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Language is a term used to describe a system of symbols which can be used to encode and decode messages and information.
Language is a broad term that can exist through many different modes, including but not limited to, spoken word, written word, physical gestures, and digital code. Languages are used by humans, non-human animals, and computers.
Languages are not just sets of symbols. They also often conform to a rough grammar, or system of rules, used to manipulate the symbols. While a set of symbols may be used for expression or communication, it is primitive and relatively unexpressive, because there are no clear or regular relationships between the symbols.
There are 6,912 known living languages spoken, written, and understood by humans in the world today. These are also known as natural languages and their study is known as linguistics. A natural language can be spoken, written, or signed with the hands, face, and body.
Origin of Natural Languages
No one yet agrees on when language was first used by humans (or their ancestors). 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.
A computer language differs from a traditional human language in its use of a digital code to store and transfer information. It is typically used in remediation to move information from one medium to another. For example, a language spoken by the human voice can be turned into a digital recording via computer. A computer or electronic device then must be used to unlock that digital code.
A computer language, just like a spoken or written human language, consists both of a vocabulary of symbols and a grammar that must be used to encode and decode messages using that vocabulary.
A Brief History of Computer Language
Since the 1950s, hundreds of computer languages have been used, many evolving from one another. Fortran, regarded the first widely used computer language, was developed by IBM and is still used in a highly evolved version over 50 years later. While Fortran could only be used to perform numerical computations, it has paved the way for contemporary computer languages such as Java2 and PostScript3.
New Media Studies
"Language of New Media"
Lev Manovich's "The Language of New Media" explains how new media has generated a vocabulary and grammar of its own. Manovich uses the term language to describe different ways that new media applications encode and decode information. Manovich uses the example of cinema throughout the text to discuss how new media is affected by the language of cultural influence.
"Multimodal Discourse", by Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen, uses language as an example when discussing the boundaries of what should be considered a mode. On page 125, the authors question whether 'language' should be considred a mode separate of speech and writing. Their purpose was to examine if modes should be broken into grammars as language is.