Is Language Alive?

Rachel Tashjian's picture

Lovers of literature often suggest that language is alive because it can so powerfully move a reader and shape his or her ideals. Perhaps it is insufficient to suggest that since language shares characteristics (such as evolution) with living things, it is therefore alive, but this does not mean the question should not be interrogated scientifically. After all, as we discussed in class, there is not one characteristic that divides living and nonliving things (3). Even our conventional ideas of life – respiration, reproduction, movement – cannot define living things (a mule or coral refute the last two of those characteristics, for example). Stating that language is alive is not simply romantic metaphor. In fact, language fits each of the categories we use to define life in our course.

First, language has an improbable assembly. It has order both on a large scale and in close detail. Overall, language is divided into different languages, and mixing up elements of several languages (whether through sounds or letters) would be unlikely to result in one language. The same logic applies to single languages. If one were to cut apart each letter in a piece of writing (this paper, for example), and randomly combine it, it would unlikely yield the same meaning as the original paper, and probably would not create meaningful words, either.

Like familiar living organisms, language is bounded. On a larger scale, humans have skin, and plants, on a smaller scale, have cell walls. Language has limits, as well. There are rules and structures of grammar and punctuation that determine what words mean, or the (intellectual) space they can occupy (2). For example, rules dictating verb tenses mean that to the ear fluent in English, the sentence “she is going to the store” has significance. However, “she are going to the store” does not conform to these rules, and is therefore meaningless. There are exceptions to this: a person unfamiliar or inattentive to these rules may break them. But these lingual violations are recognized as mistakes, even if they continue to permeate daily communication (5). Another exception to language’s rules is an author’s intentional defiance of them. For example, an author may write in dialect (as Mark Twain does in The Adventures Huckleberry Finn). But in using incorrect language, the author is creating a new significance beyond language’s most basic capabilities (in Twain’s work, it is social). In general, though, language has set boundaries, and moving outside of those makes language nearly nonexistent because its function is to communicate meanings.

Whereas animals and plants use food and the sun for energy to maintain their improbable assembly, language uses energy to maintain itself, too. An individual language (such as Spanish or English) must be used to keep its improbable assembly. “Some languages vanish in an instant, at the death of a sole surviving speaker,” explains a New York Times article (4). “Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television” (4). Researchers are therefore collecting information on languages which very few people speak (“endangered languages”), recording them because although some “language[s]…cannot be brought back…at least [someone] made a record of it” (4). Writing a language down or speaking it feeds it, provides a language with the energy necessary to remain an improbable assembly. If a language is not spoken (and usually, if it is not written down), it becomes obsolete and meaningless, like any other probable combination of sounds or letters.

The researchers recording these endangered languages also demonstrate language’s semi-homeostatic qualities. A language can resist change, just as other living organisms are able to overcome obstacles. Although “the Kallawaya use Spanish or Quechua in daily life, [they] also have a secret tongue mainly for preserving knowledge of medicinal plants” (4). Spanish and Quechua, dominant languages in the area, presented an obstacle to this people’s language, but the language overcame the obstacle because it was needed to explain certain meanings that other languages did not possess. However, living organisms cannot contend with every issue, and language is no exception. Languages become extinct “at a rate…that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants,” researchers have found (4). (In some instances, “government policies have forced speakers of minority languages to use the national and regional languages” (4). If we view language as alive, we can see this as a kind of euthanasia, or in extreme cases even genocide.)

Seeing language as a living thing is not so simple when we examine it as semi-autonomous. Living organisms change even if something outside of them does not; a human will grow in height as he or she ages even if nothing in the environment changes. It seems difficult to think of language in this way given that a human must take action in order for a language to shift. But what if we look at human initiative on language as the oxygen required for animals, or the sun required for plants? Rather than being an outside force acting on language, humans are essential and natural in language. Language may reflect the society or culture in which it is used, but it also changes on its own. On a smaller scale, the Oxford or serial comma demonstrates an autonomous change in language: a list may be written as “sisters, brothers, and cousins” (with the Oxford comma) or “sisters, brothers and cousins” (without). While proponents for and against the comma have their reasoning (for example, that one way or the other mirrors the cadence of speech), there is no specific event or person that instigated this change. On a larger scale, a text is semi-autonomous because of the reader. While a piece of literature can have a variety of meanings, one “meaning of the text is the experience of the reader”: what is the reader’s reaction to the text (1)? Does this text change any of the reader’s assumptions about the author, a culture, or his or herself? In the hands of each reader, literature changes into something new.

The final category attributed to living organisms is reproduction with variation. An animal or plant will not create a carbon copy of itself; the offspring will be the same species, but not a clone of its parents. Latin, for example, is the father language of French, Spanish, English, and other Romance languages (often, the latter are a combination of Latin and Anglo-Saxon languages) (1). For example, the English word “text” comes from the Latin word “textus,” or “that which is woven, [such as a] web or texture” (6). These offspring languages are not exact copies of Latin, but their relationship to Latin is clear.

The argument that language reproduces with variation may seem suspect as I earlier identified different languages as different species as language’s claim to improbable assembly. But two different languages (species) might combine to create new languages just as a male donkey and female horse might combine to create a mule. Perhaps, then, language fits the category of the living organism we can easily imagine but could not find, that overlaps between categories (for example, we asked why we do not find an organism that moves often but has cell walls). Language seems even more alive in this light: it opens up an endless number of new questions for us to ask.

1)    Culler, Jonathan. A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.
2)    Brizee, Allen, and Dana Driscoll. "OWL: Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling." Online Writing Lab. 17 Aug. 2007. Purdue U. 28 Sept. 2007 <>.
3)    Grobstein, Paul. "Bio 103, Fall 2007 Lecture/Discussion Notes." Serendip. 12 Sept. 2007. Dept. of Bio., Bryn Mawr College. 28 Sept. 2007 <>.
4)    Noble Wilford, John. "Languages Die, But Not Their Last Words." New York Times 19 Sept. 2007. 19 Sept. 2007 <>.
5)    O'Neil, Roger. "Woe is Us." MSNBC. 11 Nov. 2005. 28 Sept. 2007 <>.
6)    Oxford English Dictionary.


Chad (Serendip Visitor) 's picture

language is alive

If you want to follow Mark Twain's thinking, then language is a "captured" force that orginates from the Big Bang (i.e. the universe's beginning). Albeit, human language comprises a small part of all the forces that are still at work in the universe. But if you consider the human to be a "captured force" of the universe, then you could consider human language to be as alive as the human is alive.

Paul Grobstein's picture

life, language, and ... sex?

Think you're all set for a course on biology and literature. In the meanwhile, you might want to look at creole languages. They emerge in language communities that represent a variety of parental languages and both draw on them and have their own distinctive features

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