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Natural language

In the philosophy of language, a natural language (or ordinary language) is any language which arises in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the innate facility for language possessed by the human intellect. A natural language is typically used for communication, and may be spoken, signed, or written. Natural language is distinguished from constructed languages and formal languages such as computer-programming languages or the "languages" used in the study of formal logic, especially mathematical logic.


Defining natural language

Though the exact definition varies between scholars, natural language can broadly be defined in contrast on the one hand to artificial or constructed languages, such as computer programming languages like Python and international auxiliary languages like Esperanto, and on the other hand to other communication systems in nature, such as the waggle dance of bees. Although there are a variety of natural languages, any cognitively normal human infant is able to learn any natural language. By comparing the different natural languages, scholars hope to learn something about the nature of human intelligence and the innate biases and constraints that shape natural language, which are sometimes called universal grammar.

Linguists have an incomplete understanding of all aspects of the rules underlying natural languages, and these rules are therefore objects of study. The understanding of natural languages reveals much about not only how language works (in terms of syntax, semantics, phonetics, phonology, etc.), but also about how the human mind and the human brain process language. In linguistic terms, natural language only applies to a language that has developed naturally, and the study of natural language primarily involves native (first language) speakers.[1]

While grammarians, writers of dictionaries, and language policy-makers all have a certain influence on the evolution of language, their ability to influence what people think they ought to say is distinct from what people actually say. The term natural language refers to actual linguistic behavior, and is aligned with descriptive linguistics rather than linguistic prescription. Thus non-standard language varieties (such as African American Vernacular English) are considered to be natural while standard language varieties (such as Standard American English) which are more prescribed can be considered to be at least somewhat artificial or constructed.

Native language learning

The learning of one's own native language, typically that of one's parents, normally occurs spontaneously in early human childhood and is biologically, socially and ecologically driven. A crucial role of this process is the ability of humans from an early age to engage in speech repetition and so quickly acquire a spoken vocabulary from the pronunciation of words spoken around them. This together with other aspects of speech involves the neural activity of parts of the human brain such as the Wernicke's and Broca's areas.[2]

There are approximately 7,000 current human languages, and many, if not most seem to share certain properties, leading to the hypothesis of Universal Grammar, as argued by the generative grammar studies of Noam Chomsky and his followers. Recently, it has been demonstrated that a dedicated network in the human brain (crucially involving Broca's area, a portion of the left inferior frontal gyrus), is selectively activated by complex verbal structures (but not simple ones) of those languages that meet the Universal Grammar requirements.[3][4]

While it is clear that there are innate mechanisms that enable the learning of language and define the range of languages that can be learned, it is not clear that these mechanisms in anyway resemble a human language or universal grammar. The study of language acquisition is the domain of psycholinguistics and Chomsky always declined to engage in questions of how his putative language organ, the Language Acquisition Device or Universal Grammar, might have evolved.[5] During a period (the 1970s and 80s) when nativist Transformational Generative Grammar was becoming dominant in Linguistics, and called "Standard Theory", linguists who questioned these tenets were disenfranchised and Cognitive Linguistics and Computational Psycholinguistics were born and the more general term Emergentism developed for the anti-nativist view that language is emergent from more fundamental cognitive processes that are not specifically linguistic in nature.

Origins of natural language

There is disagreement among anthropologists on when language was first used by humans (or their ancestors). Estimates range from about two million (2,000,000) years ago, during the time of Homo habilis, to as recently as forty thousand (40,000) years ago, during the time of Cro-Magnon man. However recent evidence suggests modern human language was invented or evolved in Africa prior to the dispersal of humans from Africa around 50,000 years ago. Since all people including the most isolated indigenous groups such as the Andamanese or the Tasmanian aboriginals possess language, then it was presumedly present in the ancestral populations in Africa before the human population split into various groups to inhabit the rest of the world.[6][7]

Controlled languages

Controlled natural languages are subsets of natural languages whose grammars and dictionaries have been restricted in order to reduce or eliminate both ambiguity and complexity (for instance, by cutting down on rarely used superlative or adverbial forms or irregular verbs). The purpose behind the development and implementation of a controlled natural language typically is to aid non-native speakers of a natural language in understanding it, or to ease computer processing of a natural language. An example of a widely used controlled natural language is Simplified English, which was originally developed for aerospace industry maintenance manuals.

Constructed languages and international auxiliary languages

Constructed international auxiliary languages such as Esperanto and Interlingua (even those that have native speakers) are not generally considered natural languages.[8] The problem is that other languages have been used to communicate and evolve in a natural way, while Esperanto was selectively designed by L.L. Zamenhof from natural languages, not grown from the natural fluctuations in vocabulary and syntax. Some natural languages have become naturally "standardized" by children's natural tendency to correct for illogical grammar structures in their parents' language, which can be seen in the development of pidgin languages into creole languages (as explained by Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct), but this is not the case in many languages, including constructed languages such as Esperanto, where strict rules are in place as an attempt to consciously remove such irregularities. The possible exception to this are true native speakers of such languages.[9] More substantive basis for this designation is that the vocabulary, grammar, and orthography of Interlingua are natural; they have been standardized and presented by a linguistic research body, but they predated it and are not themselves considered a product of human invention.[10] Most experts, however, consider Interlingua to be naturalistic rather than natural.[8] Latino Sine Flexione, a second naturalistic auxiliary language, is also naturalistic in content but is no longer widely spoken.[11]


Natural language manifests itself in modalities other than speech.

Sign languages

A sign language is a language which conveys meaning through visual rather than acoustic patterns simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to express a speaker's thoughts. Sign languages are natural languages which have developed in Deaf communities, which can include interpreters and friends and families of deaf people as well as people who are deaf or hard of hearing themselves.

In contrast, a manually coded language (or signed oral language) is a constructed sign system combining elements of a sign language and an oral language. For example, Signed Exact English (SEE) did not develop naturally in any population, but was "created by a committee of individuals".[12]

Written languages

In a sense, written language should be distinguished from natural language. Until recently in the developed world, it was common for many people to be fluent in spoken and yet remain illiterate; this is still the case in poor countries today. Furthermore, natural language acquisition during childhood is largely spontaneous, while literacy must usually be intentionally acquired.[13]

See also



  • ter Meulen, Alice, 2001, "Logic and Natural Language," in Goble, Lou, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Philosophical Logic. Blackwell.

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