The Different Features of Language

Verbal communication involves the use of language as a symbol to represent what we mean. This may be oral or written. To use language effectively, we must understand its features of verbal communication.

Language is symbolic.

As previously discussed, communication occurs through the use of symbols. We use symbols to represent how we experience the world. Language, just like pictures, signs, gestures, or even music, is an example of a set of symbols used to represent a concept or a phenomenon. Meaning does not reside with symbols, or in the case of verbal communication, in words; instead, meaning rests in people. Charles Kay Ogden and Ivor Armstrong Richards illustrated this through a model called the triangle of meaning.

Triangle og Meaning

The triangle of meaning, also called the semantic triangle, explains the relationship among three elements: thought, symbol and referent. Thought refers to the concept or the object or phenomenon the symbol is referring to. The symbol may be a word, a picture, or a sign that represents the thought. The referent is the object being referred to by the symbol. The relationship between symbols and referents is indirect.

Thought, on the other hand, is directly related to both the symbol and the referent. Because people use symbols in different ways and have different meanings for words, communication often results in misunderstanding. Consider the following example:

Maria told Eric that she would love to receive flowers on her birthday. Eric gave her wildflowers instead. Maria wasn’t happy. She expected Eric to give her a bouquet of red roses. Both had a similar thought, that is, Eric would give Maria flowers on her birthday. They communicated using the same symbol, the word “flower.” However, Maria’s referent for the word, “flower” is not the same as Eric’s, which is the cause for the misunderstanding.

Just like all symbols, language is ambiguous, arbitrary, and abstract. Language ambiguity occurs when words or statements have more than one meaning and are interpreted in different ways. For instance, the sentence, “Flying planes can be dangerous” is ambiguous as it may be understood as either “The act of flying planes can be dangerous” or “Planes that are flying can be dangerous.” Another type of ambiguity that affects communication is relationship ambiguity. Communicators should recognize the relationship aspect of communication. This involves determining what one communicator feels about the other and knowing what words would be appropriate to say to each other. Going back to our previous example, if Maria expected to receive red roses from Eric because, for her, these flowers symbolize love and Eric did not feel that way about Maria, we may infer that the relationship between the two is ambiguous. On the other hand, if Eric didn’t know red roses are a symbol for love, even if there is no relationship ambiguity, then the ambiguity lies in the interpretation of the symbol. Since people have different fields of experience and interpret symbols in different ways, they may not be able to communicate with complete accuracy, which means that a listener may not understand exactly what a speaker means. 

Language is arbitrary. Although some words, such as the onomatopoeic word, “buzz” which mimics the sound produced by bees, are not arbitrary, most are randomly decided upon by people. There is no reason we call a cat, “cat,” save for the fact that a group of people (English speakers) agree to use that word to refer to a particular animal. The arbitrariness of language is also illustrated by the different terms people use to refer to the same object. A cat is also called grimalkin (archaic term), pusa (Filipino), gato (Spanish), or neko (Japanese).

Language is also abstract, which means that words do not always have to correspond to a tangible or concrete object in the physical world. For example, the word “beverage” is an abstract term referring to any liquid intended for drinking. Milk is a less abstract term. Powdered milk is even less abstract while a certain type and brand of milk is more specific. Abstract language allows us to subjectively describe an objective phenomenon, which, although easier, often results in miscommunication. For example, when we resort to stereotyping or when we overgeneralize, say, the behavior of a classmate, we may use labels according to how we perceive his or her actions. Abstract language is not always negative; it can be used to avoid conflict. Consider how judges give their comments to kids or seemingly sensitive contestants in singing competitions. Note how they use abstract language in expressing their negative reactions.

Language is rule-governed.

Each language system has its own set of rules. Learning and speaking a language requires knowledge of these rules. Phonological rules dictate how sounds should be pronounced, which sounds and corresponding letters can be combined, and even which sounds may be produced in the initial, medial, or final positions of words. Syntactic rules deal with the structure of language or the grammatical arrangement of words in a sentence. For instance, in English, the most common order of words is the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. Semantic rules refer to the assignment of meaning to words or symbols. There must be a consensus among a certain group of people on the meanings of words. Pragmatic rules govern language use within context. While semantics deals with linguistic meaning, pragmatics takes into account both linguistic context and the situational context in which communication takes place. The relationship between the interlocutors, the topic of conversation, and the physical environment are just some of the factors of situational context.

White stripes painted across a road intersection is understood to mean a pedestrian crossing, which is a designated place for pedestrians to cross safely while vehicles must stop for people within the marked crosswalk.

Rules aid the process of language learning. However, if rules are inconsistent, it would be more difficult to learn the language. For instance, the English language has inconsistent phonological rules. David Burge demonstrates the complexity of the English language in the sentence: “[English] can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.” How many sounds correspond to the letter string, -ough?