Would the proper term for it really be "non-symbolic language"?

Every language up until now uses symbols at various forms – vowel sounds and consonants are symbols; syllables, which are combinations of vowels/consonants, are symbols; and words, which are combinations of syllables, are symbols, etc.

Would it be possible to create a language with no distinct symbols, and every thought is a gradient of sounds to represent an idea on the "coordinate plane" of thoughts? You could compare the difference between symbollic/non-symbolic languages to the difference between The ideas behind it would be similar to Ithkuil in that you'd be able to represent varying degrees of ideas (AKA, representing the "amount" of heaviness of a rock, for example) very well, however it simply wouldn't rely on symbols.

I admit, someone speaking it would sound hilariously stupid, but is it possible?

I'd be really interested if it is. Some more thought leads me to believe that maybe some degree of symbols is required.

Interpreting this language would be incredibly subjective to the perspective of the listener.

I doubt that I'm explaining this well...

  • Sounds like Heinlein's "Speedtalk". And by the way, vowels and consonants are not symbols. They are sounds -- real auditory events.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 19:42
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    I agree with jlawler that the term "symbol" is getting in the way. The distinction you seem to be making is between digital versus analogic information. Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 22:28
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    I think this question can be rephrased as What is a symbol? You need a pretty explicit definition before this question makes sense. Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 16:33

2 Answers 2


I believe language is by definition symbolic; if your "gradient of sounds" represents anything, then I would call that a symbol. So I would say no.

I'd say language is communicating information without relying exclusively or mainly on actions. If I hit a man and kill him, my intention that I wanted him dead is thereby communicated to others; but it isn't language.

If I kick you in a medium-soft manner, I may thereby communicate to you mild displeasure. It is not merely a direct action, because hurting you, the obvious result of kicking someone, is not really my intention. You might call that language, although others insist that language should involve more complexity.

If I emit a certain specific gnashing sound through my teeth to indicate that there is a rock that calls for your attention, and the volume expresses its hardness, then that is symbolic, because there is no intrinsic connection whatsoever between volume and the hardness of a rock.

Even if there were some connection, but only a partial one, as in when sounds imitate the sound of something real, you might still call that language, although some will object, as with the kicking example above. But it cannot be denied that an imitation of the sound of a fox is not a fox, and yet I want to communicate to you "there is a fox", so that some form of symbolism is involved even in so basic an example.

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    Humans are symbolic animals. We will find a meaning in anything, and a non-symbolic language is a contradiction. Perhaps the term "symbolic" is what's getting in the way; the OP seems to mean something else.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 19:46

Wittgenstein showed that words do not necessarily represent, or refer to, any entity - material or abstract. Lakoff and Johnson showed that language is metaphorical, and thus not literal, so it can't represent anything. Darwin showed that dog and human brains are fundamentally the same; dogs don't use symbolic language, so humans don't either. If they did, there would need to be brain faculties for representation and computation, of which there are neither. Since words arise to enable actions in the culture, they are muscular actions of the vocal system, and don't symbolize any entity. So in conclusion, no human language is symbolic. Unfortunately, the illusion of language makes it appear that they are entities performing actions on other non-extant entities. This verbal logic is always used to justify war. So hopefully, brain research will show that thinking is muscular, and based on cultural peer-pressure (superstition), before the next war justified by illusion.

  • What's your definition of language?
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 10:31
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    This is a faulty inference: Darwin showed that dog and human brains are fundamentally the same; dogs don't use symbolic language, so humans don't either. It implies that dog-brains and human-brains must possess identical properties, which is easily refuted. I find it incredible that you blanketly state that we don't have the faculty for representation and computation - this is a current and lively debate in cognitive science, most of whom in fact assume representation and computation. Downvoted as primarily opinion-based.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 12:58
  • @donwilhelm I just noticed that this was your first answer, and now i feel that i was maybe a little harsh. Apologies, but i think it's misleading to present a very marginal position as The Truth, when a great many experts in the field would disagree with you. Nonetheless, it's clear that you put thought into it, and it was interesting to read. Welcome to the site and don't let curmudgeons like me put you off :-)
    – P Elliott
    Commented Jan 4, 2014 at 19:23

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