Fatchul Mu’in

Spektrum pemikiran


Posted by fatchulfkip on October 24, 2008


Before starting to discuss a language, sometimes we are necessary to define it. In this relation, we may make some questions such as: “What is a language?”, or “What do you know about a language”, or “What is meant by a language?” Someone’s answer may be different from that of the other. For instance, he says: “Oh, it is what we use in communication” or the other says: “It is made up of sentences that convey meaning”, or perhaps someone else says: “It is a means of communication”. If those definitions are viewed from the study of language, they are insufficient ones. Let us examine the following definitions:

A language is system of arbitrary, vocal symbols that permit all people in a given culture, or other people who have learned the system of that culture, to communicate or to interact (Finocchioro, in Ramelan 1984)

A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols used for human communication (Wardhaugh, in Ramelan, 1984)

A language is arbitrary system of articulated sounds made use of by a group of humans as a means of carrying on the affairs of their society (Francis, in Ramelan, 1984)

A language is a set of rules enabling speakers to translate information from the outside world into sound (Gumperz, 1972).

Based on the definitions of a language above, we cay that a language a means of communication. But, if the definition of a language is used in the study of language, we must involve the other means of communication that are not categorized as a language. If we regard a language as consisting of sounds, the fact shows that the other means of communication may use sounds as its medium. In short, a means of communication known as a language must have some characteristics that do not belong to the other means of communication.

Characteristics of Language

Based on the definitions of a language above, we can state some characteristics of human language, as follows:

1. A language is a system.

2. A language is said to be arbitrary

3. A language is social.

4. A language is spoken.

5. A language is productive or creative.

6. A language is complete for its native speakers.

A language is systematic.

Since a language is said to be a system, it must be systematic in nature. The systematicness of a language can be seen from the fact that, take an example, if we regard a language as being made up of sounds, we find out that only certain sounds occur in any one language that these occur in certain regular and predictable patterns. In English, for instance, when a name for a new shampoo was coined, Prell was possible but not Srell, because the cluster sr does not occur in the language.

As has been known, a sentence is a combination of some words. The sentence is not ordered at random. In this relation, we cannot say “Goes Ali school to everyday.” English language has its own patterns of ordering some words to be a sentence. The patterns of ordering show that a language must be systematic.

Language is a highly organized system in which each unit plays an important part which is related to other parts (Boey, 1975 : 1). All human languages have their own certain characteristics. This is to say, for instance, that a certain language, say Bahasa Indonesia or English, has its own system. As a consequence, it has a dual structure, that is: two levels of structure of systematic relationships. In other words, each language is a system consisting of two subsystems. One is the subsystem of meaningful units. The other is the subsystem of sounds, which have no meaning in themselves but which form the meaningful units.

The idea of systematicness of language as it is found in the arrangement of words implies the idea of predictability. In an English sentence a noun is usually preceded by a determiner and so when someone hears a determiner, he can anticipate that a noun is following it; this noun, which may function as the subject of a sentence, will be followed by a verb as the main part of the predicate; this verb will take an -s or –es ending when the preceding noun functioning as subject is third person singular actor and the sentence is in the simple present tense (Ramelan, 1984 : 45)

A language is said to be arbitrary

A language is said to be arbitrary. This means that it is firstly created on the basis of social agreement. In this relation, there is no reasonable explanation, for instance, why a certain four-footed domestic animal is called dog in English, asu in Javanese, or anjing in Indonesian. Giving a name of the animal is really based on the agreement among the members of the social groups. On other words, Javanese, English and Indonesian people made an agreement to call the animal as asu, dog, and anjing respectively. In this relation, George Yule (1987 : 118-19) states that the linguistic form has no natural relationship with that four-legged barking object. Recognizing this general fact about language leads us to conclude that a property of linguistic signs is their arbitrary relationship with the objects they are used to indicate.

A language is social.

Thirdly. a language is social. We all know that a language is socially acquired, learned and then used. If this statement is related to language acquisition and/or language learning, we may have an illustration that a new-born child acquires a communicative competence with a given language in a speech community; in the next step, he learns and uses the language in a speech community. Thus, a language is not genetically transmitted; but, it is socio-culturally acquired and/or learned.

In social context, a language is not only means for communication but also it is an important medium for establishing and maintaining social relationship. For instance, there are two persons sitting in a waiting room of bus station; they begin to introduce and talk to each other. In short, they know each other. At the time of introducing, talking and knowing each other, they establish social relationship and they will probably maintain their social relationship in future time. Establishing and maintaining social relationship must involve the use of language.

A language is spoken.

Basically, a language is always spoken. This statement implies that all people the world over, regardless of their race or ethnic group, always speak a language. This means that they always have a way of communicating ideas by using sounds that are produced by their speech organs.

Human language can be said to be an oral-auditory communication system. Why? Oral-auditory communication has many advantages over other possible means of communication. A speaker and a listener do not need an instrument, as writers and readers do. This is to say that the writers and readers need writing implements and written texts respectively. A speaker and a listener do not look at one another, as the deaf using hand-gestures language do. One can speak and listen while carrying out other activities, as long as they do not involve the mouth and the ear (Taylor, p. 6).

