language

Introduction

language, systematic communication by vocal symbols. It is a universal characteristic of the human species. Nothing is known of its origin, although scientists have identified a gene that clearly contributes to the human ability to use language. Scientists generally hold that it has been so long in use that the length of time writing is known to have existed (7,900 years at most) is short by comparison. Just as languages spoken now by peoples of the simplest cultures are as subtle and as intricate as those of the peoples of more complex civilizations, similarly the forms of languages known (or hypothetically reconstructed) from the earliest records show no trace of being more "primitive" than their modern forms.

Because language is a cultural system, individual languages may classify objects and ideas in completely different fashions. For example, the sex or age of the speaker may determine the use of certain grammatical forms or avoidance of taboo words. Many languages divide the color spectrum into completely different and unequal units of color. Terms of address may vary according to the age, sex, and status of speaker and hearer. Linguists also distinguish between registers, i.e., activities (such as a religious service or an athletic contest) with a characteristic vocabulary and level of diction.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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