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Theories of Language Description. Wasim Hasan Lecturer in English MS Applied Linguistics M.A. English (Linguistics & Literature) PGD in Computer Sciences PGD in Linguistics. Theory?. abstract knowledge or reasoning

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Theories of language description

Theories of Language Description

Wasim Hasan

Lecturer in English

MS Applied Linguistics

M.A. English (Linguistics & Literature)

PGD in Computer Sciences

PGD in Linguistics

Wasim Hasan


  • abstract knowledge or reasoning

  • A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the thing to be...: "Darwin's theory of evolution"

  • A set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based: “a theory of education, music theory”.

  • A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena.

Wasim Hasan

Four senses of theory
Four Senses of “Theory”

  • Sense 1: Theory is often used in the sense 'descriptive framework', for a sophisticated metalanguage for describing languages. Some of these frameworks have theory in their name. e.g. Government-Binding Theory, Optimality Theory, Basic Linguistic Theory).

  • Sense 2: A theory is sometimes understood as an abstract model or description of a complex empirical domain. Thus, one can say that a description of English is a theory of the competence of an English speaker

Wasim Hasan

Four senses of theory1
Four Senses of “Theory”

  • Sense 3: A theory can be a set of coherent hypotheses or claims about a particular phenomenon, e.g. a theory of what caused dinosaurs to die out, or a particular theory of restrictions on wh-movement.

  • Sense 4: Term theory can be used in a loose sense, referring to theoretical (non-applied) scientific work, or “theorizing”. It is in this sense that usage-based theory.

Wasim Hasan


  • characterization of grammatical regularities of particular languages.

    • Linguists should strive not only to describe the rules in such a way that speakers’ behaviour can be predicted accurately (phenomenological description in Haspelmath's 2004 terms), but they should also strive to describe languages in such a way that the description reflects the speakers’ internal generalizations correctly (cognitive description, or descriptive adequacy in Chomsky's terms)

Wasim Hasan

Language general concept
Language? (General concept)

  • Any code employing signs, symbols, or gestures used for communicating ideas meaningfully between human beings.

    • Social tool to communicate meanings, feelings, and intentions.

    • Language comprises of receptive skills (understanding) and expressive skills (use) and includes both written and oral forms.

Wasim Hasan

Language by linguists
Language? (by Linguists)

  • Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbol.

    Edward Sapir (1921:8)

  • A language is a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements.

    Noam Chomsky (1957:13)

Wasim Hasan

Language by linguists1
Language? (by Linguists)

  • Language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group communicates.

    Bloch and Trager (1942: 5)

  • Language is the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory arbitrary symbols.

    Hall (1968: 158)

Wasim Hasan

Language by linguists2
Language? (by Linguists)

  • A language is a system of meaning- a semiotic system

    Michael Halliday (2003)

  • Points to remember:

    • “speech breaks silence to say something; however, silence can say more than speech”.

    • “Word is spoken to that who does not understand”.

Wasim Hasan

Characteristics of language
Characteristics of Language

  • Vocal Auditory System

  • Language is Systematic

  • Language is Symbolic

  • Arbitrariness

  • Duality

  • Structure Dependence

  • Displacement

  • Specialization

  • Cultural Transmission

  • Semanticity

  • Discreteness

  • Productivity

Wasim Hasan

1 vocal auditory system
1. Vocal Auditory System

  • The vast majority of human languages occur in the vocal-auditory channel as their basic mode of expression. Writing is a secondary, and somewhat marginal form of language, while sign languages are in limited use, mostly among deaf people who are limited in their ability to use the auditory part of the vocal-auditory channel.

  • The primary medium of language is sound. No matter how well developed are their writing systems, all languages use sounds.

Wasim Hasan

1 vocal auditory system1
1. Vocal Auditory System

  • Generally speaking, there are five major reasons for claiming that language is primarily vocal.

    • Children learn to speak before they learn to read and write.

    • Children automatically learn a language as they grow up.

    • The spoken form came earlier than the written in human history.

    • Writing is based on speech.

    • People use spoken language more often than writing.

Wasim Hasan

2 language is systematic
2. Language is Systematic

  • Each human language is organized into two basic systems: a system of sounds and a system of meanings.

  • Sounds are units which combine to make words or parts of words, like bed, reason, un- and -tion. These units will enter in systematic ways into various combinations to form larger meaningful sequences, like complex words, phrases, or sentences.

