Language is a form of communication between two or more individuals by means of a determined complex of sounds, gestures, symbols, and movements endowed with meaning, which define a language common to a specific environment of interaction.
Language is a complex physiological activity that requires, on the one hand, the integrity of the sensory pathways and, on the other hand, a high degree of cortical and neuro-muscular integration. In fact, for a correct verbal expression capacity we need the ability to hear sounds and understand their meaning, a fact that requires the integrity of the peripheral acoustic pathways up to the acoustic sensory area and the integrity of the psycho-acoustic area; the organization of the impulses transmitted along the auditory pathways; the conception and programming of the movements necessary to articulate words; these processes take place in the motor center of articulate language, or Broca’s center, located in the inferior frontal gyrus of the dominant cerebral hemisphere on the left in right-handed people, on the right in left-handed people; the verbal response according to which the movement program is sent to the motor cortex and then, after appropriate cerebellar corrections, transmitted to motor neurons that put in motion the muscles of all organs necessary for the correct expression of words (phonation, breathing, articulation, resonance).
Disorders of spoken verbal language are (particularly at the level of childhood) marked with the term dysphasia. We indicate with the name of dyslexia the disorder in the acquisition of reading, and dysorthography the disorder in the acquisition of writing. In these cases are often detectable brain lesions in the areas of the left hemisphere (in right-handed) deputies to language functions, but sometimes these lesions are not detectable (and we speak of minimal neurological deficits), so the causes of these disorders are not yet clear.
The ability to represent meaning through a code is present not only in humans, but in many species of animals, although human verbal language has characteristics that differentiate it greatly from that of the latter. Some contemporary authors define human language as a tool of thought, of which communication is only a non-essential accessory, and languages are considered as biological objects and not as tools designed by human beings.
Language is not, therefore, a human prerogative: even animal forms of communication are understood as “language”. For example, birds communicate by chirping, i.e. by emitting variously modulated sounds. Bees communicate through a special “dance” (the waggle dance). Monkeys use gestures and sounds. Dogs and some felines communicate through the emission of specific odors, body posture and sounds. Some fish and ants communicate through the emission of specific chemicals. In general, to refer to forms of communication between animals, it is called animal communication.
In common use, the term is sometimes confused with that of language, but language is the universal and immutable human faculty of expression that is realized and implemented in languages, always particular and variable; language is therefore a spiritual activity or enérgeia in respect to which the various languages are the practical implementation or érgon.
By making possible the objectification of a content of consciousness through phonic symbols aimed at the function of meaning, language appears as the symbolic expression par excellence, support of thought and tool of its communication. This is the grammatical or articulate language, typical and exclusive of man, from which it differs profoundly what is improperly called animal language, a simple code of signals that convey a global message not decomposable and analyzable into individual signifying units and these in turn into individual phonemes, as happens instead in the utterances expressed by human language.
The problem of the origins of language, long and widely studied also by psychologists, philosophers and sociologists, has not found so far a satisfactory solution, but has led to two diametrically opposed results: that of monogenesis and that of polygenesis of language.
The term “language” is used in psychology to refer primarily to verbal language, both spoken and written. However, some authors use this term to designate any communicative behavior, including nonverbal. As far as verbal language is concerned, psychological research has focused mainly on investigating language learning. In this regard, two opposing research directions have been outlined, the first of which belongs to behaviorism (and refers largely to linguistic structuralism, from de Saussure to Bloomfield); the second to cognitive psychology (and refers directly to generative grammars derived from the studies of N. Chomsky).
According to behaviorists, language is learned through a process of operant conditioning. Cognitivists, on the other hand, believe that there are innate structures in humans (Chomsky’s LAD, or language acquisition device) that differentiate them from all other animals, allowing them to learn verbal language as a species-specific feature.
In recent years have been carried out by several U.S. psychologists interesting experiments on chimpanzees, which have shown how these primates are able to learn verbal language to a large extent, with particular methods. So the Gardners have taught to the chimpanzee Washoe more than 180 words with the gestural alphabet of the dumb, and equally surprising results have been obtained with different techniques by Premack, Glazersfeld and others. However, these researches still do not allow to disprove the hypothesis that language is a specific human trait.
Important researches have also been carried out on the relationship, proved to be very close, between language and thought, even if psychologists are divided between those who believe (in the wake of the concepts of the Russian psychologist Vygotskij) that language is an indispensable premise to thought, and those who believe instead (as the Swiss psychologist Piaget) that thought develops independently and only later is detectable a mutual influence between these two functions.
Among non-verbal languages, meaning all forms of communication independent from the spoken or written word, we speak of mimicry, meaning the communication that takes place with the expression of the face, and gestural language, referring mainly to the movements of the body or some segments of it. However, other non-verbal languages have been studied, such as the direction of the gaze, the distance between people who interact, the reciprocal location (e.g. places at the table), the use of time (e.g. to make people wait), etc..
In ancient times, the pre-Socratic philosophy of nature focused its investigation mainly on the problem of the origin of language. Parmenides – and later his disciples -, dealing with the relationship between subject and predicate in relation to the knowledge of reality, highlighted the importance of language in the communication between men. Plato dedicated to language an entire dialogue (Cratylus). He argued that language is like a painting, an image of things, what manifests them: the truth is in things and not in language, which is a tool to know and takes objective nature only when it is formally correct in all its parts.
Aristotle investigated language from a logical and formal point of view, analyzing the relationship of language itself with knowledge; as far as its nature is concerned, he argued that it is a sound of the voice, significant precisely because it symbolizes the affections of the soul of man. Only in the Hellenistic age, thanks to Stoicism, the grammatical and syntactical study of language began. The later research moves on two positions: conventionality or naturalness of language. In the Middle Ages Dante, in De vulgari eloquentia, considers the word a sign of reality; Duns Scotus studies the relationship between thought and word.
The Renaissance introduces the aesthetic element in the problem and this remains even in the seventeenth century, however, alongside a practical character, so that the nature of language is extrapolated from the logical field and, freeing itself from intellectualism, arrives at the Vician conception of language as spontaneity.
In the nineteenth century the fundamental problem is given by the contrast between “logical uniqueness of language and multiplicity of languages”: A. A. Humboldt argued the existence of a fundamental language that is then diversified into various national languages. With idealism, language was identified with the expression and everything was resolved in aesthetics. With the rise of symbolic logic, formalized language was born.
Also in the nineteenth century, fundamental for the philosophy of language was the work of F. de Saussure for his analysis of the linguistic sign, definitely set on scientific basis. He breaks down the linguistic sign, while preserving the functional unity in the linguistic system itself, in two distinctly analyzable areas: the signifier, the acoustic image (ie the representation that we are given by our senses about what you want to call), and the meaning, to be identified with the concept. The link that unites these two faces of the sign is, according to de Saussure, completely arbitrary, thus resulting, in the same way, conventional the linguistic sign as a whole.
In more recent times, the problematic on language has been widening due to the confluence of other orientations of thought. One of its first moments can be considered the neo-positivism or logical positivism, which originated from the research on the relationship between philosophy and science, initiated between 1922 and 1925 by the circle of Vienna, which overlapped the influence of the logical analysis of mathematics conducted in the meantime by B. Russell and L. Wittgen. Russell and L. Wittgenstein in his Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921). The initial problem of the “verifiability” of the propositions on the “facts of experience”, raised by M. Schlick, becomes with O. Neurath a problem of language, because only in the context of language logical operations are performed and a verification of the propositions makes sense.
With R. Carnap finally science becomes “logical construction of the world” and philosophy is exhausted in the analysis of scientific language, which ends up assuming the character of a radical “formalism” with Logische Syntax der Sprache (1934; Logical syntax of language), because it is resolved in the pure analysis of symbols used without any reference to real data. From logical positivism can be distinguished, despite the close relations and affinities, the so-called “analytical philosophy”, by which the problem of language is extended from scientific language to ordinary language or rather to the variety of human languages. Reconnecting both to the teaching of G. E. Moore and to the reflections of the last Wittgenstein, the “analytic” philosophers attribute to the analysis of language a task of clarification that eliminates the obscurities, misunderstandings and confusions that are at the basis of false problems and facilitates the purely practical use of propositions.
Two representative thinkers of this address are the English A. Ayer and G. Ryle. At the same time, they appeared addresses and developments of thought that go beyond the purely formal analysis of language to deal with its significant function: Ch. Morris, University of Chicago, tries to build a general theory of signs or “semeiotics” (Foundations of the Theory of Signs, 1938, Foundations of a general theory of signs), in which emphasis is given to the pragmatic dimension of language and therefore to its psychological, sociological and pedagogical implications.
The analysis of meaning or semantics is also the object of Carnap’s further research (Introduction to Semantic, 1942). Research oriented in this direction can be considered, also in the United States, the general semantics of A. Korzybsky. The interest in the problem of language, intensifying, has not failed to communicate to other currents of thought (phenomenology, historical materialism, philosophical structuralism and hermeneutic current), giving rise to fruitful integrations and broadening of perspectives.