Course Introduction
Unit 1: Defining English
Unit 2: Using English
Unit 3: Learning English
Unit 4: Teaching English
Unit 5: Changing English
End of Course

1.1.2 Plurilithic concepts of language

Concept: Most linguists believe that monolithic concepts of language(s) are idealisations

In linguistics, the academic study of human language, it often appears that a monolithic concept of language is being assumed. However, most linguists believe that this is an idealisation which may be appropriate for certain purposes, but for the most part conceals the underlying facts. Namely:

Each language is made up of multiple, coalescing objects

  • For sociolinguists, languages are located in social groups, contexts and practices. No two of these are identical, and no individual or group uses the same practices in all contexts. From this perspective, there are as many Englishes as there are groups of users, multiplied by the different contexts and practices in which they use its resources.
  • For psycholinguists, languages are located in the minds and brains of all those who use them. No two versions are identical. In this sense, then, there are perhaps over two billion Englishes: a different one in the brain of every user.
  • In the same way that gravity brings into being galaxies by connecting billions of separate objects, individual acts of (effective) communication connect complex sets of linguistic knowledge (and use) that we think of as ‘English’.

Each language has fuzzy boundaries

  • People have always moved and language has always moved with them. With globalisation, this mobility has accelerated dramatically, and with the technological advances that have accompanied globalisation, language now also moves while people stay in one place (via social media and the Internet, for example). The result is unprecedented language distribution across the globe.
  • When people move, their language forms and practices change. They gradually become distinct from those of users who stayed behind or moved to other locations. They can also become strongly influenced by the language forms and practices of the new people they interact with, to the extent that it’s not clear where one language stops and the other starts. For very mobile languages, the result is massive variation and unclear boundaries.
  • Bilingualism (and increasingly multilingualism) is the norm. Typical bilinguals use some parts of one language for certain purposes (e.g. at home), and some parts of another language for other purposes (e.g. in school). Often they switch from one language to the other or use mixed language resources as the dynamics of an interaction change. A bilingual’s resources in one of their languages might appear incomplete when compared with those of a monolingual of a similar socioeconomic and educational profile, but their overall communicative repertoires (what they can do with both languages combined) will be more or less equivalent. So the boundaries between languages in the heads of speakers tend not to be fixed either.

Each language has an ambiguous shape and form

  • Linguists have produced detailed grammatical descriptions for only a fraction of the world’s languages, and even for the most closely studied languages (of which English is perhaps the best example), there are no complete, unified accounts of the knowledge that any given native speaker might possess.
  • No dictionary contains all the words known by those who would identify as speakers of a particular language. New words are being used on a daily basis, frequently by multilinguals, and often they are never used again.

Each language is variable, hybrid, and dynamic

  • Languages embrace enormous variability at every level of form and function. Although many people think of a language as having a single ‘standard’ form, most users don’t actually know it (fully) or use it (most of the time, if ever). Languages are used with local accents and dialects (regional differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar), a continuum of contextual styles or registers (e.g. from formal to informal), and diverse patterns of form and use associated with social factors (e.g. occupation, gender identity, age, ethnic and cultural identity, socioeconomic status, educational level).
  • When users of one language come into contact with users of other languages, they exchange words. This can be the result of invasion, conquest, enslavement, exploration, trade, migration, education, marriage, literature, science, religion, technology, fashion, political dissent, popular music, movies, back-packing, … or whatever. Many of these words are absorbed into the language repertoire of those involved. Every language is a hybrid, absorbing multilingual resources, and those that have been very mobile, like English, are becoming increasingly mixed in composition.
  • Learning and using a language can change that language in tiny ways. When combined together and spread across individuals, such changes can be perceived historically as turning one language into another. So, for example, we know that Latin dialects became Italian, French, Spanish, etc., and that Sanskrit dialects became Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, etc. But it is impossible to put a date on when any language was born, because: (a) a language is not one system but many related systems; and (b) these systems have evolved gradually from generation to generation, in a continual process that started when members of our species first began to speak. Language is forever in motion.

Discussion point 1.1

Romance languages have different words corresponding to the English word language, as discussed in this post from the linguistics blog Language Log. Do you know of other languages which distinguish between different conceptualisations of language with different words? If so, do these words correspond to more monolithic or more plurilithic senses? 

What do you think of the use of the word language as a verb by some linguists (Joseph, 2002)?

Share your thoughts in the discussion section at the bottom of the page.

20 Comments
Collapse Comments
Fajarudin Akbar 25/03/2024 at 8:55 am

I’m intrigued by how languages from different cultures see and define language differently. For example, in Romance languages like Italian and Spanish, they have words like “lingua” and “idioma” for “language,” showing unique ways of thinking about language. But it’s not just Romance languages—many others have similar differences.

Comment *As a native speaker of Spanish, I can tell the differentiation between the word lengua and idioma. On the one hand, language refers to all those oral and written signs that allow speakers to communicate with each other. Moreover, it is dynamic and evolves with the passage of time, taking into account the needs of the people who speak it. On the other hand, language is a variety of language that has been adapted over the years by particular communities.
In the Spanish language there are millions of speakers in different countries who may have different variations in their dialects. In some cases, a language may have several standardized languages, as in the case of Arabic, which has Classical, Egyptian and others. In this sense, both the concept of language and language are multilingual since they can be used by people whether or not they are native speakers of a specific language.

