Natural languages (this category excludes artificial languages such as Esperanto, formal languages such as logic and mathematics, and such “languages” as art, or music, or flowers, or drafting, or the genetic code) have six identifiable characteristics:
1. The foundation of language is speech: writing, signs, or gestures are not of the essence.
2. Speech acts are social and directed: speaking, like fighting or like making love, is an act done to someone else. And speaking is reversible; that is, the speaker can also be a listener. (Talking only to one’s self is like masturbating.)
3. Language is an institution of a community: it is governed by the rules of those who speak it; it is not innate, but must be learned. Infants (in fact or in fiction) who are reared by animals (Kaspar Hauser, or the wild child of Aveyron) must all be later taught how to speak. Units of sound (phonemes) may be combined in various ways, according to the syntax or morphology of the language, into a system, and the whole thing holds together. The vocabulary of individual sounds is not as important as the relationships between them. Human beings can therefore use language creatively; they can speak and understand sentences never uttered before. Max Black calls this the “productive aspect” of language.
4. Different languages of course use different combinations of the twenty to forty phonemes which we can pronounce. Greek and Latin, for example, had to translate the Hebrew phoneme sh into s (as in Moses, Solomon, Jesus, Isaiah). Russian had to borrow the Hebrew sh letter.
5. Language is meaningful: it expresses thoughts and wishes; it evokes responses; it connects with the world; it helps determine “the facts” and our self-knowledge.
6. Languages are in a process of constant change. New words are being coined all the time. T. H. Huxley coined agnosticism; Whewell coined physicist and scientist in 1840; Thomas Gray introduced picturesque in 1740; the first appearance of capitalism is in 1854; civilization does not appear in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1775); gas was coined by Van Helmont; altruism by Comte, If we still shudder at camp or funky, we should remember that Herbert Spencer denounced educational, and Mill called sociology (the coinage of Comte) a “convenient barbarism.” Shakespeare coined (or at least is the first recorded user of) assassination, bump, critic, disgraceful, dwindle, fitful, gloomy, impartial, lonely, sportive, bare-faced, and countless. And words disappear: swive and insisture, for example.