On Wed, 18 Jul 2007 09:00:16 -0400, John Crowe wrote:

> What is your favorite definition? It's hard to find even a mediocre one (but
> I can't come up with a satisfactory answer myself). "means of communication"
> is just too lacking. Here are a few from online dictionaries:
> 1 a : the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used
> and understood by a community b  (1) : audible, articulate, meaningful sound
> as produced by the action of the vocal organs

That I would define as "speech".  Speech is the primary medium for
language (at least as far as most human languages go), but on one hand,
language can have other manifestations (such as writing, or signed
languages), on the other, you can utter meaningless syllables and
thus get speech without language.

>       (2) : a systematic means of
> communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs,
> sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings

This is a good definition, I think.  Language serves to communicate
ideas and feelings; and its signs are conventional and arbitrary
rather than iconic.  What is missing in this definition is that the
set of smallest meaningful units ("morphemes") is finite, discrete
but open, and that languages use a yet smaller, closed set of in itself
meaningless but meaning-distinguishing units ("phonemes") to build up
morphemes.  But these amendments are more or less corrollaries of the

>       (3) : the suggestion
> by objects, actions, or conditions of associated ideas or feelings <language
> in their very gesture -- Shakespeare>  (4) : the means by which animals
> communicate

These are too general to capture the meaning of "language" in a
linguistic sense.  Sure, we talk about "animal languages" and
"language of flowers" and similar things for various non-linguistic
means of communication in colloquial parlance, but that's more a
metaphorical extension of the term "language".

>       (5) : a formal system of signs and symbols (as FORTRAN or a
> calculus in logic) including rules for the formation and transformation of
> admissible expressions

That's a "formal language".  Most formal languages aren't languages
in the linguistic sense of the word.

>       (6) :
> a system of communication with its own set of conventions or special words
> a systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional 

I have the feeling that this definition is too weak.

On Wed, 18 Jul 2007 15:35:44 -0400, [log in to unmask] wrote:

> > [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of David Peterson
> > The definition I've heard is as follows:
> >
> > A system of communication used by a community that is creative and
> > recursive.
> This may not be a popular thing to say here, but I don't consider most
> conlangs to be "languages".  I consider them to be plans or blueprints
> for languages, and then become languages when they come to life
> through usage.  Until then, they are just concepts.  The "community"
> may only be two people, but there does need to at least be a speaker
> and a listener.

Such distinctions are made in interlinguistics (the study of
auxlangs).  In a German book on the subject (_Internationale
Plansprachen_ by Detlev Blanke), I found a distinction between

1. "Plansprachenprojekte": constructed language projects that
   do not have a community of speakers;

2. "Semiplansprachen": constructed language projects that have
   a small community of speakers, but are not (yet) significant
   for international communication;

3. "Plansprachen": constructed language projects with a sizeable
   international speaker community.

Blanke considers Esperanto the only "Plansprache" in the world;
languages such as Ido or Lojban (or Klingon) would be
"Semiplansprachen", while most conlangs are merely
"Plansprachenprojekte" - many not even that because they are
too incomplete to actually use them.

On Thu, 19 Jul 2007 08:23:10 +0100, R A Brown wrote:

> Would (2) include the dance by bees returning to the hive which 
> indicates where a good source of nectar-bearing plants may be found?

I think not.  It doesn't convey the vast world of ideas and
feelings.  Bees can't dance about the things humans talk about,
they can only dance about the direction and distance in which
a food source is found.  Also, bee dancing is an iconic system
- the angle between the direction of the food source and the
direction from which the sun shines is mirrored in the angle
at which the bee dances, etc.

> (5) is surely a definition of _formal language_, how far it is 
> applicable to natural languages is, I think, a matter of some 
> considerable debate.

The application of formal language theory to natural languages
is, to my knowledge, not a great success story.  It is fundamental
to the design and implementation of programming languages and
similar systems, however.

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