I have been so far convinced that a language is a structured system of communication that consists of grammar and vocabulary, that is used to convey the meaning.

Is it a requirement for the language that both talker and listener should be sentient, like humans are and most animals not?

If one (or even both) of the communicators are not sentient, the language can only be used for restricted range of topics. There may still be the need to pass the non trivial information, but the communicators are unable to use the language freely on arbitrary topic. They are not capable of, even if the language itself would permit.

The examples of such cases could be:

  • Bee dances. It is a complex system of movements intended to communicate the location. Bees are not using them for "general conversations about everything".
  • Genetic code. It is a complex structured system, with possible to draw analogs to vocabulary, grammar and syntax. The talker is the parent organism (or two), the listener is the new developing organism. Genetic code does not communicate much beyond on how to build the organism, but, again, the cell producing (mostly replicating) DNA and the cell reading are both not sentient so could not handle arbitrary conversation anyway.
  • Some communication protocol as used between, for instance, computer and robot under computer control. Computer tells the robot how to move, both sides have no capacity to talk on arbitrary topic, even if the language would permit. But such protocols can be (and often are) quite complex and use syntax and vocabulary at very least.

If the language is only possible between sentient beings, likely only true human languages are really languages.

  • If you define language as a structured system of communication, then it doesn't require sentinence of the participants. Also, human-computer interaction can be done via language, and usually only one of the participants is sentient in that case. Dec 22, 2023 at 8:58
  • Until very recent, it was not possible for human and machine to talk on arbitrary topic. Even if human languages or something close to them were used, the possible topics were restricted to that the machine can understand and this was not much and highly specialized. Chat GPT is probably the first machine that can talk about anything. Dec 22, 2023 at 9:02
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    It’s not a requirement of language, though it may be a requirement (or at least more of a requirement) of communication. If I talk to my couch, I am using language, but my couch certain isn’t sentient – and significantly, there is no communication, just one-sided language use. So I think my primary issue here is your definition of language: I’d say it’s better defined as a structured system consisting of grammar and vocabulary which is used to convey meaning, primarily in communication. Dec 22, 2023 at 11:20
  • I'd say Language is a communication system with the capacity for abstract propositional idea exchange. It needs to not just allow statements to be made, questions asked, and instructions given, but also do all of that with a non 1-1 relationship between symbol and referent. And I think that metaphor is probably essential too. Not that metaphors must be used, but that if they couldn't it probably indicates the system isn't truly language.
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 22, 2023 at 13:15
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    Your definition: language or human language??
    – Lambie
    Dec 22, 2023 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


You start with an "axiom" that a language is a structured system of communication that consists of grammar and vocabulary, that is used to convey (the) meaning. I disagree with that position, but it that is how you define a language, there is a first basic question: what is an example of "a language". English? Is English a "system of communication", and is it "used to convey meaning"? In saying that a language is these things, you would be claiming that that is the only or the proper function of English, and that is false, whereas if you had said that a language "can be used" for these purposes, that is true. So it depends on whether you mean "can be used" vs. "must be used only". I assume that you would not adopt a definition that entails a falsehood, so you must only mean "can be used".

Next we have the question whether language "conveys meaning". "Convey" means something like "transmit from X to Y", and since I can thing, using language, "I wonder where I put the screwdriver" we should include self-covenyance (talking to oneself) as well as delusional conveyance (talking to the giant invisible rabbit that has followed you for decades). "Meaning" is a tough concept, because we are uncertain as to the meaning of meaning. The sentence "The garbage isn't going to empty itself" literally states a fact about the inanimacy of garbage, and w.r.t. function constitutes a communication that the speaker wants the addressee to take out the garbage. By "meaning" I suppose you have in mind some kind of propositional content, especially including quasi-sentences like "I hereby request that you tell me...", which was a popular deep structure in the late 60's.

The "sentence" {counter = counter + 1} conveys a demand between a program and a CPU, and the full program constitutes a pamphlet, at least, where no participant is even alive.

My disagreement stems from your specific characterization of language. My own approach is instead to try to characterize human cognition, bearing in mind that language is an essential tool of human cognition, then I aim to say what is special about language as a tool of cognition, and what are other tools of cognition. I take it to be self-evident that only humans have language, that is, "language" means "human language", and whatever it is that dogs do, it isn't language (I don't anthropomorphize dogs, I aim to understand them on their own terms, up to a point).

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