The kind of oral-auditory communication has some weaknesses. One weakness is that people cannot converse directly at distances greater that fifty feet. Another weakness is that speech signals are gone without trace as soon as they are uttered. Nowadays, the spoken language can be recorded using tape recorder.

Another means of communicating ideas, that is the use of printed or written symbols, which is more prevailing and more often used in daily life. This means that they are exposed to the written language as found in newspapers, magazines or letters so that they often confuse written language and the actual language, which is spoken. In this relation, it can be said that the spoken form of a language is primary, whereas the written form is secondary. This is to say that the written form of a language is only a representation of what is actually spoken.

A language is productive or creative.

Another characteristic of human language is that it is productive or creative. This refers to the ability of native speakers to understand and produce any number of sentences (which they never heard before) in their native language.

The first aspect of the creative use of language is that a human being can say things that have never been said before. If we think back about our talk we have just had with our friend, we may be certain that our conversation consisted of sentences that neither we nor our conversant have heard or produced before.

A language is complete for its native speakers

A language is a part of human culture. Beside it is used for establishing and maintaining social relationship, it is used for expressing human culture. A language is complete for its native speakers to express their own culture. If a language is regarded as a system of symbol, it can be used as constitutive, cognitive, expressive, and evaluative symbols. A constitutive symbol refers to a symbol of human belief to God or supernatural power; for instance, human beings pray to God by using a language. A cognitive symbol refers to a symbol created by human beings to recognize and introduce human knowledge about their environment; for instance, they create some terms that represent something existing in their surroundings. People in South Kalimantan recognize some terms of water transportation means such as jukung, klotok, ketinting, etc. Javenese people recognize some terms such pari, gabah, beras, and nasi; meanwhile English people know them as rice.

An expressive symbol refers to a symbol used by human being to express their emotion. An evaluative symbol refers to a symbol used by human being to state something good or bad, honest or dishonest, and the like.

Functions of a language

Forms of sentences of a language generally serve specific function. The sentences are created, among others, on the basis of purposes. The purposes of creating sentences are (a) to inform something or someone to the audiences; the sentences created are called statements (declarative sentences), (b) to question about something or someone; the resultant forms are interrogative sentences, (c) to ask or command someone to do something; the resultant forms are imperative sentences, and (d) to show a surprise on someone or something; the resultant forms are exclamatory sentences.

Traditionally, there are three functions of a language. These three functions of a language are actually related from one to another. For the sake of discussion, they are discussed in separate ways. The prime function of a language has been assumed to be cognitive; a language is used to express ideas, concepts, and thought. The second function is said to be evaluative; a language has been viewed as a means of conveying attitudes and values. The third function of a language is referred to be affective; a language is used by its speakers to transmit emotions and feelings.

According to Mary Finocchiaro, there are six functions of a language are; they are as follows:

1. Personal. The personal function enables the user of a language to express his innermost thoughts; his emotions such as love, hatred, and sorrow; his needs, desires, or attitudes; and to clarify or classify ideas in his mind.

2. Interpersonal. The interpersonal function enables him to establish and maintain good social relations with individuals and groups; to express praise, sympathy, or joy at another’s success; to inquire about health; to apologize; to invite.

3. Directive. The directive function enables him to control the behaviour of others through advice, warnings, requests, persuasion, suggestions, orders, or discussion.

4. Referential. The referential function enables him to talk about objects or events in the immediate setting or environment or in the culture; to discuss the present, the past, and the future.

5. Metalinguistic. The metalinguistic function enables him to talk about language, for example, “What does .…….mean?”

6. Imaginative. The imaginative function enables him to use language creatively in rhyming, composing poetry, writing, or speaking (1989:1-2).

According to Roman Jacobson (in Bell, Roger T. 1976:83), functions of a language are related to aspects.




Emotive, expressive, affective




Referential, cognitive, denotative




Phatic, interaction management



Although the model is primarily connected with the nature of literary language, it provides a means of listing six major language functions by indicating how the shift of focus from one aspect of the speech event to another determines the function of the language that is used in it. For example, (a) in relation to emotive function, the addresser aims at the direct expressions of his attitude to the topic or situation; (b) in relation to conative function, the speaker focuses on the person(s) addressed, for instance, when he calls the attention of another or requires them to carry out some action; (c) in relation to context, the participants of a speech act focus on the object, topic, content of the discourse; (d) in relation to message, the speaker focuses on the message; (e) in relation to contact, a (certain) language is used for the initiation, continuation and termination of linguistic encounters; and (f) in relation to code, a language is used to talk about the language itself.

Human Language and Animal ‘Language’

When human beings come together and then they play, fight, make love, or do something else, at the same time they talk; they use a language. They talk to their friends, their associates, their husbands or wives, their parents and parents-in-law; and they also talk to total strangers. They may talk face to face and over the telephone (Fromkin and Roadman, p. 1).

A language is used as a means of communication. With language, human beings can express their ideas and wishes to other people such as when they need the others’ help. With language, they can establish and maintain social relationships; also, with language, they can cooperate between one and another (Ramelan, 1984 : 36). However, we may be still confused whether a language is the only means of communication or whether all means of communication are known as languages.

