A system of symbols developed to communticate ideas between intelligent entities.

Natural languages are used (so far as we know) only by humans, but computers are starting to be able to understand them, albeit imperfectly.

Formal languages, such as programming languages are created to express ideas in a more rigid, but also less ambiguous way. They are used in Mathematics, Computer Science and many other scientific disciplines.

A formal language is a set of strings (which are in the language). A string is any concatenation of a string and a symbol. The empty string is a string, too. Formal languages are divided up into four classes; regular languages,&context-free languages, context sensitive languages and free languages, each one a super-class of the previous one.

All software is composed of language. A computer is thus a language machine because it is based entirely on a symbolic system. By this same token, your mind is purely a linguistic system because it is composed of a voice in your head using symbolic words. For more details and my wacky conclusions see You are language and language is a virus.

Terence McKenna thinks that language will soon evolve into visible language. Maybe as soon as December 21, 2012.

Language electrifies me. There is a power to the interplay, crush and tumble, of words that provides me with a satisfaction and a transcendence nothing else (praise, chocolate, sex) can give me. In those moments when I am alone with the linguistic elements that define language, alone to concentrate on the tempo, the tone, the way one sound melts into another in the transmutation of one idea to another, I feel filled with a power almost physical, a current that runs through my body. It is as though the appendages through which I use language (my hands, my mouth) are the outlets and I am the generator, churning away, electromagnets energizing, that converts the energy.

I am both the omnipotent wielder of this power and the leaf fluttering tenuously under the barrage of its currents. Because the possibility inherent in this discrete combinatorial system--phonemes, listemes, words, sentences, and ever larger structures, from paragraphs and pages to books and treatises--is limitless, that created by those who use it, too, is limitless. As a user of words, I can express any idea, whether witnessed or imaginary, to as extensive a detail as I wish. I can make anything happen. To someone like me (okay, I'm not so great at sports or lifting heavy things and opening the tops of jars) this ability is a treasure. To realize that I can bend and shape the current of energy to express whatever I want is like winning the lottery. Suddenly, I am able.

Yet, at the same time, being open to the phenomenon of language, whether it is instinct or acquired knowledge or both, as it most likely is, means not only that I can effect changes with the combinations I create but that I can be affected by the combinations of words that others create, sometimes profoundly. It is a sort of danger of being short-circuited. A hurtful phrase, a mesmerizing book, a catchy lyric: all of these can, in a sense, disrupt my ability to function. A well-constructed phrase is a joy, enjoyed both by the organic side of me, who appreciates its aesthetic attributes and by the intellectual side, who admires its logical structure, but I can be so caught up in it, in the rhythms and cadences of someone else's use of syntax and sound, that I am paralyzed; I cannot free myself to string together my own words.

In the end, it is a matter of choice. I may choose to be open to this uniquely human mode of communication, complete with benefits and risks, or I may choose to bury my head, read little, write less. It is just like the very basic gift of existence. I have found that I can step out the door most mornings and, in the distance between my dorm and the main building of the school, be so bombarded with sensory stimulation that I am overwhelmed; the wildly improbable has happened, life thrives, and I am here to make sense of it all.

The distinction between a language and a dialect is somewhat ambiguous. Suzette Haden Elgin wrote that while she would consider Navajo (Diné) and Apache to be dialects of the same language, she feels sure that no native speaker of either language would agree. Similarly, Laotian and Thai seem like dialects to outsiders, but for various reasons are thought of as separate languages by their native speakers.

Linguists often say, attributing the idea to Max Weinreich, that the difference is that

a language is a dialect with its own army and navy.

Of course, this would exclude many landlocked languages from the definition. On a less literal level, however, it rings true. Nationalism can contribute strongly to a sense of linguistic identity.

SOURCE: Suzette Haden Elgin, "The Language Imperative"

This is a work in progress; please /msg me with comments/additions.




The most spoken languages

 1. Chinese, (Mandarin)

Spoken in Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand

Spoken by 885 million people

 2. Spanish

Spoken in Andorra, Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, United States,Venezuela

Spoken by 332 million people

 3. English

Spoken in Australia, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gambia, Guyana, India, Ireland, Israel, Lesotho, Liberia, Malaysia, Micronesia, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Suriname, Swaziland, Tonga, United Kingdom, United states, Vanuatu, Zimbabwe

Spoken by 322 million people.

