication" (Ellis, 1999, p. 60).


Even with an understanding of syntax and semantics, the crucial feature of language is its appropriate use. The distinction between the abstract knowledge of language and its actual use is captured in the distinction that Ferdinand de Saussure (1960) drew between langue (i.e., the formal language) and parole (i.e., the actual use of language to communicate). In order to be able to use language competently, communicators must have knowledge of the norms for appropriate usage.

As Levinson (1983) points out, delineating the parameters of the field of pragmatics is complex. The term is used in many different ways. Examining notions of language structure without considering the context in which it is used may result in a compelling formal study with little practical application. Pragmatics attempts to explain language in use. This involves coming to an understanding of the complex concept of context. Teun Van Dijk (1997, p. 11) suggests that context is what "we need to know about in order to properly understand the event, action or discourse." Karen Tracy (1996) shows that context is a complicated, illusive phenomenon. Paul Drew and John Heritage (1992) point out that people tend to think of context as a "bucket" in which things take place. Those things are often taken to be shaped by the bucket. Heritage (1984) has also demonstrated that while context may shape communication, communication often shapes context, providing for a reciprocal relationship in which talk is both context shaped and context renewing.

Other aspects of pragmatics that have received extensive scholarly attention include speech acts. This theory, described by J. L. Austin (1962), asserts that language is performative rather than being merely constative or descriptive. That is, when individuals use language, they do so in order to perform an action, not merely to describe some state of affairs. Thus, when the Queen says "I name this ship…," she is actually performing the action of naming the ship. John Searle (1969, 1975) elaborated on Austin's Speech Act Theory, explaining some of the felicity conditions that must pertain for an utterance to have illocutionary force, or social and communicative purpose. Furthermore, utterances may have perlocutionary force if the attempted action of the speech act is accomplished. Saying "Pass the salt" has the illocutionary force of a directive. If interactants are in a situation where this can actually be done, and the salt is passed, the utterance has perlocutionary force. Indirect speech acts involve saying, for example, "It's cold in here" as a way of requesting that the door or window be closed. Conversation analysts have discussed utterances of this kind as the first turn in a presequence—an exchange that is designed to precede some other action. This view that language is active in the social world comes together with Ludwig Wittgenstein's (1953) theories about language consisting of language games (i.e., the regular ways in which individuals use language to perform activities in everyday life). This active view of language feeds into social constructionist theory, which suggests that much of the social life of individuals—their selves, relationships, and even cultures—are constructed through language and communication.

Another aspect of pragmatics addresses the question of how people are able to understand what a person may be doing with specific utterances. H. Paul Grice proposed the following cooperative principle: "Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged" (Grice, 1976, p. 45). This involves four aspects that Grice formulated as "maxims":

  1. Quantity: A contribution should be just enough, not too much and not too little.
  2. Quality: A contribution should be true.
  3. Relation: A contribution should be relevant.
  4. Manner: A contribution should be brief, orderly, and not ambiguous, overly verbose, or obscure.

Grice suggested that individuals attempt to understand talk according to this principle and these maxims. Even if an utterance appears to be elliptical or obscure, an individual will try to understand it, but with the assumption that something "special" is going on. That is, an individual will make assumptions beyond the semantic content of the utterance. These assumptions are referred to as "conversational implicature," which Donald Ellis (1999, p. 78) defines as "an interpretive procedure that operates to figure out what is going on." Levinson (1983, p. 102) gives the following example:

A: Where's Bill?

B: There's a yellow VW outside Sue's house.

The semantic content of B's utterance would suggest a failure in cooperation. Yet interpreting the utterance at a deeper level, assuming that it is in fact cooperative, an individual might come to the conclusion that there is a connection between where Bill is and where the yellow VW is. Therefore, the answer to A's question, if Bill has a yellow VW, is that he is likely to be found at Sue's house. Thus, inference is used to preserve the assumption of cooperation. This is the process referred to as "conversational implicature."

Discussion of pragmatics indicates that its concern with competent use of language as a means of doing action in the social world makes it a central concern for communication.