A language may be differently perceived by the different people. Some regard everything used for communication as a language. This statement is based on the fact that when we discuss a topic about the definition of language, they give different statements. For example, they state that gestures and bodily movement are referred to as languages; and, that there is what is known as animal language. As a consequence, there have been, at least, two kinds of languages: a human language and an animal language. The human language may be perceived as having some types such as oral, written and body languages. In relation to the animal language, someone may give a question : “Does an animal have and use a language or is a means of communication used by an animal regarded as a real language?”. The following discussion may guide us to understand what is actually called as a language.

Human beings are not only species that can communicate among themselves, as animals are often said to possess some kind of communication system too. As has been known, animals communicate with one another using their own means of communication. For instance, dogs bark when they want to send their message to another. They will bark in a certain way when they want to show the others that there is something to eat; they will produce a different kind of barking when they are in danger. The different in the barking sounds produced the dog can be ‘understood’ by the others, and so communication takes place among them.

Another example is a hen cackling to her chickens. She will cackle in a certain way when she wants to call her chickens to them food; she will produce a different kind of cackling sounds if she wants to warn them of a coming danger. Other animals such as cats, monkeys and elephants are also said to have a means of communication, which is understood by the animals concerned (Ramelan, 1984 : 38). To some extent, these sounds serve the same purposes as human language. How does human language differ from animal language? Is animal language called as a real language?

Whether animal language is a real language or not, the fact shows that both human language and animal ‘language’ have similarity between the two means of communication. The similarity that can be identified is that the sounds produced by both human beings and animals are intended to convey message. Both human being and animal produce sounds by using their mouth. However, there are great differences between the two in their varieties and their possible combination. That is to say that the human system of communication enables human beings to be able to produce the various kinds of sounds, by using speech organs. The sounds produced by the speech organs are often called speech sounds. The kinds of sounds produced by human beings are rich in variation; they can produce such vowels and consonants. Speech sounds can also be combined in many ways to form many utterances. The combinations of vowels and consonants are referred to as morphemes or words. They can convey unlimited messages and produce new combination of the linguistic units to meet the needs of new situations.

Ramelan (1984 : 38) states that with language, human beings can communicate not only about things connected with their biological needs, or preventing themselves from dangers, but almost about anything at all. They may not only communicate about objects which are in their surroundings, but they can speak about things which are remote in space and time; they can talk about things which are may miles away from them, and also about events which took place in the past time, which take place at the present time, and which will take place many years ahead.

On the other hand, animals can only communicate about things surrounding them; their communication is only intended for the sake of biological needs, or preventing themselves from dangers; and the sounds produced are very limited and the sounds is further developed. A dog, for instance, can only produce two or three kinds of barking sounds to suit the purpose throughout its whole life.

In addition to the sounds produced and the content of message sent by both human being and animals, human language differs from animals’ means of communication in how the two are transmitted to their young generation. Ability to speak for human beings is not genetically transmitted but culturally learned from their elders. For instance, someone may inherit brown eyes and dark hair from his/her parents, but he/she does not inherit their language. He/she acquires a language in a culture with other speakers and not from parental genes. An infant born from Chinese parents (who live in China and speak Cantonese), which is brought up from birth by English speakers in the United States, may have physical characteristics inherited from its natural parents, but he/she will speak English (George Yule (1987 : 20). This process whereby language is passed on from one generation to the next is described as cultural transmission. As it has been believed that human beings are born with an innate predisposition to acquire language.

All human languages are acquired and humans have to exposed to a particular language over some length of time before they can acquire that language, by contrast, animal communication is largely instinctive (Taylor, p. 7). If ability to speak for human beings is culturally learned from their elders, ability to communicate for a dog using its barking sound is genetically transmitted. Both human beings and animals use for their medium of communication sounds that are produced in their mouth, but the sounds produced by human beings are more varied than those produced by animals. The sounds produced by animals are always the same and remain unchanged. A young animal will produce the same kind of sounds as their elders for their communication. The ability to produce sounds in animals for communication is, therefore, said to be genetically transmitted; they are never taught by their elders. A young dog, for instance, has ability to bark without being taught by its elders.


Based on some definitions of a language, we can say a language is not only regarded as a means of communication but it is a means of communication that has some characteristics. In this relation, a language must be systematic; it is socially created, acquired, and used; it is basically spoken; it is productive or creative; and it is complete for its speakers. Not all characterstics of a language do not belong to an animal’s means of communication.


1. What is meant by a language?

2. Mention and explain some characteristics of a language!

3. How do you differ a language and an animal’s means of communication?

4. How does a human being acquire a language?

One Response to “WHAT IS LANGUAGE?”

  1. Assalamualaikum
    pak, ulun minta izin memasukkan tulisan pian di blog ulun yang pernah ulun tanggapi kemarin pas bulan Agustus, handak ulun dokumentasikan di Blog… ky apa pak?
    kalo boleh, terima kasih banar…

    Silakan dik Umar. Terima kasih atas atensi anda. Kembangkan terus kreatifitas anda.

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