Natural language

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In neuropsychology, linguistics and the philosophy of language, a natural language or ordinary language is any language that develops naturally in humans through use and repetition (typically, in their first few years of life) without any conscious planning or premeditation of their own. Almost always, therefore, these are the languages human beings use to communicate with each other, whether by speech, signing, touch or writing. They are distinguished from constructed and formal languages such as those used to program computers or to study logic.[1]

Defining natural language

Though the exact definition varies between scholars, natural language can broadly be defined in contrast to artificial or constructed languages (such as computer programming languages and international auxiliary languages) and to other communication systems in nature (such as bees' waggle dance).[2] Definitions of "natural language" also usually state or imply that a "natural" language is one that any cognitively normal human infant is able to learn and whose development has been through use rather than by prescription. An unstandardized language such as African American Vernacular English, for example, is a natural language, whereas a standardized language such as Standard American English is, in part, prescribed.[3][verification needed]

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.[4]

There are approximately 7,000 current natural 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.[5][6]

Although 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 any way 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.[7] 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. 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. Because 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.[8][9]

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.[10] Natural languages have been used to communicate and have evolved in a natural way, whereas Esperanto was designed by L.L. Zamenhof selecting elements from natural languages, not grown from natural fluctuations in vocabulary and syntax. Some natural languages have become naturally "standardized" by children's natural tendency to correct for illogical grammatical structures in their parents' speech, 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.[11] 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.[12] Most experts, however, consider Interlingua to be naturalistic rather than natural.[10] Latino Sine Flexione, a second naturalistic auxiliary language, is also naturalistic in content but is no longer widely spoken.[13]


Natural language manifests itself in modalities other than speech. See also nonverbal communication.

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".[14]

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, whereas literacy must usually be intentionally acquired.[15] However, normally it is not strictly separated and might also be considered a part of natural language, because natural-language processing (NLP) also involves processing written input.

See also


  1. Lyons, John (1991). Natural Language and Universal Grammar. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 68–70. ISBN 978-0521246965.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Fernandes, Keith (2008). On the Significance of Speech: How Infants Discover Symbols and Structure. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest. pp. 7–8. ISBN 978-1243524065.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America
  4. Kendra A. Palmer (2009). "Understanding Human Language: An In-Depth Exploration of the Human Facility for Language". Retrieved 22 August 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. A. Moro, M. Tettamanti, D. Perani, C. Donati, S. F. Cappa, F. Fazio "Syntax and the brain: disentangling grammar by selective anomalies", NeuroImage, 13, January 2001, Academic Press, Chicago, pp. 110–118
  6. Musso, M., Moro, A. , Glauche. V., Rijntjes, M., Reichenbach, J., Büchel, C., Weiller, C. "Broca's area and the language instinct", Nature neuroscience, 2003, vol. 6, pp. 774–781.
  7. Piattelli-Palmarini M., Language and Learning: The Debate between Jean Piaget & Noam Chomsky, Routledge and Kegan Paul, I980.
  8. Early Voices: The Leap to Language nytimes article by Nicholas Wade
  10. 10.0 10.1 Gopsill, F. P., "A historical overview of international languages". In International languages: A matter for Interlingua. Sheffield, England: British Interlingua Society, 1990.
  11. Proponents contend that there are 200–2000 native speakers of Esperanto.
  12. Gode, Alexander, Interlingua-English: A dictionary of the international language. New York: Storm Publishers, 1951. (Original edition)
  13. Gopsill, F. P., "Naturalistic international languages". In International languages: A matter for Interlingua. Sheffield, England: British Interlingua Society, 1990.
  14. Emmorey, Karen. Language, cognition, and the brain: insights from sign language research (2001), p. 11.
  15. Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct


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