What is language?

last update: 18 February 2022

We kicked off this collection of webpages on the English language, without asking what is language and why did mankind invent it?

Don't worry, this will only take a minute and will be relatively painless.

For once Wikipedia is brief and straight to the point, "
A language is a structured system of communication used by humans. Languages can be based on speech and gesture, sign, or writing. The structure of language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary".

According to the Wikipedia article on the
origin of language, things get a little bit more complicated, because no one really knows. Did it slowly evolve or appear relatively suddenly? Is it largely genetically encoded or is it mostly learned through social interaction at an early age? It is quite possible that we will never truly know the origin of one of the defining features of our existence.

The key in any language is clarity

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) once wrote "Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people".

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) added "The real problem in speech is not precise language. The problem is clear language. The desire is to have the idea clearly communicated to the other person".

Clear and straightforward English is often called
Plain English.

A good starting point is to have a clear idea why a text was written, and the author must first and foremost transmit that fact.

A good text avoids all forms of unnecessary ornate or florid writing.
Dr. Johnson (1709-1784) insisted that a writer should always remove any phrase they find beautiful or elegant.

George Orwell (1903-1950) argued for honest clarity and straightforward expression, and advised:-
  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  • Only break these rules when you know you are breaking them.

To which others have added:-
  • Use familiar words.

  • Prefer concrete words to abstract words.

  • Complex or unfamiliar concepts should be explained as simply as possible.

  • If a single word will do, don't "decorate" it.

Some texts are designed to convince, and they must:-
  • Captivate the reader (tell a story), but still focus on what they need to understand.

  • Stress key elements with subtle repetition.

  • Make connections with what the reader knows.

Here are some words that appear far too frequently and sometimes out of context - actually, affirms, argues, basically, clearly, currently, dictates, expounds, inevitably, in order, just, literally, maybe, now, obviously, perhaps, pretty, probably, proclaims, real, really, simple, states, that, very, …

And perhaps the most important single piece of advice came from
Robert Benchley (1889-1945), who one wrote "Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing".