Design features of language

November 27, 2007

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Language is a complex skill that allows people to communicate an enormous number of messages using arbitrary symbols. Although some would argue that the use of language is central to defining humanity, the term “language” itself can be somewhat difficult to define.

Linguistic theorist Charles Hockett described sixteen design characteristics which he believed were central to human language. Some of the more important characteristics are displacement, arbitrariness, semanticity, and productivity.

Displacement is the ability to use language to discuss things removed in space and time (for instance, you could talk about events that happened last month in Finland).

Arbitraryness refers to the symbolic nature of language. The sounds, symbols, or signs we use to represent ideas or objects are completely arbitrary (for instance, the word “dog” doesn’t sound like a dog or look like a dog when written, it just represents a dog).

Semanticity is the meaning we then assign to these arbitrary symbols. Words and pictures have shared meaning that communicate ideas between people.

Productivity describes the creativity of language. We can create and understand a vast number of unique sentences because we can combine and recombine words using an agreed upon system of rules. For example, “the dog is melting quietly in the boardroom” is a weird statement, but since it’s structured as a sentence its meaning is clearly understood. If asked, most people would be able to describe exactly what it is the dog is doing.

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