What is language?

It is quite difficult to be an English teacher without an account of what language is, in the first place. Here is my take on this subject matter.

On the one hand, our definition of language relies upon a prototype of “definition”; in other words, WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF "DEFINITION”? On the other hand, we have an unconscious prototype of “language,” which determines our definition of “language” without us being aware that this prototypical definition coexists in our minds with other less central conceptions of language.

  • The number one definition (central prototype) that we confer to language is “means of communication,” which is heavily shaped by the conduit metaphor: “means,” “medium,” “channel,” “intermediary,” “avenue,” “route,” “path,” etc.

  • A secondary, less often discussed, yet comparably important definition that we hold in our minds is that of a “conceptualization system.” That is, a system to think about the world, a system that “structures and builds our reality”: how and what we think the world is.

  • A third conception of language is a “social construct.” In this definition, language is what it is only relative to its role in the formation and maintenance (sometimes destruction) of social bonds. Language is “whatever is shared by the members of a society”: common ground, mutual understanding, meaning negotiation, etc.

  • A fourth meaning associated with language is “set of linguistic symbols.” This places an emphasis on the symbolic nature of language. Different definitions of “symbolism”/”symbolization” come into play though. Some would go as far as to tell that human beings are “symbolic creatures,” which is not untrue, but these latter definitions start leaning to a more sort of ethereal, spiritual tone or shade of conversation. Others are more technical and define symbolism as arbitrary units of mental representation (fully detached “signs” for the representation of referential (and non-referential, abstract) objects of conception).

  • A fifth idea linked to language is “words.” This is probably the, ironically, least self-conscious definition of language. Nobody would deny that language has words; yet, not many would be willing to give such a seemingly barbaric definition; however, in practice, our daily experience with language is an experience with words (which is what you are reading right now (funnily enough)). So, it is just fair that we have this unaware conception of “language as words.”

  • Finally (for this non-comprehensive personal review), our conception of language depends upon the ideas we indoctrinate ourselves with from our favorite authors. The more I read and the more I agree with a certain author, the more I will tend to define language in her or his own terms.

Within this general perspective thus, language is liable to different conceptions and definitions. Different metaphors can be evoked to try to organize these different ideas into one coherent prototype. The one that seems most comfortable and practical (both conceptually and didactically) to me is the “radial metaphor,” in which we have a central core definition of language (the prototype); and then from there, other definitions extend outwards towards the periphery:

An alternative metaphor that I like to use in order to think of definitions is the “reticular meaning” metaphor (Gontier, 2016). In this metaphor, meanings overlap to a far more reaching extent than we normally are aware of. The following picture is a simplistic illustration of what “reticulate” tries to refer to.

On the left side, different meanings of a prototype branch out separately; on the right side, meanings interact and interweave with one another as they unfold their own ramifications.

A third alternative metaphor is the “waves metaphor”:

In this metaphor, different aspects of meaning can peak or valley at different times in our brains.

So, what is language? I do not intend to deal with phenomenological or ontological issues. This is just a witggensteinian approach (the meaning of words is its (conventional?) use). I simply want to point out two facts: 1) Those of us who work as English as a foreign language teachers cannot teach (or at least are very unlikely to succeed and are much more ineffective) if we do not even know or ask ourselves what language is; and 2) our conception of language is not one single monolith.

My very personal, most favorite definition is that “language is the evolutionary mechanism that humans developed to achieve ‘shared cognition’ (a common consciousness with the others).” But that is something to be discussed at some other moment with much more theoretical machinery from the cognitive neurosciences that define the underpinnings and differences between sensation, perception, and conception.


  • I did not tackle the "language is grammar" conception for this seems to me way too reductive. I am quite open, though, to discussing this as a possible component of the conceptual prototype of what language is.

  • The level of schematization is gargantuan: ¿How do we craft a definition that takes into account all the spaces-times in which language inhabits?

  • I did not cite any specific authors in my initial reasoning of six conceptual waves for there are too many researchers within each wave; nevertheless, for novice learners, I could suggest the following as a starting point in case you would like to dig deeper into these matters:

Language as a means of communication: Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 284–310). Cambridge University Press;

Language as a conceptualization system: Talmy, L. (2000). Toward a cognitive semantics. MIT Press;

Language as a social construct: Silverstein, M. (2004). “Cultural” concepts and the language-culture nexus. Current anthropology, 45(5), 621-652.

Language as symbolization: Langacker, R. W. (2008). Cognitive Grammar-A Basic Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Language as words: Kenneally, C. (2007). The first word: The search for the origins of language. Penguin.

Language as an indoctrination: Harris, R. A. (2021). The linguistics wars: Chomsky, Lakoff, and the battle over deep structure. Oxford University Press.

Symbolic symbolism?

For Langacker (1987), symbols are not 100% arbitrary. He illustrates this with the word "stapler," which is arguably composed of two morphemes: "stapl-" and "-er." Since "-er" carries schematic meaning of its own, the symbol "stapler" is not 100% arbitrary.

Excerpt from Langacker (1987):


Gontier, N. (2016). Guest-editorial introduction: converging evolutionary patterns in life and culture. Evolutionary Biology, 43(4), 427-445.

Langacker, R. W. (1987). Foundations of cognitive grammar: Theoretical prerequisites (Vol. 1). Stanford University Press.