 4. Bengali

Spoken in Bangladesh, India, Singapore

Spoken by 189 million people

 5. Hindi

Spoken in India, Nepal, Singapore, South Africa, Uganda

Spoken by 182 million people

 6. Portuguese

Spoken in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, France, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal

Spoken by 170 million people

 7. Russian

Spoken in China, Israel, Mongolia, Russia

Spoken by 170 million people

 8. Japanese

Spoken in Japan, Singapore, Taiwan

Spoken by 125 million people

 9. German

Spoken in Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Paraguay, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland

Spoken by 98 million people.

10. Chinese, (Wu)

Spoken in China

Spoken by 77.2 million people.

  1. Javanese - 75.5 million people
  2. Korean - 75.0 million people
  3. French - 72.0 million people
  4. Vietnamese - 67.7 million people
  5. Telugu - 66.0 million people
  6. Marathi - 64.8 million people
  7. Tamil - 63.1 million people
  8. Turkish - 59.0 million people
  9. Urdu - 58.0 million people
  10. Chinese, (Min Nan) - 49.0 million people
  11. Chinese, (Jinyu) - 45.0 million people
  12. Gujarati - 44.0 million people
  13. Polish - 44.0 million people
  14. Arabic - 42.5 million people
  15. Ukrainian - 41.0 million people
  16. Italian - 37.0 million people
  17. Chinese (Xiang) - 36.0 million people
  18. Malayalam - 34.0 million people
  19. Chinese, (Hakka) - 34.0 million people
  20. Kannada - 33.8 million people

The next few languages in line include western and eastern Panjabi, Sunda, Romanian, Bhojpuri, Azerbaijani, Hausa, Algerian Arabic, Burmese, Serbo-Croatian, Awadhi, Thai and Dutch

this list was made by doing extensive database and spreadsheet work, with a variety of original sources, but mainly an Introduction to Linguistics textbook, and an ethnology database made by one of the professors at my former university. Enjoy!

What is really the nature of language? Traditional views would hold that language is a medium by which people express themselves, their thoughts and ideas, and apply ideas and concepts to events and objects. Martin Heidegger introduces a conception of language, expounded in his similarly titled essay, bound by notions of the tenuous relationship between the material nature of things and places and their meaning for humans. Heidegger grounds this view in Georg Trakl's poem Winter Evening. As he interprets the poem line by line, he gradually constructs his interpretation of language point by point.

His introductory point is that language calls things into the presence of a person by naming them. Like a magic spell, it bids these things to come into the nearness of that person. "Wandering ones, more than a few come to the door on darksome courses" because they are summoned and bidden there by the call of the vesper bell - "Long tolls the vesper bell, The house is provided well, The table is for many laid." Thus the poem's description of how men are drawn to a house with a table laid out with food metaphorically mirrors the way language draws people to what it names.

But what happens after language calls people to what it names? How much nearness can be produced to something merely named with words? Heidegger answers this question by interpreting the part of the poem where the wanderer reaches a threshold at the entry to the house: "Wanderer quietly steps within; Pain has turned the threshold to stone." It turns out that what is named by language - the house -  is not brought into a full presence but into a limited one. Would it be reasonable to expect a full presence of whatever language happens to mention?

To answer that, it suffices to take the house itself as an example. (As is often the case, house here has the connotation of a home since the food and bread and wine in the poem establish it as a place of comfort to the wanderer who seeks to enter it.) As you open the door to a house or an apartment and look inside, you may utter the word home. But does that word really make it home? Heidegger would apply the duality of thing and world to answer this very question. His concept of the world is about the meaning and purpose of being. The word home does belong to that realm; a home is a sanctuary and a place of comfort. It is the site of all the nooks and crannies and things that sustain daily rituals and activities. The rituals and activities of a home are its world.

So when you stand on the threshold of a house or an apartment and look inside, with thoughts of the activities and rituals that take place there, despite using the word home, it is still just a house and an apartment. And if it happens to be sold or rented out to someone else the next day, it ceases to be home.

And this, in a very roundabout way, answers the question about the nearness a person can attain to what is named by language: it is limited because the unity of world and thing is limited. If you are miles away from the house or apartment where you live, your talk of how the world of your everyday activities is linked to that house makes it a home. This is the act of language calling certain things, whatever material they are constructed of, into a nearness by uniting them with your world and your life.

At its choice, language can do just the opposite: it can break the link and disconnect the world of your life from a place or object. After a party is over, a party balloon can become pieces of latex that need to be thrown away. A glass beer mug, after it falls and breaks into pieces, becomes just shards of glass.

Heidegger is emphasizing that the link between objects, places, and people and the meaningful purposeful words we give them is always contingent. In Heidegger's terms, our life and what we do with it are the the inside or the world and the material being of objects is the outside or things. Language or speaking "bids things to come to world and world to come to things... The calling.. entrusts world to things and simultaneously keeps things in the splendor of the world. Pain is the joining of the rift. The joining is the threshold. It settles the between, the middle of the two that are separated in it."

When a thing is joined to a world or disconnected from it, the drawing together and the tearing asunder produces pain, with Heidegger's clarification "that we should not imagine pain as a sensation that makes us feel afflicted."  But why does he write that pain "turns the threshold to stone?" That can be illustrated in the context of the experience of foster children. Let's imagine the case of a foster child who has been adopted several times and yet dropped by her foster parents some time afterward. When her new mother began to refer to her as daughter in discussion with others, the child would have felt the word daughter penetrate every aspect of her experience, from meals to hugs to trips to school.

Standing on the threshold of not being a daughter and being one, she would certainly experience intense feelings because the difference between the two statuses is so overwhelming. (I would interpret Heidegger's word pain to mean intense feelings.) And once her foster mother decides to return her to the state, the girl's "threshold" between world and thing would harden yet again. From then on, she would be hyperaware of what Heidegger calls "the separateness of world and thing."

A child adopted in his first few months of life may not see how language has disconnected the mother role in his world from one person and connected it to another, and a person who lived in one house for most of his life will not ponder whether his house may not be his home. But the foster child who keeps switching households will always be standing on the threshold that separates a house from being a home and a woman from being a mother.


Heidegger, Martin. "Language." Poetry, Language and Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Ed. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Perennial Classics, 2001.

"Global Adoption: A New Look." On Point. WBUR, 15 Apr. 2010. Radio. (Program information at http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/04/a-new-look-at-global-adoption.)

“A Winter Evening,” written by Georg Trakl translated by Albert Hofstadter.

Window with falling snow is arrayed,
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.

Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.

Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.

Lan"guage (?), n. [OE. langage, F. langage, fr. L. lingua the tongue, hence speech, language; akin to E. tongue. See Tongue, cf. Lingual.]


Any means of conveying or communicating ideas; specifically, human speech; the expression of ideas by the voice; sounds, expressive of thought, articulated by the organs of the throat and mouth.

Language consists in the oral utterance of sounds which usage has made the representatives of ideas. When two or more persons customarily annex the same sounds to the same ideas, the expression of these sounds by one person communicates his ideas to another. This is the primary sense of language, the use of which is to communicate the thoughts of one person to another through the organs of hearing. Articulate sounds are represented to the eye by letters, marks, or characters, which form words.


The expression of ideas by writing, or any other instrumentality.


The forms of speech, or the methods of expressing ideas, peculiar to a particular nation.


The characteristic mode of arranging words, peculiar to an individual speaker or writer; manner of expression; style.

Others for language all their care express. Pope.


The inarticulate sounds by which animals inferior to man express their feelings or their wants.


The suggestion, by objects, actions, or conditions, of ideas associated therewith; as, the language of flowers.

There was . . . language in their very gesture. Shak.


The vocabulary and phraseology belonging to an art or department of knowledge; as, medical language; the language of chemistry or theology.


A race, as distinguished by its speech.


All the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshiped the golden image. Dan. iii. 7.

Language master, a teacher of languages.[Obs.]

Syn. -- Speech; tongue; idiom; dialect; phraseology; diction; discourse; conversation; talk. -- Language, Speech, Tongue, Idiom, Dialect. Language is generic, denoting, in its most extended use, any mode of conveying ideas; speech is the language of articulate sounds; tongue is the Anglo-Saxon tern for language, esp. for spoken language; as, the English tongue. Idiom denotes the forms of construction peculiar to a particular language; dialects are varieties if expression which spring up in different parts of a country among people speaking substantially the same language.


© Webster 1913.

Lan"guage, v. t. [imp. & p. p. Languaged (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Languaging (?).]

To communicate by language; to express in language.

Others were languaged in such doubtful expressions that they have a double sense. Fuller.


© Webster 1913.

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