Quote collection: language

10 Jul 2017 | last updated on 10 Jul 2017 | all notes

Definition by “example”, in chronological order.

It appears to me almost beyond dispute that language is a phenomenon of imitation: … the tyranny of usage in itself, suffices to show at one glance its imitative character

(Tarde 1873, ch.5)

Language is a purely human and noninstinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols. […] Language may be looked upon as an instrument capable of running a gamut of psychic uses.

(Sapir 1921, ch.1)

Language is activity, chiefly social activity undertaken in order to get into touch with other individuals and communicate to them one’s thoughts, feelings and will.

(Jespersen 1949, 12/§2.1)

Language, like a living organism, is subject to (synchronic) variability and to permanent (diachronic) alteration.

(Altmann et al. 1983, 104)

If language were a tool, then language, too, would deteriorate and wear out … But language is not a commodity, nor is it a tool or an instrument, it is not an object at all; it is nothing other than its use. Language is language use. (Fritz Mauthner in Bredeck 1992, 86) </footer>

Language is a shared set of conventions for mapping meanings to utterances.

Language is both a biological and a cultural phenomenon.

(Origgi and Sperber 2000)

Language is a biological trait that radically changed the performance of one species and the appearance of the planet.

(Nowak and Komarova 2001)

Language is our legacy.

(Nowak, Komarova, and Niyogi 2002)

Language is a symbolic, culturally transmitted system of communication, which is learnt through the inference of meaning.

Language is a complex dynamical system that is shaped not just through biological evolution but by the way it is used in a social context.

Language is an example of collective behavior, and it is a type of collective behavior for which people are highly adapted. … Language provides a canonical example of a complex system: robust, adaptable, and self-assembling.

(Pierrehumbert 2006)

In this article it is argued that language can be seen as a dynamic system, i.e. a set of variables that interact over time, and that language development can be seen as a dynamic process.

(Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor 2007)

Human language is based on grammatical rules.

(Lieberman et al. 2007)

Natural languages comprise elaborate systems of rules that enable one speaker to communicate with another.

(Lieberman et al. 2007)

Language is coordination.

Language is a complex adaptive system: Speakers are agents who interact with each other, and their past and current interactions feed into speakers’ future behavior in complex ways.

(Blythe and Croft 2009)

Language is one of the most prominent examples of complex systems.

Language is a fundamentally social complex system, exhibiting organization at multiple spatial, temporal and structural levels (Beckner et al., 2009)

(Swarup and McCarthy 2012, 267)

In our view, for the purposes of scientific understanding, language should be understood as a particular computational cognitive system, implemented neurally, that cannot be equated with an excessively expansive notion of “language as communication”

(Bolhuis et al. 2014, 1)

Language, that is, the linguistic behavior of a speech community…

(Baxter and Croft 2016)


Altmann, Gabriel H., Haro von Buttlar, Walter Rott, and Udo Strauß. 1983. “A law of change in language.” In Historical Linguistics, edited by Barron Brainerd, 104–15. Bochum: Studienverlag Dr. N. Brockmeyer.

Baxter, Gareth, and William Croft. 2016. “Modeling language change across the lifespan: Individual trajectories in community change.” Language Variation and Change 28 (02): 129–73. doi:10.1017/S0954394516000077.

Blythe, Richard A., and William A. Croft. 2009. “The speech community in evolutionary language dynamics.” Language Learning 59 (Supplement s1): 47–63. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00535.x.

Bolhuis, Johan J., Ian Tattersall, Noam Chomsky, and Robert C. Berwick. 2014. “How could language have evolved?” PLoS Biology 12 (8): e1001934. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.

Bot, Kees de, Wander Lowie, and Marjolijn Verspoor. 2007. “A Dynamic Systems Theory approach to second language acquisition.” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 10 (01): 7. doi:10.1017/S1366728906002732.

Bredeck, Elizabeth. 1992. Metaphors of knowledge : language and thought in Mauthner’s Critique. Kritik. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Cowley, Stephen J. 2009. “Distributed language and dynamics.” Pragmatics & Cognition 17 (3). John Benjamins Publishing Company: 495–507. doi:10.1075/p&c.17.3.01cow.

Jespersen, Otto. 1949. Efficiency in linguistic change. 2nd ed. Det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes Selskab. Historisk-Filologiske Meddelelser. København: Ejnar Munksgaard.

Lieberman, Erez, Jean-Baptiste Michel, Joe Jackson, Tina Tang, and Martin A. Nowak. 2007. “Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language.” Nature 449 (7163). Nature Publishing Group: 713–16. doi:10.1038/nature06137.

Nowak, Martin A., and Natalia L. Komarova. 2001. “Towards an evolutionary theory of language.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5 (7): 288–95. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01683-1.

Nowak, Martin A., Natalia L. Komarova, and Partha Niyogi. 2002. “Computational and evolutionary aspects of language.” Nature 417 (6889): 611–7. doi:10.1038/nature00771.

Origgi, Gloria, and Dan Sperber. 2000. “Evolution, Communication, and the proper function of language.” In Evolution and the Human Mind Language Modularity and Social Cognition, edited by Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain, 140–69. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK. http://cogprints.org/2030/1/evo-lang.htm.

Pierrehumbert, Janet B. 2006. “The next toolkit.” Journal of Phonetics 34 (4): 516–30. doi:10.1016/j.wocn.2006.06.003.

Pop, Cristina-Maria. 2012. “Non-equilibrium relaxation. From language change to semiflexible polymer networks.” PhD thesis, Ludwig–Maximilians–Universität München. http://edoc.ub.uni-muenchen.de/15171/1/Pop{\_}Cristina-Maria.pdf.

Quillinan, Justin. 2006. “Social networks and cultural transmission.” MSc Dissertation, The University of Edinburgh. http://hdl.handle.net/1842/2046.

Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. Harcourt. http://www.bartleby.com/186/.

Smith, Andrew D. M. 2005. “The Inferential Transmission of Language.” Adaptive Behavior 13 (4). ISAB: 311–24. doi:10.1177/105971230501300402.

Steels, Luc. 1995. “A self-organizing spatial vocabulary.” Artificial Life 2 (3): 319–32. doi:10.1162/artl.1995.2.3.319.

Swarup, Samarth, and Corrine McCarthy. 2012. “Representational momentum may explain aspects of vowel shifts.” In Artificial Life 13, 267–74. MIT Press. doi:10.7551/978-0-262-31050-5-ch036.

Tarde, Gabriel. 1873. Les lois de l’imitation.