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What Is a Philosophy of Language?

Angela Farrer
Angela Farrer

A philosophy of language is a concentrated study of how language is used to describe the world at large and to infuse it with meaning. It attempts to trace the initial formation of words, phrases, and prose along with their connections to people's thoughts and feelings. This study of language also draws connections between linguistics and the agreed-upon meanings of words that are the same to different people regardless of their backgrounds. The universal human tendency to develop words is another part of the philosophy of language, as scholars attempt to answer the question of whether language is a natural component of the human mind or if it is a learned trait over time.

Scholars who study the philosophy of language are usually concerned with at least one of its four components. Language cognition, use, meaning, and connections make up this area of philosophy. These parts generally attempt to define the exact nature of meaning.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Words that are different in structure but similar in meaning are particularly interesting in the study of meaning as the human mind recognizes it. Various uses of words are often considered one of the most challenging areas of the philosophy of language because word use is generally fluid. It changes frequently according to culture, context, and circumstances.

A frequent goal of the philosophy of language is an attempt to list and define the specific criteria that makes a language an actual established language as opposed to a group of loosely connected sounds and symbols. Some of these criteria can often be found within the study of semiotics, which is a discipline that traces exactly how different symbols develop certain meanings as well as connotations. Semiotics tries to explain why a word creates a certain mental picture. The study of linguistics takes this discipline a step further by examining the common patterns of syntax and grammar among the symbols of a given language.

Understanding the structure of cognition is often considered a helpful prerequisite to understanding its connection to language. Cognition refers to the processes of the mind that make formations of ideas and concepts possible. Psychologists and scholars who study cognition in depth as it relates to language generally conclude that the mind constructs language early in life through the use of phonemes, and later, morphemes. Phonemes are single-letter sounds that are the simplest units of language possible, and they form the basis for morphemes, which are the first language units with distinct meanings.

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Discussion Comments


@Allen: I think it's very interesting what you brought up, about the different parts of the brain activating upon hearing different words. I have sometimes encountered writings where I understand most of it, however there is a particular sentence that I just fail to get. And I don't think it's a comprehension or language issue. I think it's probably because the author understands or perceives certain words and sentences differently than I do, owing to the fact that our brains are wired slightly differently.

And building on this: I also think there are definitely words that people simply won't be able to get. For example, I really struggle with the verb "belie". I just for the life of me cannot make it fit in a sentence. I keep looking it up in example sentences in online dictionaries, to no avail. I imagine that the very first person who came up with this word had a brain that was set up differently from mine, and that this is why this word does not "click" with me.


@allenJo - I don’t think there are limits to our understanding, humbly speaking, if you are simply talking about new words and ideas. I say this because the brain has the ability to make connections.

Even if we don’t currently understand a concept, we can relate it to something we already know to derive meaning. We can then incorporate that idea and the word that defines it into our lexicon.


@Mammmood - I am more concerned about the abstractions of language. How does the brain go about looking at a word and connecting meaning to that word?

I read once that different parts of the brain go to work making meaning out of the word. One part of the brain works in developing simple meanings and another part of the brain gets activated when you’re dealing with more abstract words and concepts.

Are there limits to the level of abstract knowledge we can know because the brain simply can’t handle it? Further, does this imply that there are certain words that will never make sense to us? I realize that these are hypothetical questions but they beg to be asked as you dig deeper here.


@MrMoody - That’s a good point. I’d like to note what the article says about the use of phonemes for language cognition. I don’t want to tread into controversy here but I think that alone speaks volumes about the importance of phonetic instruction when teaching language.

If, indeed, this is the time tested way that language develops, then it’s obvious that phonics is the way to go. I’ll leave my soap box for now.


What is it that makes a language a language? I believe this is the most interesting aspect of the study of language. Let’s take the question a step further.

Is it possible to take what we learn from the study of language and use it to create our own language? I think that this too is possible. As a matter of fact, I think it’s already been done.

If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you’ve probably heard the Klingon dialect used. While it may sound like mumbo jumbo to the untrained ear, my understanding is that this is an actual language that has been created for the show.

I believe there’s also a Klingon dictionary. No doubt linguistic analysts were consulted to form the language. I don’t think your average script writer could have pulled that off.

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