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In the general sense, language is understood to mean all complex systems of communication . This includes human natural languages as well as constructed languages , but also in the animal kingdom there are systems of signs and communicative actions that are called language, such as the dance language of bees. Among human natural languages, a major subdivision is that between spoken language and sign language . The written language is often a representation of a spoken language (e.g. alphabet fonts ), but can also be independent of it ( logography ).

The scientific discipline that deals with human language in general (especially natural language) is linguistics ( general linguistics ). Language and the use of language also appear as topics in other sciences such as psychology , neurology , cognitive science , communication studies , rhetoric , speech studies , philosophy ( philosophy of language ), media studies , computer science , semiotics , literary studies , religious studies , anthropology and ethnology .

There are approximately 6,000 languages ​​worldwide, and it is estimated that around 90 percent of them will be displaced by the end of this century. In the World Atlas of Endangered Languages, UNESCO lists all of the world's languages ​​threatened with extinction. With the extinction of a language, a cultural memory is also lost. Today attempts are being made to counteract this impending loss with political and legal initiatives. Every language is considered an intangible cultural heritage and is therefore subject to international protection.

Language as a system of signs

Individual languages

In a special sense, the word language refers to a specific individual language such as German , Japanese or Swahili . The spoken languages ​​of mankind are divided into language families according to their genetic relationship . Each individual language is clearly classified internationally on the basis of the so-called language codes according to the ISO 639 sub-standards. Of the around 6500 individual languages ​​counted today - according to the National Geographic Society as many as 6912 languages ​​were actively used worldwide in 2005 - more than half are at risk of language death because they are hardly spoken and often no longer passed on to children. It is assumed that a large part of the languages ​​still existing today will therefore disappear in the next 100 years. Currently, the 50 most common languages ​​are spoken by around 80 percent of humanity as their mother tongue (and around 90% also as a second language), while all other (still) existing languages ​​are spoken by the remaining 20 percent of people.

The distinction between language and dialect was very controversial for a long time, but today, according to Heinz Kloss's theories, it is almost always possible due to scientific criteria (see also the article Dialect ).

From an ethnological and sociolinguistic point of view, the languages ​​used by humans in everyday life are divided into naturally developed languages such as English or Spanish and into deliberately developed languages such as Esperanto or Klingon .

Natural language can also be influenced by conscious planning, as in the case of German in Martin Luther's translation of the Bible . This variety was a constructed form that should be understood everywhere. As a result, it ultimately became the lingua franca. In the course of language policy measures, variants of ethnic languages ​​are sometimes “standardized” into a variety according to a plan, as is the case with Ladin in South Tyrol / Northern Italy. However, there are limits to the controllability of natural language, since linguistic knowledge is unconscious knowledge that is also acquired very early in life and unconsciously. In this context, every natural language shows historical changes that often ignore attempts at standardization.

Language families of the world

Constructed and Formal Languages

In contrast to natural individual languages , formal languages ​​can be described using logic and set theory (enumerable set of basic expressions, clear rules of composition, well-formed expressions). You can find e.g. B. in theoretical computer science , especially in the computability theory and the compiler application. Programming languages such as ALGOL , APL , Fortran , COBOL , BASIC , C , C ++ , Ada , Lisp , Prolog , Python , Java or Perl are designed for specific purposes and are based on theoretical and pragmatic considerations.

With his project of the ortho language program, the mathematician Paul Lorenzen pursued the construction of a clear and methodically structured scientific language, which, however, was " highly controversial even in methodological philosophy ".

The descriptive principles of formal logic are also applied to natural language; The American logician Richard Montague did pioneering work on this .

The human spoken language as a system of signs

The human spoken language can also be understood as a sign system (see semiotics ), consisting of a multitude of signs that have a meaning (see semantics ), which can be linked to an infinite number of statements by means of grammatical rules ( syntactics ). Ferdinand de Saussure conceived the linguistic sign as an arbitrary, non-compulsory combination of sound image (signifiant = the signifying) and mental image (signifié = the signified).

Humboldt's remark about the convention theory of language reads like a critique of the semiotics of the 20th century :

“The most detrimental influence on the interesting treatment of any language study has had the limited notion that language came about by convention and that the word is nothing but a sign of an independent thing or concept. This view, of course undeniably correct up to a certain point, but furthermore also completely wrong, kills all spirit and banishes all life as soon as it begins to dominate, and one thanks to it for the so often repeated platitudes: [...] that every language, if one only knows how to use it correctly, is about equally good [...] the language is its own and independent being, an individual, the sum of all words, the language is a world that lies between the appearing external and the active in us lies in the middle [...] "

Ie the meaning of the words is further developed in a lively dialogue; language abolishes the reality of the object and the subject, it mediates between the two and so in language, beyond convention, “every new [view] can always discover something new”. Even with empirical subjects, the words of different languages ​​are never perfect synonyma ; This applies all the more to terms for thoughts and sensations with even more indefinite outlines.

Evolution of language skills

Language as "instinct to learn"

Darwin already distinguished between the biological ability of humans, which enables them to acquire language, and certain languages ​​as such. This theoretical distinction is adopted by modern cognitive biology. Babies have an instinct to babble but need to learn a language. For the ethologist Peter Marler , therefore, as for Darwin, language was not an instinct, but “language is an instinct to learn, the expression of which implies that both biological and external requirements are met”. Biological evolutionary research into language ability is directed towards this “instinct” to learn language. An important language-related gene that was discovered in this environment is FOXP2 , a phylogenetically old transcription factor that plays a role in flexible oral-motor voice control. FOXP2 underwent a decisive mutation in the human species at least 400,000 years ago, which is concluded from the fact that the Neanderthals have the same allele . A set of four distinctive genes has been identified for simple aspects of syntax.


The prevailing view evolutionary language ability of man until around 2010 that the anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) his ability to speak from the apes differed. Language rich in variation was therefore only possible through anatomical changes in the course of human tribal history . How pronounced the speaking ability was developed in the common ancestor of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens , Homo erectus , is unknown. It is also unknown how “advanced” the morphological and functional potential for differentiated linguistic communication was during the transition from Homo erectus to early anatomically modern humans . The enlargement of the pharynx (as a resonance body), the lowering of the larynx and the bulging of the palate, which already begins in Homo erectus , were seen as a necessity for greater freedom of movement of the tongue . In the interaction of the pharynx, oral and nasal cavities , soft palate , lips and tongue, the fundamental tone generated by the vocal cords can then be modulated into vowels and consonants . Skull finds show that the bulging of the palate and the lowering of the larynx were completed about 100,000 years ago.

In the Kebara Cave near Haifa in Israel, a hyoid bone was found in an approximately 60,000-year-old skeleton of a Neanderthal man , which allows the conclusion that this man was able to speak spoken. Durham anthropologists suggest that the ancestors of the Neanderthals were able to speak more than 300,000 years ago. They compared the size of the " Canalis nervi hypoglossi ", an opening in the base of the skull , in modern human skulls with various fossils. According to these anthropologists, a large hypoglossal nerve is a prerequisite for differentiated language. The nerve that the brain uses to control tongue movement runs through this opening at the base of the skull. Scientists found that the canalis nervi hypoglossi in Neanderthals was similar in size to that of modern humans. In the pre-humans of the genus Australopithecus , who lived around two million years ago, it is significantly smaller.

Recent research results show that the lowering of the larynx was not a solitary human trait, but in many cases occurred in the animal kingdom, such as the red deer or elk -Hirsch. At the same time, the previously denied dynamics and reconfigurability of the vocal range are now confirmed in empirical studies for animals, for example in many mammals such as dogs, goats, seals, and also in alligators. Because of the phylogenetically different origins of the species examples mentioned, it is assumed that the lowering of the larynx was an evolutionarily early feature. The reasons for this, for example in the case of deer, can be found in sexual selection through deeper vocalization. The ability to learn to sing is also inherent in birds. These findings mean that, firstly, the vocal tract was sufficiently flexible for complex language development at any point in the primate evolution and, secondly, fossil finds from human ancestors provide little evidence of language ability. The evolutionary prerequisites for language are seen today rather in neurological control or in neurological mechanisms and less in the anatomy of the vocal tract.

Neural requirements

While language was formerly treated as a monolithic entity that breaks Cognitive Biology today cognitive language requirements in separable components and analyzes them comparatively in different animal tribes. The following are seen as prerequisites for the evolution of language: social intelligence , imitation, eye contact sensitivity, spatial gaze following ability and the theory of mind . These mechanisms form core elements of animal social behavior. Our ability to socially exchange thoughts allows human cultures to accumulate knowledge in ways that would not be possible without language. The preliminary stages of language have been researched empirically in recent years. According to the current state of research, there is no evolutionary linear development of language as animal phyla come closer to humans. Tests show that birds have similar cognitive, prerequisite abilities to those of primates.

Proto language models

Language evolution explores models of proto-languages. Proto-language differs from original language and means alternative forms of communication (models) from which the original language , if it existed, could only arise. There are three models: the lexical model, the gestural model and the musical model. All models should provide answers to three components of language, signals, syntax and semantics. These components can be viewed as key evolutionary innovations that have evolved since humans split off from their last common ancestor. The lexical proto-language contained spoken words. Syntax as an innovation was added later, its emergence, especially with regard to several semantic hierarchies, is unclear, as is the cognitive mechanisms to clearly interpret ambiguous words in the linguistic context. Situationally changing alarm calls from the southern green monkey can serve as an example of an original state of lexical proto-language, but the calls are not learned in the sense of language learning. The lexical proto-language also does not have the property of intention for conveying information. The gestural model assumes that language emerged from pointing gestures . Sign language today can be a complete language with syntax and semantics. Great apes are better at pointing than speaking. Then the question arises why this model has been replaced by language. The musical model goes back to Charles Darwin . Darwin believed that birdsong and language share a common evolutionary root. Darwin already recognized the multiple components of language. The model is enjoying increasing recognition again, but cannot explain the emergence of semantics within melodies. Music with instruments can be traced back around 40,000 years in Homo sapiens. All three models mentioned can have an analog or a convergent origin; in the first case a protoform was created once, in the second case several times independently.

Language as action

Human spoken language

The communicative function of language

Language is the carrier of meaning and tradition, the key to understanding the world and self as well as a central means of interpersonal communication. According to the definition of Edward Sapir (1921), language is “a method that is exclusively human and not rooted in instinct for the transmission of thoughts , feelings and wishes by means of a system of freely created symbols ”.

Many media theories - especially the technical ones - see language not as a medium but as a communication tool, i. H. as a neutral enabling condition for the actual media . According to such conceptions, language only serves to represent or convey mental entities (concepts, terms), the latter being thought of as being independent of language. One speaks therefore of means of representation.

Language as a medium of thought

Written and spoken language is a “medium of thought and worldview par excellence”: This definition, as it was first presented by Wilhelm von Humboldt , assumes that language is indispensable for all more complex human activities and thought processes. Language is therefore not just a "subsequent" means of understanding between people, but every conception of things and facts in the world is already structured in terms of language. Things and facts are brought into context through the linguistic perception of the world. Accordingly, humans do not live in a world perceived by the senses, about which they only communicate afterwards and occasionally by means of language, but rather they live and work “in language”.

“Everyone has their own language. Language is an expression of the spirit. "

Language and power

Language can be used to intimidate and maintain power (e.g. bullying , denunciation , humiliation ). Berit Ås identified the five techniques of domination as mechanisms of suppression in oral communication . The reference to such effects of existing linguistic usage can make it possible to make such a connection a subject of discussion in the first place.

A well-known example from the literature of the attempt to influence the thinking of the population through language is the novel 1984 by George Orwell , published in 1949 . In this work, a fictional dictatorial ruling regime is described that uses a prescribed constructed language called " Newspeak " to guide the communication and thinking of the population in tight, controlled channels.

The psychologist Steven Pinker looked at the so-called euphemism treadmill ( euphemism treadmill ) - the effect of euphemistic neologisms shots all negative connotations of the words that they replaced. A German word in this context is the euphemistic word “ restructuring ”, which was intended to replace the word “closure of companies and facilities”, but took on the negative character.

Body language

Body language or non-verbal communication (communication without words) is that part of interpersonal communication that does not take place appropriately. Corresponding messages are carried by gestures , facial expressions , eye contact or non-verbal vocalizations such as laughing , but also psycho-vegetative expressions such as blushing and the design of the appearance through clothing , accessories , hairstyle , etc. a.

Sign language

Sign language is a visually perceptible and manually produced natural language that is used in particular for communication by non-hearing and hard-of-hearing people : it consists of a combination of facial expressions , silent words and posture. The variously combined elements are strung together in sentences and in the discourse in a certain order.


The science that deals with all aspects of language and language usage as well as with individual concrete languages ​​is linguistics. General linguistics examines human language as a system and general principles, rules and conditions of language. The Applied Linguistics covers topics that related to the specific use of language are. The Historical Linguistics deals with the development and the genetic relatedness of languages, with the development and changes of individual language elements, as well as language change in general. The comparative linguistics developed differences and similarities between languages, they are classified according to certain criteria and attempts language universals , ie properties that all or many languages have in common is to elicit. The biolinguistics finally deals with the biological basis - the evolution - of speech.

Within linguistics, there are a number of large and small sub-areas that deal with specific aspects of language, such as spoken and written language, the relationship between language and thinking, language and reality (see philosophy of language ) or language and culture. The use of language under normative aspects is described in dictionaries (spelling dictionaries, style dictionaries , etc.) and in usage grammars.

Language in the animal kingdom

Animals communicate with the help of their body language signals, fragrances , sounds , their coloring, etc. a. The corresponding signals in the animal kingdom are usually fixed; they cannot simply be freely combined to new meanings or statements.

Some animals can form sound sequences like humans, i.e. imitate linguistic expressions of humans ( parrots , seals , dolphins , ravens , elephants ).

The bees' waggle dance is often called bee or even dance language ; However, it is questionable whether and, if so, to what extent there is a similarity to human speech in the real instinctively regulated signal behavior meant. Whether birds , dolphins or primates know a language similar to human spoken language and use it to communicate with one another is discussed. Apparently, it is only a one-part and one-sided signal path between transmitter and receiver, as animal keepers make use of in training dogs, for example.

See also

Portal: Language  - Overview of Wikipedia content on language


Web links

Wiktionary: Language  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

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  2. Ernst Kausen: Languages ​​with at least 10 million speakers. 2014. ( MS Word ; 54 kB), accessed on June 16, 2016.
  3. so Peter Janich : Logical-pragmatic propaedeutics. 2001, p. 13.
  4. ^ Wilhelm von Humboldt: About the nature of language in general. From: Latium and Hellas . In: Writings on Language. Edited by Michael Böhler. Supplemented edition Stuttgart 1995, p. 7 f.
  5. Humboldt 1995, p. 8.
  6. Humboldt 1995, p. 11.
  7. a b c Charles Darwin: The descent of man. Fischer 2009, p. 106ff.
  8. cit. n .: musical protolanguage. Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited
  9. J. Krause, C. Lalueza-Fox, L. Orlando, W. Enard, RE Green, HA Burbano, JJ Hublin, C. Hänni, J. Fortea J, M. de la Rasilla, J. Bertranpetit, A. Rosas , S. Pääbo: The derived FOXP2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neandertals. In: Curr Biol. 17 (21), 6 Nov 2007, pp. 1908-1912. Epub 2007 Oct 18.
  10. a b W. Tecumseh Fitch , David Reby: The descended larynx is not uniquely human. In: Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. 268, 2001, pp. 1669-1675.
  11. ^ Vocal learning and vocal control in pinnipeds
  12. ^ T. Fitch, L. Huber, T. Bugnyar, Social Cognition and the Evolution of Language: Constructing Cognitive Phylogenies. In: Neuron. 65, March 25, 2010, pp. 795-814.
  13. D. Bickerton: On two incompatible theories of language evolution. In: RK Larson, V. Déprez, H. Yamakido (eds.): The evolution of human language: biolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York 2010.
  14. ^ R. Jackendoff: Foundations of language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  15. ^ GW Hewes: Primate communication and the gestural origin of language. In: Curr.Anthropol. 14, 1973, pp. 5-24.
  16. MA Arbib: From monkey-like action recognition to human language: an evolutionary framework for neurolinguistics. In: Behav. Brain Sci. 28, 2005, pp. 105-124, discussion 125-167.
  17. Musical protolanguage. Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited .
  18. Tecumseh Fitch: The biology and evolution of music: A comparative perspective. In: Cognition. 100, 2006, pp. 173-215.
  19. Language education: Maintaining and maintaining the German language as a task for all types of schools and all subjects. Announcement of the Bavarian State Ministry for Education and Culture, Science and Art from June 17, 2014 (KWMBl. 2014, p. 98), (PDF; 557 kB)
  20. Quoted from John Lyons, 4th edition. 1992, p. 13.
  21. Friedrich Engels: Dialectics of Nature. In: Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels works. Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1962, Volume 20, p. 447.