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Language and Languages. a report by Eva- Maria Nunnemann. Questions. What is „language“? What is „a language“? How many languages are there?. Question 1: What is „language“?. The word or concept „language“ is used quite regularly in daily conversation

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Language and languages

Language and Languages

a report by

Eva- Maria Nunnemann


  • What is „language“?

  • What is „a language“?

  • How many languages are there?

Question 1 what is language
Question 1: What is „language“?

  • The word or concept „language“ is used quite regularly in daily conversation

  • And we actually use language everday to communicate

  • →from this we might conclude that everybody knows what „language“ is

Question 1 what is language1
Question 1: What is „language“?

  • Everybody has a certain notion of what „language“ is

  • → BUT: to find an exact and exhaustive definition of „language“ is very difficult

    In the literature you find a diversity of definitions but none covers all the different aspects of language !

Definitions of language
Definitions of „language“

  • „a language is a system of signals including voice sounds, gestures or written symbols which encodes and decodes information.“

  • (

Definitions of language1
Definitions of „language“

  • „Von jetzt ab werde ich unter einer Sprache eine (endliche oder unendliche) Menge von Sätzen verstehen, jeder endlich in seiner Länge und konstruiert aus einer endlichen Menge von Elementen.“

  • (Chomsky, 1973)

Definitions of language2
Definitions of „language“

  • „Sprache ist eine ausschließlich dem Menschen eigene, nicht im Instinkt wurzelnde Methode zur Übermittlung von Gedanken, Gefühlen und Wünschen mittels eines Systems von frei geschaffenen Symbolen.“

  • (Sapir, 1969)

Question 1 conclusion
Question 1: Conclusion

  • These few quotations have already shown how diverse the definitions are

  • There is no ultimate definition of „language“

  • The diversity of understandings of language are reflected in the discipline which studies it

Question 1 conclusion1
Question 1: Conclusion

  • Linguistics is a very wide field

    • theoretical linguistics (semantics, pragmatics, syntax, etc.)

    • applied linguistics (psycholinguistics, computational linguistics etc.)

Question 1 conclusion2
Question 1: Conclusion

  • Besides all the diversity in the definitions of „language“ there was one feature mentioned in all of them

  • →language is a form of communication based on signals

Question 1 conclusion3
Question 1: Conclusion

  • Most of the signals are of symbolic nature

  • They are abitrary

  • The signals gain their meaning through convention

  • Important dimensions: interpretation, denotation and the relation between the symbols

Question 2 what is a language
Question 2: What is „a language“?

  • Everybody has a certain notion of what „ a language“ is

  • And everybody is able to name „a language“ when asked (→questionnaire)

  • But: most people immediately thought of the so- called natural languages (i. e. English, German,…)

Question 2 what is a language1
Question 2: What is „a language“?

  • Different types of languages:

    • Natural languages

    • Constructed languages

Natural and constructed languages
Natural and Constructed Languages

Natural languages:

Spoken and signed by humans for general-purpose communication

Linguistically: the term only applies to languages that have evolved naturally

The study primarily involves native speakers

Also non-standart language varieties (African American Vernacular English) are natural languages

Examples: English, German, French, Finnish…

Natural and constructed languages1
Natural and Constructed Languages

  • Constructed languages:

    • A language of which the grammar, phonology and/or the vocabulary have been specially devised by an individual or a small group

    • Does not have evolved naturally as part of a culture

    • Some languages are created for the use in human communication

      • Example: as „international auxiliary language“ like Esperanto

Natural and constructed languages2
Natural and Constructed Languages

  • Some were created for the use in fiction, linguistic experimentation, secret (as codes), or for the experience of doing so (as language games)

  • Constructed languages can be further divided

Natural and constructed languages3
Natural and Constructed Languages

  • Engineered languages:

    • Philosophical and logical languages devised for the use in logic or philosophy

  • Auxiliary languages:

    • Devised for international communication

  • Artistic languages:

    • Devised to create aesthetic pleasure

    • Example: J. R. R. Tolkien‘s elven languages like Quenya and Sindarin

Natural and constructed languages4
Natural and Constructed Languages

  • Formal languages:

    • Several arguments that they belong to the engineered languages

    • Can be defined as artificial entities used by mathematics and computer science

    • Include programming languages (like c-shell) and markup- languages (like HTML)

    • Often take the form of character strings, produced by some combination of formal grammar and semantics of abitrary complexity

Question 2 conclusion
Question 2: Conclusion

  • This short overview of the different types of languages gave an impression that more languages exist than just the so- called natural ones

Question 3 how many languages are there
Question 3: How many languages are there?

  • Worldwide there are about 6500 different languages (here: natural languages)

  • 1/3 (about 2000) will die out in the next few decades

  • About 2/3 (4000) will (concerning to careful scientific estimation) die out in the next century

Question 3 how many languages are there1
Question 3: How many languages are there?

  • Most languages in the world are spoken by small language communities

  • The 40 biggest languages are spoken by about 75% of the world‘s population

  • The other about 6460 languages are only spoken by 25% of the world‘s population


  • Müller, Horst M. (2002). Arbeitsbuch

    Linguistik. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh.

  • Bielefelder Linguistik (1997). Linguistik. Die

    Bielefelder Sicht. Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag.