Wikipedia says,

Language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language is any specific example of such a system

Merriam-Webster says,

[Language is t]he words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community

My question is, do non-verbal ways of communication, such as a semaphore or a heliograph, count as a language or not, and why?

  • There are 1.4 million Google hits for "non-verbal" language - and I don't think they're using 'verbal' in the senses 'relating to, or having a similar contribution to, a verb' or 'word-of-mouth as opposed to written'. Why not check a few to see how the term is used? (Though I'd say that 'non-verbal language' is usually strictly non-count, a helpful adjunct of say English or Serbo-Croat rather than a complete language in itself. Perhaps signing constitutes a true complete non-verbal language.) – Edwin Ashworth Sep 8 '13 at 8:37

Semaphore and heliograph are not languages: rather they are telegraphy systems for transmitting written messages (presumably in a particular language which exists outside the system) over a distance.

There can be a debate about when an encoding becomes a language in itself, but a standard example is signing with hands: British Sign Language is a language with its own vocabulary and grammar, while Signed English not a language but manually coded English, even though they have a lot in common.


A language, is a mean of communication shared by a community and which includes a grammar and the ability to speak about anything. It is the most often verbal, and is often associated with a way to write it down. There are some exception, the most prominent being the sign languages used by deaf communities.

However, the same language can have several material forms which do not change them enough so that they are considered a different language. For example, English can be spoken, written down by hand, typed in an email, written in Braille or signed as manually coded English, it stays the same language: English. On the other hand, an email can be in English, German or French, the technique of transmission stays the same, but the language change.

Some means of communication share some properties of languages, and are therefore sometimes called "language", but they are not real language in the linguistic sense :

  • Body language is a (often subconcious) way to transmit some informations. But it is of course impossible for body language to convey any moderate elaborate meaning like "Don't forget to buy Apples at the market tomorrow", while it's trivial in any language (spoken or signed).

  • Computer languages and the mathematical formalism have some structure which may recall natural languages's grammar, and the capacity to convey some elaborate meaning, but they lack the possibility to speak about anything a true language has.

  • Secret languages like Pig Latin or Thieves' cant are often a variation of a natural language, either through a systematic rule (Pig Latin) or a a different vocabulary (Thieves' cant), but they often preserve a lot of the original language characteristic, and they are rarely a true distinct language, but mainly an encrypted version of it.


The definition from Wikipedia seems very good.

A "Language" is not always spoken ; it includes "body-language" and "road-signs" ; it is the expression of an idea or a feeling, using a code understood by at least two persons to communicate.

  • 1
    I disagree with your last paragraph (and agree with Edwin’s comment above) because of the very first word: body language and road signs are language, but they are not a language. ‘Language’ (uncountable noun) is what the Wikipedia article describes; ‘a language’ (countable noun) is what Merriam-Webster describes. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 8 '13 at 11:22

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