From a recent question (Could a programming language be considered as a language?), it came to me the impression that there may be some confusion about the terminology professional linguists use, when referring to the phenomenon of human language.

This is primarily a terminological question. It obviously has conceptual implications, that may be explored here, but my concern is with the use of the expression "natural language" by linguists when it is necessary to differentiate it from other systems of codification invented by humans.

I would be particularly interested in published sources showing the use (or refuse) of this particular term, and/or other references discussing the matter indirectly.

For clarity: there are many different schools of thought in linguistics, that are representative of the field. I'm interested in sources from anyone of them. As you might expect, I do have my own answer, but it is a tentative one, so this question is not just provocative.


Main question: Is the term "natural language", colloquially used to designate human language, informed by linguistic research?

Secondary question: Should the distinction between language in general and specific codification systems be framed by the distinction between nature and artifact?

Philosophers of language and logicians too often dismiss the contributions of linguistics to their field. The same does not happen when the subject is physics. The secondary purpose of this question is to submit to scrutiny the use of the expression "natural language" within the realm of philosophy of language. In that regard, the answer to this question, in this forum, is instrumental.

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because as written, this is a linguistics question. – Dave May 19 '15 at 13:31
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    Wouldn't this be a better question for linguistics.se than philosophy.se? It seems so at least at first glance to me. Please help us see why this is a better fit. (Two weaknesses: 1. general topic is linguistics / 2. it seems to be a questions about definitions.) – virmaior May 19 '15 at 13:47
  • It is a question about terminology. It has clear and definite epistemological implications, especially regarding the undisciplined use of linguistic concepts in other fields, such as computer science, for instance. To close it, in my view, is an act of censorship. – André Souza Lemos May 19 '15 at 14:06
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    Human languages are called "natural" by convention (in linguistics and theoretical computer science) as opposed to artificial languages. The latter are also called "formal" though this is somewhat controversial as some linguists (and logicians) argue that human languages are formal, too. – Atamiri May 19 '15 at 14:12
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    To call a suggestion that a possibly linguistic question might be better answered at linguistics.SE an act of censorship seems somewhat strong. – Mozibur Ullah May 19 '15 at 14:32

Although I'm a linguist, I'm going to not give a report on the sociology of the term as used in the field (though the quick answer is "yes"). Instead, I will focus on the basic conceptual distinctions. The term "language" refers to the numerous methods of encoding propositions and communicating, which humans use -- examples are Greek, English, Swahili, Chinese. However, in the modern era, the concept has been extended metaphorically so that we now hear about "the language of dance" or "the language of bees", and in the aforementioned instance, "the language of computers". It is not clear what "language" refers to in the modern extended sense -- it seems to refer to any regular pattern, and DNA encoding can be seen to be a "kind of language".

The term "natural language" then is used to specifically identify "language" in the classical sense. However, we rarely use that expression, since we consider the extension of the term "language" to other forms of animal behavior, or complex physical systems like DNA, to be misuse of the term "language". Since the term "language" clearly refers to human language, we don't need to add any modifiers. But it may be necessary when in a popular forum. (It has also become necessary in computational linguistics, in the field "natural language programming", precisely because "programming language" is a standard term in that field).

That said, one of the top journals in the field is in fact named Natural Language and Linguistic Theory.

  • More specifically, as Atamiri remarked, natural languages are those that are not artificial. This is how the term arose. By the way, a language is not "any regular pattern" but it is a system of utterances used for communication, i.e. to transfer information. Except in formal language theory, but that is because of its dedicated purpose (namely, studying formalisms for describing the form of language - so meaning doesn't enter the picture). – reinierpost May 21 '15 at 14:47
  • Actually, language is a system for expressing concepts and propositions, and is important for social interaction. Reasoning also calls on language, though you don't have to talk out loud in complete sentences. I don't approve of the modern redefinition of language, I'm just noting that it has taken place. – user6726 May 21 '15 at 15:15
  • Yes, but the goal is to explain the term 'natural', and I think you only partially do that. – reinierpost May 21 '15 at 15:19

Philosophers of language and logicians too often dismiss the contributions of linguistics to their field

I'm not sure just how true this when looked at closely. for example Godel explicitly said that it was the Cretan Liars Paradox that inspired his incompleteness theorems; and Aristotle in the Organon explicitly uses the linguistic feature of possibility to endorse the notion of modal logic; much more recently there is the invention of plural logic that takes its point of departure the semantics of some in the English Language.

Also Structuralism and Semiotics in philosophy was inspired by Saussures theories on linguistics as a language of signs and signifiers (and not Bourbaki) as acknowledged by Levi-Strauss.

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