THE CONCEPT OF LANGUAGE
Language serves as a channel through which ideas thoughts and emotions are expressed. It is the human ability to acquire and use complex systems of communication – a property of the community. Language like any other concept has several definitions. This is of course, due to the fact that people seem to view things from different perspectives. However, most definitions of language seem to have similarities. This can be seen in some of the definitions of the concept: Henry Sweet Bernard Bloch and George Trager, on the other hand, had this to say, “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates” (79).
Mandelbaum is of the opinion that ‘language is primarily a system of phonetic symbols for the expression of communicable thoughts, feelings or emotions are expressed (7).
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, defines the concept in the following words: “A language is a system of signs for encoding and decoding information”. The signs are speech-sounds, as illustrated by the first definition. However, language also has written signs, which are the alphabets that we use in writing. Therefore, communication is only possible because of the linguistic symbols that function according to some rules and conventions. It is these rules that give us the underlying conventions on how to form phonemes into morphemes. These rules also tell us how to derive words from morphemes. It is the same rules that govern every aspect of a language such as its grammar, syntax, phonology etc.
The last definition from Wikipedia illustrates that language is connected with the mental process of understanding. This is easily discernable when one looks at how language is acquired, especially, in children. Communication is only possible because of the mental process of encoding and decoding information.
Hall in Essay on language defines language as “the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral auditory arbitrary symbols” (158), this means that human beings cannot interact meaningfully with one another without the use of language.
Edward Sapir defines language as “purely human and non-instinctive methods of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of system of voluntarily produced sounds” (8). This suggests that language is the only possible methods through which humans or the society communicates or express their ideas, emotion and desires.
Halliday (1975) defines language as ‘the main channel through which the patterns of living are transmitted to a person, which learns to act as a member of the society… and to adopt its culture, its modes of thoughts and actions, its belief and values’(346). This suggests that the society has a great influence on an individual’s choice of language acquired through either exposure or socialization. The individual needs language to communicate with and properly integrate into his immediate environment or society. Halliday further states that:
Types of linguistic situations differ from one another broadly speaking in three respects as regards to what is actually taking place. Secondly, as regards to what part of the language is playing. Thirdly, as regards to who is taking part. There are three variables taken together to determine the range within, which meanings are used for their expression, in other words, they determine the register (346-7).
The subject matter of an article will determine the type of language to be used by the writer: language is used for different speech situations. The situation determines the register to be used. For instance, if one is to write on sports definitely the register will be that of sports. The subject matter determines the choice of words used by the speaker or writer in relation and appropriateness of the topic of discourse.
Derbyshire in Report writing: The Form and Style of Efficient Communication (54) discusses the effect, the use of wrong choice of words will have on a piece of writing. He further explains that the result of wrong choice of words is that the tool of language becomes unworkable, and communication is therefore hindered by bad habits of thought, the rust and corrosion of misuse and the damage of careless handling. He opines that failure to abide by the rules of language can make language become a barrier to successful communication and integration.
Gilman Brown and George Yule see language in the sense of usage. This they call discourse analysis. They claim that the analysis of discourse is the analysis of language in use. Words are combined to make meaningful units of utterances for communicating ones ideas and emotions.
Ellis and Ure have this to say about language: language varies as its functions vary. It differs differently in situations, the label given to a variety of language according to use is register (p. 9).
Adejumobi (43) is of the opinion that language is human vocal sound or it is the graphic representation of signs and symbols gesticulation and signals for the purpose of communication. This suggests that human beings communicate either through spoken or written forms or through gestures. For example, the hearing-impaired uses this medium by using signs and finger movements in communication. It is obvious that each of these linguists sees language as an instrument of expression of human thought.
Any description of a state of affairs must use language and language by its nature is a vehicle for conveying messages. Quirk (3) sees language as a human instrument of expression through sound as released by the vocal cords. This means that any single sound produced by an individual at the time of articulation or pronunciations such as: hissing and babbling by babies, the vocal chords are known as language.
Crystal and Davy observe that ‘style’ consist of the selection of certain features from the general mass of linguistic features common to English or common to any language (76). The suggestion of Crystal and Davy emphasizes the opinions of Ellis and Ure, that language use varies from one individual to another in different situations. A writer should choose the pattern of organization and development of his writing. Every writer has a selected style of writing depending on the age and era of the work and this makes him distinct among others.
Also, writers of literary texts need to be aware of the rules governing language must be simple because most writers fail to take into consideration the diverse nature of the human society. They fail to acknowledge the literary level of majority of Nigerians. They write in the most sophisticated manner, hence they alienate much class of readers. If language rules are not obeyed, participants in a discourse fail to understand one another and this disrupts successful communication.
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