Language is seen as a verb because it is constantly moving and evolving, allowing communication to take place in the best possible way.

I did a search of words associated with “language” and that took me to these results here: https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/language
vocabulary
And that reminded me of the word “shibboleth” which is from Hebrew and which carries a monolithic sense in its definition:
From Wikipedia: A shibboleth is any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another.Shibboleths have been used throughout history in many societies as passwords, simple ways of self-identification, signaling loyalty and affinity, maintaining traditional segregation, or protecting from real or perceived threats.

And then there’s the word “tongue” — to speak in tongues, mother tongue, a sharp tongue. So maybe this has both a monolithic and plurilithic sense

And “lingo” seems to be both monolithic and plurilithic (depending on use): Taking examples from Meriam-Webster again:
1. the special terms or expressions of a particular group or field “the shorthand medical lingo that the hospital staffers use with one another” (this has the sense of language which must be learned to be able to belong to a group)
2. the stock of words, pronunciation, and grammar used by a people as their basic means of communication “medical missionaries struggling to learn the lingo of the African tribe that they were treating” – this example sentence suggests something casual and not codified, i.e. without a centralised standard from which would make learning the language easier — suggesting a plurilithic sense, but used in a disparaging manner.

I find your comment insightful. However, I would disagree that ‘lingo’ can be treated as a monolithic language. Even if it refers to a very specified field, it is still used by people of different nationalities and cultures, and there are new words added as a result of new technological inventions.

Issy Shackleton 01/04/2024 at 12:11 pm

Like the example of Spanish, Romanian is another language in which there are a few words for “language” with different conceptualizations: ‘limba’, ‘limbaj’ and ‘vorbire’/’grai’. These are, in fact, equivalents of the Spanish words. This is probably because both languages are of Latin origin, as I’ve found that with German, for instance, this is not the case (the only word being Sprache). Can anyone confirm? I think the different conceptualizations tend to be more plurilithic, as they recognize the uses of language by different groups.

I like the verbification of the noun “language” (just like many many other nouns) because it conveys that language is always in motion, transforming, being dynamic, and not passive, as some might erroneously think. We can see this use in the word “translanguaging’, for instance.

As a native Swede teaching both German and English, I can add that similar to the German word ‘Sprache’, Swedish has its word for language which is “språk”. Comparing the two it is easy to spot the movement of people and thereby change in language as they walked up to the cold north. The ‘a’ got the ring above it turing into our letter ‘å’ and the ‘ch’-sound turned into a ‘k’. In German you use a verb form of “Sprache” which is ‘sprechen’ which used to be true for Swedish as well. We used to have a verb form of the noun “språk” which was “språka” but it has fallen out of use. Instead we have ‘prata’ or ‘tala’ which are not based on the word for language.

Thomas Le Seelleur 03/04/2024 at 9:53 am

English does not exist in a vacuum. Though it acts like a vacuum cleaner by sucking in all manner of articles, particles, and surrounding environment making the vacuum bag a plurilithic mass. Language as a verb – why not – as Englishes evolve new variations of words are formed and if they stay relevant remain in the language but often ‘fashionable’ words remain for a time and then go out of use. Sick (good) is one word which was common with my kids 5 years ago and yet it will become less used with future generations and may revert back to its original meanings.

The use of the word “language” as a verb may be experimented on by a new language user; some linguists would identify it as one, for its functions. The popularity of the usage might determine whether it is acceptable in the long term. If the majority hold monolithic views, they may see this as wrong, on the other hand, plurilithic supporters, and scholars, can accept it for semantic and terminological purposes.

With Romance languages having different variations to the term ‘language’, perhaps their view of these variations is through a plurilithic sense, as the usage may be malleable in different contexts. However, another argument could be that, with these variations, there may be specific context in which specific words are used. Aside from that, it could also be that different variations of the term may have different connotations for them as well. In this sense, I believe that depending on the context in which a word is used, there may be specific meanings attached. With globalisation, these meanings will then emerge and, subsequently, may have the ability to lessen the impact of how they were originally used.

Language as a verb is an interesting concept. I think that it closely relates to the fact that we are always communicating in a certain language. This may be through the use of symbols, hand gestures or even programming language with a computer. The variations in which new ways of ‘languaging’ is developing emphasizes that it is constantly evolving and in motion.

Shukrullah Amiri 24/05/2024 at 1:55 pm

I am agree with your argument.

Sopuruchi Christian Aboh 05/04/2024 at 11:07 pm

In Nigeria, the Igbo word for language is ‘asusu’ while that of Yoruba is ‘Ede’. In these languages, I would say that they correspond to the plurithic senses because they acknowledge the existence and usefulness of the different varieties of the languages.

I think that the use of language in a verb form makes sense because language is used to perform actions. Austin’s ‘How to do things with words’ comes to mind here. This verbal use of language has resulted in terms such as translanguaging.

I like the idea of verbification of the noun “language”, which might serve as one more way to simplify English. In my mother tongue – Lithuanian – the noun ‘language’ and the verb ‘speak’ have the same root. This way it stresses the real purpose of the language: to pass a message.

Johan Sandberg McGuinne 12/04/2024 at 1:25 pm

In South Saami, and most other Saami languages, the word for “language” translates both as “language”, “voice” and “snare”. In addition, as an effect of colonialism which has led to a massive language loss within the community, many speakers refer to their Saami language as their “vaajmoegïele”, i.e. “language of their heart”. A vaajmoegïele is, in essence, a language that you identify with, whether or not you’re able to speak it fluently.

In Scottish Gaelic, there is a distinction between “cànan” (language) and “cainnt” (speech, language, conversation).

Where “cànan” is used specifically to denote a language, “cainnt” is frequently found in compound nouns, such as dual-chainnt (dialect), “droch-chainnt,” (bad language, such as swearing) and “cainnt-chluich” (pun, joke). The word “beul-chainnt” (mouth language) can be understood as spoken language, and is directly related to the fact that “dèan cainnt” translates as “to make language”, i.e. “to speak”.

“Cainnt” has a more informal and warm feeling to it as well; where “cànan mathaireil” translates as “mother tongue”, the term “cainnt do mhàthair” (the spoken words of your mother, i.e. your native language) is more informal, and feels more intimate.

In Swedish, the word for language is “språk”, which can be used both as a noun, and as a verb (“att språka”), which could be interpreted as “to converse” or as “to chit-chat”.

@Rimke has already explained that in Lithuanian the words ‘language’ and ‘speak’ have the same root which suggests it being natural for Lithuanians to have ‘language’ as a verb. However, the word ‘kalba – language’ has made its long way from Slavic, Latin, Greek and German to become a wordi in Lithuanian. This suggests it not being monolithic at all.

Cristina Bastos 15/04/2024 at 3:52 pm

For me, as Portuguese, on the one hand, the use of the word language as a verb sounds a bit strange, maybe because we have (as some colleagues in this forum) two different words for language (língua) and speak (falar). On the other hand and if we think closely, with regard to old and popular Portuguese language, we see that there´s a verb “linguajar” that means exatly “language” and that is a verb. How interesting. I had never thought about this.

David Leal Cobos 05/05/2024 at 7:17 pm

These ideas and all the comments have made me think about power relationships and how they shape the world. In ELT we have the same case as well as in academia. On many occasions it is a matter of “fashion”. I’m from Spain and I remember learning syntax and analysis in school, high-school and university in a determined way. Once I started teaching English to teenagers, they showed me how everything had evolved. It was a bit of a shock for me, buy had to make up my mind and work using their concepts and terms to help them advance. Which system is better? I don’t know, as I’m not an expert. However, digging into this topic I found out the “classical school” and a more “modern school” fighting each other to either maintain their position or get a predominant one. Everything evolves and languages are no exception. About the Spanish terms “lengua” and “lenguaje”, I use them interchangeably to adapt to my learners and help them the most.

After being prompted to this discussion, I immediately thought of the word “Sprache” from German. I began to think that, different from the more linguistic-oriented word that languages like English and Spanish have, in German the word “Sprache” denotes an action, which is that of “Speaking”. In German, you would say “Wie viele Sprachen sprichst du?”, but in English you wouldn’t say “How many speakings do you speak?”. Then, as I looked for information about the origin of the word “Sprache”, I found that the word comes from the Proto-Indo-European word “spreg-“, meaning “to speak” or “to make a noise”. Thus, I conclude that in German, the notion of languages is directly connected to oral forms of communication, without saying that written forms do not play a key role here; while in English, the notion refers to a system of communication, rather than the social action of communicating.

Shukrullah Amiri 24/05/2024 at 2:04 pm

It is interesting.We have Persian language which had dominance before British colonization of the south Asian. Now it named and somehow divided in three countries. Farsi/Persian in Iran, Dari in Afghanistan and Tajiki in Tajikistan. I say those different conceptualisations of language with different words are a cultural-political desition.

Tiina Asikainen 27/05/2024 at 10:52 am

I can more easily see “language” being used as a verb than the Finnish version “kieli”. Might be because we already have the verb “kieliä”, but that means “to snitch”.

On one hand, the beauty of all languages is their ability to develop and change, to adapt to new environments, but on the other hand, I find some new word forms or new ways of using existing words “wrong”. To me, it is easier to accept the changes in other languages than in my native language, which is Finnish. I started learning English at school when I was 9, and since English is used by so many people with different native languages, I guess this has made me more tolerant towards the changes and varieties within the English language.

Daniel enrique Ibañez piñeros 05/06/2024 at 12:49 am

i would say that the meaning of language in spanish tends to be more plurilithic than monolithic,because of the different contexts in which spanish can be found,it has a much deeper explanation, for example, in colombian spanish language creates more meaning as programing languages or forms or nonverbal means of communication, nevertheless,the words tongue (lengua) or the word (idioma) are more used.therefore,the use of language as a verb in spanish would not be a good match because of spanish singularities.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *