Language Overview
excerpts from the works of
Dr. Micheal Crafton

Department of English
State University of West Georgia

Carrollton, Georgia
(Spring 2000)

Linguists, the scholarly authorities, view language.
Importance, the centrality really, of language.
Ask yourself:
What are the benefits to studying the history of English from two points of view?

How does it benefit the scholar and or teacher of literature or language arts?

How does it benefit the generally educated speaker of English?

Defining Language
Define language in a linguistic fashion:
A language will be defined as a system of conventional vocal signs by means of which human beings communicate.

The terms to focus on are system (versus random), signs (versus words), vocal (versus written), conventional (versus essential, another word for conventional is arbitrary), human (versus animal), communicate (versus express).

Language as system brings up the issue of the branches of linguistics and the levels of analysis of language. 

Object of Analysis

Branch of Linguistics

Related fields



Phonology, Speech Pathology

Word shapes and forms



Sentence structure


Grammar rules














It is very important to understand language as a system, as having a logic of its own, and not just an accumulation of words.

The point about duality of patterning is an interesting one and one that is discussed in many different ways, but basically this duality refers to a pattern of meaningful and non-meaningful units in the system, or the sound system and the grammar system.

You might guess that an overview of language as such is not universally agreed upon nor as simple as dual systems.  Another view of language as systems within systems is the structuralist account usually associated with the name of Ferdinand de Saussure.

You might look at the following site for that:

As you will see there are systems within systems in language.  In the grammatical system there is a system for generating and manipulating words and a system for stringing them together in meaningful ways, morphology and syntax, respectively. 

In the overview of the grammatical systems, pay close attention and be sure you understand a few key concepts.

1. Parts of speech

2. Inflection and inflectional suffixes.

3. Concord

4. Word order

5. Function words

6. Prosodic signals.

The following is a good introductory site to the various branches of linguistics:

We will come back to the morphemes later, but here you have a good definition and good examples of free, bound, and compound morphemes.

Linguists have for a long time now stressed that speech is the real language and that writing is a second hand falling off of language.  In very much Platonic language, writing has been referred to a copy of a copy of a copy, and thus it was not taken too seriously.

Recent developments in Continental philosophy, most famously the work of Jacques Derrida, has critiqued this assumption, and we have begun to see that writing may reveal aspects of the structure or system of language that are obscured by analyzing speech alone.

More mundanely there are developments in language that clearly are connected to writing.  There is, for example, the practice of spelling pronunciation that Americans are taught and thus in the south the word salmon is pronounced with an l due to the spelling, yet its historic pronunciation is without the l sound.  This then is a simple instance of writing influencing language.

Language Change – Corruption, Variation, Correctness: 

Several important points are organized under this heading of language change. Change in language is unavoidable; it is part of its organic nature, part of the human dimension of language and cannot be stopped.  It can be slowed down, however. 

The term corruption is used often by those writers on language who believe that the dialect that they understand as the Standard is the only version of the language worthy of discussion; therefore, any change from that is not just a variation, but a corruption. 

Because language is on the surface anyway purely conventional, we may think that we could by convention halt all change, but the nature of language is so complex and influenced by so many factors that we cannot by convention avoid them all.  We have a fairly new form of the past tense of the verb “to sneak.”  It is snuck.  The traditional and quite fine past tense form is sneaked, but for whatever reason over recent development, people have taken to snuck.  Can we by convention just degree that form corrupt and issue a ban and expect the work never to be spoken again?  Not really, and thus especially in democratic countries but really anywhere, change is inevitable.

 Language – A Human Trait 

If language is any system used to communicate between two entities something then there are all sorts of languages other than human.  Bees have a very elaborate dance language; computers talk to each other in the process of this class in languages called Machine Language, and C++ and HTML, and so forth.  But if we think of language as including the traits of openness, flexibility, creativity, and self-reflection that we think of as part of any human language, then you must say that language is what humans can do.

Language Genealogy: 

1.  There have been many discussions of linking languages or tracing their connections back to an original source -- Noah.  These studies were largely religious propaganda: sons of Noah, Shem--semitic languages; Ham -- African; Japhet -- European.

2.    Plato, Cratylus.  He discusses an original language that one can glimpse in etymologies.

3.    Dante, De vulgaria eloquentia, one of the best early descriptions (genetic and typological).

4.    Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) tried to divide the world's languages according to their word for god: Romance deus (Latin deus, Italian dio, Spanish dio, French dieu); Germanic Gott (English god, Dutch god, Swedish gud); Greek theos; and Slavic bog (Russian bog, Polish bog, Czech buh).

5.    In the 18th century the genetic model took off  really gathered steam and scientific status:

Joseph Parsons (1767) The Remains of Japhet, being historical enquiries into the affinity and origins of the European languages.  Accomplished much in finding the source words for Irish and Welsh in the Gaelic, but because the work was so cloaked in Biblical references it did not catch on. 

Sir William Jones (1786), Chief Justice of India, founder of the Royal Asiatic Society.  On Feb 2, 1786, he presented an address to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta on the resemblances between Gk and Latin and Sanskrit:

             The Sanskrit language, whatever may be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could have been produced by accident; so strong that no philologer could examine all the three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.  There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and Celtic, though blended with a different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.

6. In the 19th century, linguists argued that comparative philology had to move beyond charting similarities based upon linguistic intuition, but rather had to discover and verify laws of language change, systemic or structural similarities.

 Erasmus Rask (1818) and Franz Bopp (1816, 1833)

e.g. the sound change ph Gk to b Gm.  phrater - brother, phero - bear; also declensions - noun for fire

nom sing    agnis       Sanskrit   ignis   Latin

acc sing      agnim                     ignem

dat plur      agnibhyas              ignibus


August Schleicher (1821-1868) developed a methodology to reconstruct Indo-European language, moving backward through sound-change laws.  To him we owe the attempt to give IE etymons for words (cf. large Random House dictionary); he also had the poor judgment to publish a little folk take in IE called "The Sheep and the Horses" or Avis akvasas ka.

To Schleicher we also owe the genetic model of IE languages that is represented in nearly every dictionary and introductory linguistics text.

Jacob Grimm (1822) Grimm’s Law.
Karl Verner (1875) Verner’s Law.