Language and Culture

Culture and language are thought to be intimately connected. As with theories of context, there is debate regarding whether culture shapes language or language shapes culture. Language use is widely thought to be strongly related to culture. Sociolinguists and ethnographers of language and communication have devoted significant attention to the interplay between language and communication. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that language shapes the thinking of individuals to the extent that it constrains the kinds of thoughts and ideas people can have (linguistic determinism). Furthermore, a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis takes the position that because different cultures have different grammatical and lexical structures (i.e., use different languages), it is virtually impossible for members of different cultures to understand one another fully (linguistic relativity). Other researchers have shown that culture may play an important role in shaping norms of conduct. For example, Gerry Philipsen (1975) showed that, in certain social circles in a working class neighborhood in a large industrial town, speaking instead of using one's fists was considered a sign of weakness. Thus, it seems that language and culture are mutually elaborating. A study of one may increase the understanding of the other.

Language and Diversity

Communication scholars have given extensive attention to linguistic markers and their effect on how people are perceived. Linguistic markers are those features of speech that are taken as an indicator of a person's social identity. For example, Robin Lakoff (1975) suggested a number of features that some take to characterize women's speech. This includes markers of uncertainty, such as tag questions (ending an utterance with "isn't it?," "don't you think?," and so on), qualifiers (such as "maybe," "perhaps"), disclaimers (such as "I may be wrong but"), hypercorrection (using "correct" features of speech rather than colloquial usages), and use of a wide range of color words (such as "chartreuse," "aqua"), instead of standard primary color words (such as "red," "green"). Lakoff suggested that these usages may result in women being perceived as powerless speakers in contrast to men. Here, Lakoff connected specifics of language use with social power. Subsequent research has struggled to document the claim that men and women speak differently, but the researchers have had very varied degrees of success. Some suggest that it is stereotypes and prejudice that cause men and women to be seen differently. It has been proposed that use of sexist language may reinforce negative stereotypes of women. For example, certain usages may have the effect of making women invisible. When a woman marries and takes her husband's name, the change from "Miss Jane Smith" to "Mrs. Michael Jones" may have the effect of making her invisible. Use of generic terms such as "man" and "he" (which has declined significantly since the 1970s) may also have the effect of making women invisible.

Other research has asked similar questions with respect to whether certain cultures are marked by particular ways of talking and whether certain social groups are perceived more positively than others.

Language and Relationships

It has been suggested that different stages in the development of relationships are marked by distinct ways of talking. However, there is debate regarding whether being at a particular stage of a relationship produces a particular way of talking or whether talk constructs relationships. Work on linguistic idioms suggests that couples may use "private language" in public and in private as a way of both displaying and creating special integration or "togetherness."


Clearly, language is a highly complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. Understanding its various aspects may enable communicators to go beyond stereotypes that are often unwittingly based in unspoken attitudes that individuals may hold about language. Recognizing the various components of language (i.e., phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) may help communicators to understand not just the complexity of language, but also its orderliness. Understanding semantics helps communicators see that there is a shared responsibility between interlocutors for meaning making; it is not simply a matter of one participant speaking clearly. Pragmatics elucidates the fact that appropriate use of language can be thought of as a rule-bound activity, where rules may apply differently in different situations. Its rule-bound character means that rules can be learned and applied in new settings. Finally, understanding that using language is a way of doing actions, rather than merely describing the world, demonstrates that language can be a form of political action. For example, using sexist and racist language may do more than reflect a person's views; it may actively engage in creating or perpetuating sexism and racism. The study of language brings to light features of a system that is a key part of the basic currency of human collective life but that is often overlooked precisely because it is so basic.

See also:Animal Communication; Gender and the Media; Intercultural Communication, Adaptation and; Intercultural Communication, Interethnic Relations and; Interpersonal Communication; Interpersonal Communication, Conversation and; Language Acquisition; Language Structure;Nonverbal Communication; Sociolinguistics; Symbols; Wittgenstein, Ludwig.


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Jenny Mandelbaum

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Language and Communication

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