  • Different sequences of sounds have difference in meaning.

Wasim Hasan

2 language is systematic1
2. Language is Systematic

  • Language is governed by rules that define which combinations of elements are acceptable and which are not. There are also rules that govern the combination of primary level units. For example:

    • the first snow of winter (appropriate)

    • snow winter first the of (inappropriate)

Wasim Hasan

3 language is symbolic
3. Language is Symbolic

  • There is no or little connection between the sounds that people use and the objects to which these sounds refer. Words are associated with objects, actions and ideas by social convention.

  • Without the symbolic signs of language, we can not talk about anything as we like.

Wasim Hasan

3 language is symbolic1
3. Language is Symbolic

  • Signs are ubiquitous in human society. To study language, we need to find out the location of language in sign systems and understand, among other things, the relationship between an object and the sign that stands for the object. Signs can be categorized into three major types.

    • Icon

    • Index

    • symbol

Wasim Hasan

3 language is symbolic2
3. Language is Symbolic

  • Icon: an object and its sign are related to each other by a physical resemblance.

  • Index: an object and its sign are associated to each other by physical proximity. (temporally)

  • Symbol: a sign and the object it signifies are associated by social convention.

4 arbitrariness
4. Arbitrariness

  • Language is a symbol system. In broad terms, the symbols of language are words. By constructing words and stringing them together according to a set of rules (the grammar of the language) we are able to construct meaningful utterances.

  • The choice of symbols used by a language is, however, said to be arbitrary. This is because there is no direct relationship between a particular word and its meaning. e.g. Tree etc

Wasim Hasan

4 arbitrariness1
4. Arbitrariness

  • Each particular language (English, French, Russian, Chinese, etc) uses a different set of symbols. So, the word-symbol for cup in French is tasse but in Portuguese it is copo.

  • Arbitrariness is a useful property because it increases the flexibility of language. The flexibility arises because language is not constrained by the need to match the form of a word and its meaning. Because of this it is possible to construct an almost infinite number of words from a limited set of speech sounds.

Wasim Hasan

4 arbitrariness2
4. Arbitrariness

  • Arbitrariness does not mean that everything about language is unpredictable but that human languages use neutral symbols.

  • The forms of linguistic signs bear no natural resemblance to their meaning. The link between them is a matter of convention, and conventions differ radically across languages.

Wasim Hasan

4 arbitrariness3
4. Arbitrariness

  • The fact that there is no natural connection between the form of words and their meanings makes it possible for different communities to use language to organize and categorize their experience of the world.

Wasim Hasan

5 duality
5. Duality

  • Duality means quality of having two layers.

  • Language appears to be organized at least at two levels:

    • primary level consisting of the units (sounds)

    • secondary level consisting of the elements (words)  

  • The elements of the secondary level combine to form the units of the primary level. e.g. CAT, BOOK etc.

Wasim Hasan

5 duality1
5. Duality

  • A cow has under ten vocal signs. A chicken has around twenty, dolphins have between twenty and thirty.

  • Most animals can use each basic sound only once. That is, the number of messages an animal can send is restricted to the number of basic sounds.

  • Human language has a stock of sound units(phonemes) btween 30-40.Each phoneme is meaningless in isolation and becomes meaningful only when it is combined with other phonemes. Meaningless: f, g,d,o meaningful: fog,dog,god

Wasim Hasan

6 structure dependence
6. Structure Dependence

  • Language appears to have an underlying patterned structure and humans appear to intuitively recognize these patterns. Consider the following utterance: 

    • soonafterwemettoourfriendyesterday. 

  • We intuitively realize that this utterance patterns into coherent segments. This is demonstrated by the fact that we are able to easily find the word space e.g.

    • Soon after we met our friend yesterday

Wasim Hasan

6 structure dependence1
6. Structure Dependence

  • this cat is on the table.

  • Is this cat on the table? 

  • Utterances could be rearranged. Of course, the patterned structure of language allows us to both rearrange and substitute segments simultaneously, e.g. The verbal element (verb) written at different places will change the meanings:

    • You may succeed. (possibility)

    • May you succeed. (Wish)

    • You are taking exercises. (statement)

    • Are you taking exercise? (Question)

  • Wasim Hasan

    7 displacement
    7. Displacement

    • It means talking of something when it is not at its place.

    • Language also allows us to think of, and communicate about, something or someone that is not immediately present. e.g. we can refer to our new car even though it is not actually in front of us. Similarly, we can discuss last night’s football game even though it has passed.

