Target audience: beginners.


In his 1921 book Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, [[ Edward Sapir ]] describes languages as “arbitrary systems of symbolism” (sapir1921language: 11).

This description highlights three properties of languages important to linguists:

  1. Languages are symbolic.
  2. Languages are arbitrary.
  3. Languages are systems.

These three properties provide a good introduction to a linguistic approach to the question of what a language is. For a more elaborate discussion of the nature of language, see [[ Design features of language ]].

Symbolic nature of language

Language is symbolic in that it is composed of things (such as words) that point to things, concepts, ideas, etc. without being those things.

Take words as a concrete case. Any given language has certain words: for example, the words dog, snowman, optimize, empirical, etc. are part of the English language There are also words that aren’t part of English: for example, plâge ‘beach’ (French), faoi ‘under’ (Irish), 你們 nǐmen ‘you (pl.)’ (Mandarin).

The words of a language also have meanings associated with them. Part of knowing English is knowing that, when we put the sounds /d/ + /ɑ/ + /g/ together to say dog, we understand that we’re referring to the domesticated canine animal. The association between this sequence of sounds and this meaning is part of the English language.

[[ Sign languages ]] also have an analogous property: words are composed of an association beween a particular series of gestures and a particular meaning.

To account for both of these modalities (see [[ Language is modality-independent]]), we can say that words, and other linguistic building blocks, are associations between forms and meanings. See also [[Saussurean sign ]].

See [[ Design features of language ]] (where this property is called semanticity).


In most cases, there is no necessary connection between the form associated with a meaning and the meaning itself. Nothing about the concept ‘table’ suggests that it should be called table, as we do in English. It could just as well be a mesa (Spanish) or a 桌子 zhuōzi (Mandarin). In general, the association between form and meaning is a purely arbitrary and conventional one. This means that the symbols of language must be learned.

There are exceptions to this generalization. One such exception is the phenomenon of [[ Onomatopoeia ]], in which the form of a word imitates the sound it is associated with: e.g. English hiss, cuckoo, gurgle.

But these exceptions to the principle of arbitrariness are rare and marginal within languages. See [[ Iconicity]], [[Sound symbolism ]] for further discussion of exceptions to arbitrariness.

See [[ Design features of language ]].


Language is more than just a set of symbols. It is also a set of rules for combining these symbols, as well as rules for interpreting these combinations. This set of rules is called the [[ Grammar ]] of a language. The facts that languages have rules of this kind makes each language into a system.

Take the following English sentences as an example:

  1. The dogs chased the cats.
  2. The cats chased the dogs.

Both of these sentences are made up of the same words, but the meaning each sentence conveys is different. The only difference between the two is the order the words come in. The rules that govern this difference in interpretation are contained within the grammar of the language.

We can also distinguish between sentences like these two, which mean something in the language, and sentences like *Chase cats dogs the the., which mean nothing.1

Sentences which can be assigned a meaning in a language are grammatical sentences of that language. Sentences which cannot be assigned a meaning in a language are ungrammatical sentences of that language. The difference between these two types of sentences is also contained within the grammar of the language. See [[ Grammaticality ]].

One aspect of the systematicity of language that is of paramount importance to linguists is the [[ Productivity ]] or creativity of language. This property of language describes the fact that language is an open-ended system: it is possible (and common!) to produce and comprehend sentences never said before.

From a finite set of symbols (e.g. words) and rules for combining them (i.e. grammar), a language can produce an infinite set of sentences. Explaining how this is possible is a central topic of study in linguistics.

See [[ Design features of language ]] (where this property is called productivity).

Language and thought

See Language and thought.

  1. Ungrammatical sentences are marked with a preceding asterisk (*) by convention. 

Notes mentioning this note


I write a newsletter for people who love language. I write about linguistics, language learning, and writing – in other words, how languages work, how to learn them, and what to do with the ones you've learned. Sign up here:

    Here are all the notes in this garden, along with their links, visualized as a graph.