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24 Characteristics of Language

A language is a complex system that allows people to communicate meaning. This can include information, emotion, imagination and other elements of thought such as humor. The following are common characteristics of language.


Language can communicate abstract concepts that have no physical form such as freedom or respect.


A natural language emerges over time due to the shared experiences of a society, culture or group. In other words, languages generally aren't centrally planned or designed.


Languages allow for infinite combinations of words. As such, it is believed that there is no limit to what can be communicated by human language.

Non-human Languages

Some animals have a language but these aren't open-ended such that they is a limit to what can be communicated. These typically involve simple one-to-one relationships between a sound and a meaning.


Human languages allow new words to be formed as required. Elements such as technology and culture regularly produce new words to describe new ideas.

Conscious Thought

People think using language. This is not the only type of conscious thought as elements such as visual thinking and emotion can occur without words. As language is a foundation of thought, learning multiple languages is known to have an impact on an individual's thinking.

Language Processing

The human brain is uniquely adapted for language processing. Pathways for language processing such as the auditory ventral stream and auditory dorsal stream are structurally different in humans and our closest primate relatives. This allows us to process complex language structures.

Word Classes

Words can be classified according to the part they play in a language. Word classes include nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions.


Onomatopoeia are words that mimic the concept they describe with their sound such as "boom!" This includes things like animal sounds that actually make noise. It is also possible to describe silent things with onomatopoeia such as objects, states, concepts and emotions. The Japanese language is particularly known for its use of abstract onomatopoeia for things that have no sound in reality. For example, "uro uro" is a Japanese onomatopoeia that can be translated "wandering aimlessly."


Grammar is a set of structural rules for composing language. This is typically learned by copying patterns from others. As such, it is often difficult for native speakers of a language to describe grammar rules even if their grammar is perfect.


Syntax is an element of grammar that is concerned with the structure of sentences. For example, how different word classes are ordered in a sentence to create different meanings.


Morphology is an element of grammar that is concerned with the structure of words. For example, a verb that can be conjugated in many ways to indicate gender, tense, aspect, mood, voice or numbers.


Pragmatics is the contextual element of language. It is very common for language to have a completely different meaning based on background, situation, social factors, implied meaning, assumptions and the intent of the speaker.


Phonology is the system of sounds that is used to convey spoken language. Phonology is also used in written language as you use auditory pathways in your brain to understand all language such that you may feel that you are hearing the words you read or write in your head. Likewise, sign languages have an equivalent to a phonological system.


Semantics is the meaning conveyed by language.


Language is extremely complex in that a slight difference in word choice, syntax or intonation can represent dramatically different meaning. This is one reason that it is difficult to master a second language as subtle differences in speech or written language have a large impact on meaning.


The meaning of language is often somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation. Pragmatics and nuances allow a single sentence to have a large number of possible meanings.


It is possible to translate between different languages. However, there is almost always something lost in translation as languages represent unique systems of thinking and communicating meaning. Some words are considered untranslatable such as the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. Likewise, nuance created by phonology, syntax and pragmatics may be difficult or impossible to translate.


Language can be used to communicate emotion and nuances in the way you say things can reveal emotion. For example, your tone of voice may indicate that you are upset.


Storytelling is the art of communicating information and emotion in a way that is interesting and engaging.

Literary Device

A literary device is any technique that is used to make language more effective. For example, the use of an analogy to simplify a complex concept.

Rhetorical Device

A rhetorical device is any technique that is used to make language more convincing.


Humor is the lighthearted expression of the dark or the absurd. This is useful as a literary and rhetorical device.


Wit is the ability to use language effectively at high speed in response to the moment.
Overview: Language Characteristics
A complex system that allows people to communicate meaning.
Related Concepts


This is the complete list of articles we have written about communication.
Action Plan
Ad Hominem
Anticipating Objections
Body Language
Building Trust
Business Comm.
Comm. Process
Civil Inattention
Devils Advocate
Direct Language
Comm. Channels
Comm. Complexity
Dumbing Down
Comm. Context
Echo Chamber
Comm. Design
Comm. Issues
Comm. Objectives
Ground Rules
Comm. Plan
High Context
Comm. Problems
Comm. Skills
Comm. Style
Low Context
Consensus Building
Media Bias
Message Framing
Digital Comm.
Moot Point
Nudge Theory
External Comm.
Plain Language
Positive Criticism
Formal Comm.
Rhetorical Question
Self Monitoring
Hypothetical Question
Informal Comm.
Information Design
Interactive Media
Internal Comm.
Mass Comm.
Media Studies
Nonverbal Comm.
Open-Ended Question
Shared Meaning
Small Talk
Social Comm.
Social Cues
Strategic Comm.
Tag Question
Target Audience
Thought Experiment
Tone Of Text
Touching Base
View From Nowhere
Word Of Mouth
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A guide to language.

Figurative Language

The common types of figurative language.

Literary Device

The common types of literary device explained with examples.

Abstract Nouns

The definition of abstract noun with examples.


The definition of concept with examples.

Transition Words

A list of transition words.

Then vs Than

The difference between then and than with examples.

Their vs There vs They're

The difference between their, there and they're explained with examples.

Language Skills

A list of the basic language skills.


A list of communication techniques.

Intrapersonal vs Interpersonal

The difference between intrapersonal and interpersonal explained.


The definition of shibboleth with examples.


A list of common types of emotion.

Communication Skills

The common types of communication skill.

Communication Plan

Examples of communication plans.

Communication Goals

A list of measurable communication goals with examples.


The definition of candor with examples.

Moot Point

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