    Wasim Hasan

    8 specialization
    8. Specialization

    • This means that the organs used for producing speech are specially adapted to that task. The human lips, tongue, throat, etc. have been specialized into speech apparatus instead of being merely the eating apparatus they are in many other animals.

    • Animals, for example, are not physically capable of all of the speech sounds that humans produce, because they lack the necessary specialized organs.

    Wasim Hasan

    9 cultural transmission
    9. Cultural Transmission

    • Language is the means by which humans are able to teach the upcoming generation all that they have learnt to date.

    • However, because we have language we are able to communicate necessary knowledge and social norms of behaviour to the upcoming generation. This property of language is referred to as cultural transmission.

    • The language of a particular society, therefore, forms part of the culture of that society.

    Wasim Hasan

    10 semanticity
    10. Semanticity

    • This means that specific signals can be matched with specific meanings.

    • This is a fundamental aspect of all communication systems. For example, in French, the word sel means a white, crystalline substance consisting of sodium and chlorine atoms. The same substance is matched with the English word salt and NAMAK in Urdu language.

    • Any speaker of these languages will recognize that the signals sel, salt or namak refer to the substance sodium chloride.

    Wasim Hasan

    11 discreteness
    11. Discreteness

    • This means that the basic units of speech (such as sounds) can be categorized as belonging to distinct categories.

    • There is no gradual, continuous shading from one sound to another in the linguistics system, although there may be a continuum in the real physical world.

    • Larger complex messages can be broken down into smaller, discrete parts i.e.

      • pat—p a t,

    Wasim Hasan

    11 discreteness1
    11. Discreteness

    • Hockett spoke of only 2 levels:

      • Sound

      • Meaning

    • Modern linguists recognize at least 5 levels:

      • Phonology

      • Morphology

      • Syntax

      • Semantics

      • pragmatics

    Wasim Hasan

    12 productivity
    12. Productivity

    • This means that human languages allow speakers to create novel, never-before-heard utterances that others can understand. e.g. the sentence "The little lavender men who live in my socks drawer told me that Elvis will come back from Mars on the 10th to do a benefit concert for unemployed Pekingese dogs" is a novel and never-before-heard sentence.

    • Speakers can create infinite number of novel utterances that others can understand.

      • pat—p a t, a p t

    Wasim Hasan

    Functions of language
    Functions of Language

    Jacobson describes:

    • The Conative Function: Engages the Addressee directly expressed by Vocatives & imperatives. The vocative case is used for a noun identifying the person (animal, object, etc.) being addressed and/or the determiners of that noun. A vocative expression is a direct expression of address, e.g. “Ali! Come inside and eat!“, "Come here",

    • The Phatic Function: Language for the sake of interaction & Contact. ItCan be observed in greetings and casual discussions of the weather, particularly with strangers. "Hello?"

    Wasim Hasan

    Functions of language1
    Functions of Language

    • The Referential Function: Describes context & a situation, object or mental state. Consists of definite description and Deictic words: understanding meaning of word, phrase in an utterance through contextual information e.g. “The autumn leaves have all fallen now”. “The Earth is round“

    • Emotive( “Expressive or affective”): Relates to the Addresser and is expressed by interjections and other sound changes that do not alter the denotative meaning of an utterance but do add information about the Addresser's (speaker's) internal state, e.g. “Wow, what a view!”

    Wasim Hasan

    Functions of language2
    Functions of Language

    • The Poetic Function: It focuses on “the message for its own sake” and is used in poetry as well as slogans. “Do the dew.”

    • The Metalingual (metalinguistic , reflexive): Use of language to discuss or to describe itself. (What do you mean by victual)

    Wasim Hasan

    Functions of language3
    Functions of Language

    • Geoffery Finch (1998) lists seven general (micro) functions:

      • Physiological function

      • Phatic function -Hello

      • Recording function -referential

      • Identifying function -conative

      • Reasoning function - referential

      • Communicating function-Vocative/conative

      • Pleasure function –poetic

    Wasim Hasan

    Theories of language description


    • Lyons, John. (1981) Language and Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.

    • Radford, Andrew. (1999) Linguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press)

    • Sampson, G. (1980). Schools of Linguistics: Competition and Evolution. Hutchinson: London

    • Yule, George. (1985) The Study of Language (4th ed.). (Cambridge University Press)

    Wasim Hasan