By Kamil Wiśniewski Aug 29th, 2007
Language has been studied for many years and from different perspectives. Ancient Greek philosophers elaborated on its proper use and purpose, modern scholars analyzed how it is produced and perceived. Everything that has so far been said about language can be ascribed to a certain general conception of talking about this issue. There are four such different approaches to talking about language: treating it as a social fact, as natural behavior, as a mental organ, or as an abstract object.
Language as a social phenomenon was first described by Ferdinand se Saussure who claimed that providing only historical description of languages (as it was done at his time) should not be the only approach to this complex entity. He maintained that crucial information about language can be obtained from its common users, who in most cases do not posses practically any theoretical knowledge about their native tongue and yet are competent speakers. Moreover, as Saussure assumed language use reflects the contemporary structure which should enable synchronic language analysis (language used at a given point in time) in addition to diachronic analysis concerned with the past linguistic forms. The social aspect of using language, or speech was called parole by Saussure, while the underlying knowledge of linguistic structure was known as langue.
Another view on language, mainly language as behavior partially derived from the behaviorist psychology and philosophy. Linguists representing this attitude focused on different languages used by various people rather than on linguistic universals, as they assumed that linguistic data is best gathered by observation of human behavior and interaction. Apart from that, it was assumed that meaning of sentences is not observable, thus it must be analyzed referring to introspective judgments. What follows this assumption is the definition of language provided by linguists who represent this approach. They maintain that language is: the totality of utterances that can be made in a speech community.
According to the third approach to language started by Noam Chomsky language is a mental organ. Having noticed certain similarities among languages Chomsky expressed the view that they cannot be explained by environmental factors or be accidental and there needs to be a special mental ability embedded in human brains. He defined language by means of generative grammar: a finite set of rules which would enable users to make an unlimited number of expressions. Representatives of this approach support the view that it is not particular languages that should be analyzed, but the Universal Grammar, or the mental organ that allows humans to speak.
The last group is constituted by scholars who claim that language is an abstract object as it does not occupy any space or time. Thus this view is in opposition to Chomsky’s ideas, but linguists who agree with it emphasize that the analysis of the best abstract models of language can bring helpful effects of the entire area of study.