What is a language?

What Does Idiom Mean

We explain what a language is, why it is a social fact and various examples. Also, differences with dialects and with the language.

Languages are in a constant process of change.

What is a language?

A language or language is the linguistic code used by a people or a nation to communicate , and which reflects in some way its cultural history and its conception of the world. That is, language is a specific way of associating certain real referents (concrete like a stone, and abstract like ideas) to a linguistic sign (to a fixed and established series of sounds ) that is shared by a group or a human community .


As far as we know, the ability to build languages is unique to human beings . The animals are able to communicate, of course, but not to build linguistic signs which represent reality .

For example, one dog may growl at another to warn it that it is ready to defend itself, but it cannot associate a different growl for each specific reason it wants the other to stay away, nor can it teach that code to other dogs and establish a behavior. common.

Seen this way, every language is a social fact: it is necessarily shared by a group of speakers , who learn this code at an early age and materialize it in a specific speech , that is, in a specific way of speaking it. Thus, the different ways of speaking the same language are known as dialects. Languages without speakers are called "dead languages."

There are around 7,000 different languages in the world , despite the fact that many have been lost throughout history . According to what was established by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), father of structural linguistics , since every language is a social and mental code established by convention and tradition , it is always in a constant process of change and modification.

Thus, with the passage of time new words are created, old ones are discarded, new twists and ways of use are incorporated, dialects arise and disappear, and even, in the long run, entire languages are born and die.

That is why specialists classify existing and past languages according to their origin and their formal or structural tendencies, in a set of families over time. For example, Romance languages are descendants of Latin, and have certain similarities in form and substance.

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Languages and dialects

Since language is a code, a mental pattern of pronunciation and association of referents, it exists only in our heads, that is, language is an abstract, mental model, inseparable from thought itself. On the other hand, their forms of materialization, that is, their forms of enunciation and pronunciation, can be very different, without thereby breaking the language's own system of rules.

Each of the specific forms of materialization of a language is a dialect , especially when the variation occurs in geographically remote communities. For example, the Spanish language has different realizations: peninsular Spanish spoken only in Spain, River Plate Spanish spoken in Argentina and Uruguay, Caribbean Spanish with its Canarian and African influences, and so on.

On the other hand, when the variation occurs within the same society , but in different social strata, it is called sociolect . That is, speakers from the lower strata of society tend to use the language in a different way from that of the middle and upper classes.

We must note, however, that in order to speak of dialect or sociolect we must be in the presence of different manifestations of the same language, and not of two different languages, although one presents dominance (for political or historical reasons) over the other. Basque, Galician and Catalan, for example, are not dialects of Spanish, but languages with a totally independent history.

Sometimes the dialects can differ so much from each other that they become mutually incomprehensible, as in Italy with regional dialects. If the dialects of a language continue in a historical trajectory that differentiates them more and more, with the passage of time they can become different languages , as happened with the Latin of antiquity, whose dialects became independent languages.

Differences between language and language

In principle, the terms language and language are synonymous , that is, they mean exactly the same thing. However, they can present a certain margin of distance in terms of their use: the first of both is usually preferred in academic discourses, especially in the area of linguistics, and was the one chosen by Saussure to establish his classic dichotomy (that is, a pair of complementary opposites) of language / speech.

On the other hand, the term language has greater political connotations , and for this reason it is usually preferred in nationalist speeches or in political debates, and is often used when referring to traditional national values .

Language examples

It is not difficult to think of language examples, such as:

  • English (British and American).
  • Spanish (peninsular and Latin American).
  • Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese and their other varieties).
  • Russian .
  • French .
  • German .
  • Italian .
  • Greek .
  • Arab .
  • Swedish .
  • Armenian .
  • Polish .
  • Nahuatl .
  • Quechua .
  • Basque .
  • Hausa .
  • Catalan .
  • Hungarian .
  • Serbian .
  • Czech .
  • Xhosa .
  • Swahili .
  • Maya .
  • Scottish Gaelic .
  • No .
  • Japanese .
  • Norwegian .
  • Romanian .
  • Bulgarian .

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