Understanding the nature and character of language | Daily News

Understanding the nature and character of language

Learning language skills important.
Learning language skills important.

Last week, we defined language and discussed some of the features that characterize language such as spontaneity, arbitrariness and displacement. In today’s article, we will discuss some more features of language such as redundancy and structure dependency. This will serve to broaden our knowledge and understanding of the nature and character of language.


When it comes to different methods of communication such as body language, sign language, use of symbols/codes, etc. human natural language is not the most efficient and economical method of communication. Human natural language has instances of redundancies. For instance, any declarative sentence in English needs to have a subject and this a requirement in the language. This requirement causes many instances of redundancy in the language. For example, in sentences like it is raining, it is sunny here, it is Monday today, etc. the subject it does not contribute anything to the sentence semantically. The subject it is inserted in the sentence just because of the requirement of the subject for the sentence. If you compare this with a language like Sinhala, the mandatory requirement of the subject in a sentence is not there. For instance, we speak the same sentences in Sinhala without anything similar to it in those examples as wahinawa (raining), methana eliyay (sunny here), ada sanduda (Monday today), etc. Another instance is the use of the subjects like I, you, etc. in English. Subjects like I, you, etc. in English cannot be dropped as seen in the following example.

Father: Did you go to school today?

Son: Yes, I went. (But the son in English cannot say “Yes, went” (i.e., without the subject I).)

But, dropping the subject is perfectly fine in Sinhala. You can say the same thing in Sinhala without the subject as follows here.

Father: oya ada pasal giyada? “Did you go to school today?”

Cat drinking milk

Son: ow, giyaa. “Yes, went.”

Even the use of be verbs such as is, am, are is an instance of redundancy in English. For example, in languages such as Sinhala, Russian and Arabic, you can say I am Mary without any item similar to am: mama Mary“I am Mary.”(Sinhala), Ya Mary“I am Mary.” (Russian), Ana Mary “I am Mary.” (Arabic). But we cannot say I Mary in English.

Languages such as Sinhala also exhibit instances of redundancy. For instance, Sinhala employs at least 7 forms of the pronoun equivalent to you in English as oba, oyaa, tho, thopa, obawhanse, obathuma/thumiya, etc. depending on the context, whereas English only employs the pronoun you in all these contexts. This way, redundancy is a feature inherent to language in general.

Structure dependence

In our last article, we alluded to the fact that language is a structured phenomenon. We discussed that we combine sounds such as /t/, /i/, /n/ to form words such as tin. We combine the words to produce what we call phrases. For example, by combining the two words such as the and cat, we form the phrase the cat. We combine phrases such as the cat and smiled to form a sentence such as The cat smiled. The very nature of language as a structured phenomenon makes language structure dependant. To illustrate, when we speak a sentence like The cat drank the milk, this sentence depends/builds on a structure with what we call subject and object.

(The cat)(drank)(the milk)

subject verb object

Thus, the word order structure for English is (S)ubject (V)erb (O)bject. We say that English is an SVO language. Then, what is the word order structure that Sinhala depends on? In Sinhala, the object is generally placed before the verb as shown in the following.

(pusa) (kiri) (biwa). “The cat drank the milk.”

subject object verb

Thus, Sinhala is an SOV language in contrast to the SVO order in English. One thing to note is that the word order in English is quite rigid. For example, if we try to change the order of words in a sentence in English, the sentence in English results in ungrammaticality as shown here (the asterisk mark in the example indicates ungrammaticality). This shows how much language is structure dependant.

*The cat the milk drank.

However, the sentence word order for Sinhala is quite free. We can change the canonical SOV word order for a sentence in Sinhala as shown in the following (i.e. SVO). The sentence is still grammatical in Sinhala.

(pusa) (biwa) (kiri)

“The cat drank the milk.”

However, even though we say that the word order for Sinhala sentences is free, when we change the word order, there are slight differences in the meanings of sentences in the two structures. Thus, even in Sinhala, the word order is not that free.

Some languages of the world follow different word orders such as OVS, OSV, VSO, VOS. Some other languages that include SVO order like English are Bulgarian and Swahili. Some other languages that follow SOV order like Sinhala are Japanese, Korean, Malayalam and Turkish. Languages such as Irish, Hawaiian and classical Arabic include VSO order. The word order that is mostly used in world languages is SOV amounting to about 40% of the world languages. SVO order is included in about 35% of the world’s languages. Other word orders are less common as we can see in the percentages of the two most common word orders.

Another instance of word order is observed in prepositional phrases (i.e., sets of words that start with prepositions such as in, on, at, between, etc.). In English words such as in, on, at, between, etc. are called prepositions because they are placed before (i.e., pre-positioned) noun phrases (i.e., the table, the house, etc.) and other items. Thus, preposition in English precede nouns as seen in the following.

(on) (the table)

preposition noun phrase

As opposed to prepositions in English, Sinhala has post-positions. In other words, words such as yata, uda, langa, etc. similar to under, on, at, etc. in English are placed after nouns.

These are only few examples to show the structure of phrases or sentences. As a matter of fact, when we speak or write, we follow these structures subconsciously and consequently language is structure dependant.

In today’s article, we talked about some of the design features that characterize language such as redundancy and structure dependency. In our next article, we will discuss some more features of language such as productivity, semanticity and reflexivity.

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(The writer is a Senior Lecturer, Department of English and Linguistics, University of Sri Jayewardenepura)