A word is one or more sounds that in combination have a specific meaning assigned by a language. The symbolic meaning of words can be so powerful that people are willing to risk their lives for them or take the lives of others. For instance, words such as "queer" and "nigger" have symbolic meaning that is highly charged emotionally in America today for many people. They are much more than just a sequence of sounds to us.
A major advantage of human language being a learned symbolic communication system is that it is infinitely flexible. Meanings can be changed and new symbols created. This is evidenced by the fact that new words are invented daily and the meaning of old ones change. For example, the English word "nice" now generally means pleasing, agreeable, polite, and kind. In the15th century it meant foolish, wanton, lascivious, and even wicked. Languages evolve in response to changing historical and social conditions. Some language transformations typically occur in a generation or less. For instance, the slang words used by your parents were very likely different from those that you use today. You also probably are familiar with many technical terms, such as "text messaging" and "high definition TV", that were not in general use even a decade ago.
Language and speech are not the same thing. Speech is a broad term simply referring to patterned verbal behavior. In contrast, a language is a set of rules for generating speech. A dialect
is a variant of a language. If it is associated with a geographically isolated speech community, it is referred to as a regional dialect. However, if it is spoken by a speech community that is merely socially isolated, it
is called a social dialect. These latter dialects are mostly based on class, ethnicity
. age, and particular social situations. Black English (or Ebonics
) in the United States is an example of a social dialect. Dialects may be both regional and social. An example is the Chinese spoken dialect and written form called nushu. It apparently was known and used only by women in the village of Jiang-yong in Hunan Province of South China. Women taught nushu only to their daughters and used it to write memoirs, create songs, and share their thoughts with each other. While women also knew and used the conventional Chinese dialect of their region, they used nushu to maintain female support networks in their male dominated society. Nushu is essentially gone now due to its suppression during the 1950's and 1960's by the communist government of China. The last speaker and writer of nushu was a woman named Yang Huanyi. She died in 2004. Not all societies have distinct dialects. They are far more common in large-scale diverse societies than in small-scale homogenous ones.
Over the last few centuries, deaf people have developed sign languages that are complex visual-gestural forms of communicating with each other. Since they are effective communication systems with standardized rules, they also must be considered languages in their own right even though they are not spoken.
Birth of a Language -- the emergence of a new sign language among deaf children in Nicaragua .
This link takes you to a video at an external website. To return here, you must click the "back"
button on your browser program. (length = 4 mins, 57 secs)