According to Britannica.com, language is “a system of conventional spoken, manual, or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release.

Since we’re already dealing in conventions, I’m going to ask you to consider this:
How about we redefine language as ‘any manner in which information is transported across space and or time between two entities which have the possibility to interpret, act and or otherwise intervene on/influence the message, the situation described by the message or both at the same time’?

You’ll surely notice that the second definition is more inclusive that the first, of course. And you’ll also notice the differences. Which aren’t that dramatic, after-all…

– ‘Conventional’…
‘Classic’ languages – English, Chinese, French, Urdu, German,  etc., are more the result of ‘natural evolution’ than of any ‘straightforward’ convention… while Esperanto, the most conventional of the spoken languages, didn’t make it too far.
In this sense, the more natural languages which have evolved ‘on their own’ – without any intentional intervention from those who use it, are not that far away from the ‘classic’ languages. Birds have ‘vocal’ manners of sending distress and ‘sexual’ signals; monkeys and apes also; even social insects, ants and bees, dispose of an entire array of chemicals, sounds and gestures used to convey freshly gathered information from one individual to another.

– ‘by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves’.
Really? What’s all this brouhaha about ‘expressing one’s self’? A call for help, ‘expressed’ in any way, shape or form, remains a call for help… regardless of the manner in which it has been expressed. Articulated language, Morse code, sign language or a simple sob. Same thing is valid for a warning call. Most of the times, the caller does it ‘instinctively’ and not to gain any ‘social points’ by ‘expressing’ their care for the rest of the ‘cultural community’ ‘conversant’ in the language used to make the call. The magpie in the video above is one of the exceptions, not the rule. Otherwise, the whole signaling ‘industry’ would have been abandoned long ago… due to the very evolutionary forces which have made language what it is today.

Don't cry wolf

– ‘The functions of language include…”
Isn’t this funny?!? ‘The functions of language include…’ How about ‘some of functions we, users of language, have been able to identify are… “.
Or even ‘some of the uses we’ve been able to put language to are …’?

Quite a lot of confusion… isn’t it?

But language was supposed to make things clearer, not muddier… right?

Tell that to those dogs… the ones sent chasing ghosts by the fake distress calls ‘jokingly’ (?!?) emitted by the magpie in the video at the top of my post…


– ‘Spoken’ language.
Or should I call it ‘extemporaneous’? The way I see it, most ‘spoken’ language is uttered on the spur of the moment… or used to be, anyway.
Nowadays, spoken words can be carefully prepared long time in advance… even made to ‘faithfully’ mimic an impromptu message…

– ‘Written’ language.
While ‘spoken’ messages’ have been used, extemporaneously, for a huge amount of time – and not only by humans, as I mentioned earlier, ‘writing’ has been a late invention. Ours.
Or, at least, this is how we like to believe…
The most important characteristic of ‘written’ – as opposed to ‘spoken’, being ‘verba volant, scripta manent’. ‘Spoken words fly away, written words remain’!
The earliest scripts, both cuneiform and hieroglyphic, were used to ‘transport’ information through time. At first, to conserve data rather than what we currently call ‘complex information’. Inventory and ‘identity’ rather than information which may – or even has to, be interpreted in order to make sense. The early cuneiform clay tablets contained ‘cargo manifests’ and only later some of them had been used to ‘conserve’ the Story of Gilgamesh.

– ‘Operational’ language.
Aren’t you tired of that magpie yet?
Have you even watched the video?
Did you notice how the dogs reacted to the fake distress calls? For the umpteenth time, probably…
For the purposes of the present post, it doesn’t matter whether the magpie actively/conscientiously makes fun of the dogs or just acts out of some sort of an instinctive boredom… something akin to the bright spots we sometimes see when ‘confronted’ by a pitch-black environment. It also doesn’t matter whether the dogs are actually fooled every-time they go out to chase the invented fox or they do it because they experience the same kind of boredom like the one which ‘fuels’ the magpie.
For me, all that counts is the consistent manner in which the target reacts to the message transported through the use of this particular kind of language. It is this kind of consistency which determines the ‘operational’ nature of certain languages.

And now, let’s get to the ‘fun’ part.

The calls emitted by the magpie can be construed as being ‘spoken’, right?
They are of a ‘vocal’ nature, are fleeing by definition – unless someone records them using some artificial devices… yet they are also ‘operational’… since the dogs faithfully execute what they are ‘told’ to do…
Now, if we think of it, most natural languages are ‘operational’ indeed.
Ants and bees use them to direct ‘practical’ action, not to ‘express themselves’…
Calls used by most animals relate to avoiding danger, signaling food or ‘expressing’ sexual ‘desire’… and have little or no connection with anything else.
In this respect, the magpie is an exception, not the rule. And even here, the message is ‘formulated’ ‘operationally’. Simply because magpies don’t ‘know’ any other kinds (uses) of language.

We, humans, have bucked the trend only in the sense that we’ve developed kinds of languages lax enough to allow ‘thinking’.

I’m sure that all of you have noticed that when considering the pros and the cons to something you think using a language, right?
A language ‘lax’ enough to accommodate ‘what if’!

Something which doesn’t ‘fit’ in the ‘language’ used by most nursing babies to ask for more milk…