What is Language? – Language as Symbolism Overview
An Introduction to the Idea of Language as Symbolism and Symbolic Language
Language is symbolic in more ways than can be summarized in a sentence or paragraph, but generally we are talking about how symbols can stand for something else, how they can be used to communicate, and how they can be imbued with meaning.
For a simple example of symbolic language: the word cat is symbolic of the idea of a cat, a dollar is a symbol of $1 of economic value, the word yes or a nod is a symbol of confirmation, a grimace is a symbol of disapproval, and a smiley face emoji is a symbol of happiness.
If I want to communicate happiness, it can be as simple as offering symbolic emoji to a friend. That simple symbol doesn’t have just one meaning, but it has a fairly common meaning, and general “communication value” (it works for conveying ideas between people).
That said, most symbols and our use them in practice anything but simple. Most symbols mean many different things at once and can mean different things to different people depending on a number of controllable and uncontrollable factors (like context, subtext, and the past experiences of those communicating).
Luckily, we can use a mix of symbols to better illustrate complex ideas quickly, unfortunately using a single term or even a mix of terms for a deep complex concept can lead to a world of communication problems.
Consider the following points:
- Each symbol we use is like a shortcut. We don’t need to explain mass-energy equivalence each time we want to express the concept, we can just say “E = mc 2” and our science friend will know what we are talking about. Still, it isn’t “that simple”, as we often have to define symbols in conversation, using other symbols, each potentially adding to our communication.
- Symbols don’t always have inherent meaning. Instead, symbols are generally given their meaning by humans based on their usage, and then those meanings and their interpretations differ based on context and subtext (leading to a world of opportunities for complex communication… and miscommunication).
Semantics, Semiotics, and Symbols: Semantics is the study of meaning. When we say “language is symbolic” we aren’t talking about “what we say” (what symbols we use), but “what we mean” (what the symbols we use mean; what we are trying to communicate). Language is symbolic in that the symbols we use have a deeper “symbolic and semantic” meaning beyond their literal meaning. The study of this can be called “semiotics” (meaning “observant of signs”; a Greek term popularized by John Locke; see below). Another way to say this is a signifier (a symbol) can signify (represent) meaning other than its literal meaning or even its common dictionary meaning (AKA signification).
TIP: For a simple example of what isn’t a symbol: A rock is a rock. I can look at it, it is what it is, i’m not using it to communicate. It isn’t symbolic of a rock, it is a rock. If a person can sense it, if it has any meaning that isn’t purely literal, if it has any “communication value”, it is a symbol. If a person can sense it, but it only has its literal meaning, and has no communication value, it isn’t a symbol. In this way, almost all our communication tools are symbolic, we use a mix of complex symbols with differing meanings to express specific ideas (or more specifically to illicit specific understandings in those with which we communicate).
NOTES: While on the topic of rocks and symbolism, we can say that if a symbol is “heavy with meaning” or conveys “heavy concepts” the symbol “has weight”. Symbols can be very powerful, think about national symbols like a country’s flag, they are emblems that people identify with and rally around. The same goes for historic figures, events, laws, gestures, photos, acts, songs, and more. When we pair together symbols, it creates a type of religion, in terms of the state, it creates a civic religion. Here one should note that symbols don’t just have direct communication value, they have indirect value as well (for example, if one creates an identity out of a symbol created or imbued with meaning by someone they never met. More on all this below.
TIP: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book (a book published in two volumes) by father of liberalism John Locke is largely about the symbolic nature of language (Book II and III specifically discuss this, for example see the chapter “Of the Signification of Words“; the rest of the books deals with epistemology, “giving names to things“, semiotics, and more). To locke, logic (one “sphere” of human understanding, the others for Locke and many others including the Greeks being physics and ethics) was the “realm of signs” (consider all logic is expressed by signs). More recent works on semantics and symbolic language include Kenneth Burke‘s Language as Symbolic Action. The philosophy of language has been explored by many great thinkers from Aristotle, to Hume and Kant, to Chomsky.
Symbols: Context and Subtext
In its simplest form, every letter used to form our formal written and spoken language is a symbol. Words symbolize meaning, and phrases and combinations of words symbolize different meanings. Then, these words and phrases take on different meaning in different contexts.
However, as noted above, it isn’t just letters and words that are symbolic. Any sensory information that can be transferred between entities in any way can be thought of as symbolic of deeper meaning (whether meaning is conveyed intentionally or not), as a symbol is defined in this sense as, “something that means something else”. In this respect, things like tone and inflection can be symbolic as well.
Meanwhile, purposefully using a symbol or a mix of symbols to communicate allows us to express complex ideas, with many deep meanings, and thus combinations of symbols can themselves be symbolic.
For example, spoken phrases like “we need to talk” or single words like “oh” can be used literally (being symbolic of only their literal meaning), or they can be paired with specific body language, tone, infections, and other social cues to take on deeper meanings. Meanings can change by context, and sometimes subtle social cues can change the meaning of other symbols completely. Thus, while some meaning is static, much is based on context (and not just the context of the communicator, but the context of the listener).
For another example, on this page I use a mix of images, videos, words, phrases, font-weight, questions, statements, metaphors, and other symbolic tools to define language as symbolism (how “meta“). One written word by itself may be symbolic of only a singular literal meaning, but when paired with other the words in the sentence, paragraph, or page (when read “in context”) many layers of complexity are able to be conveyed.
If I send a loved one a ” 🙂 ” emoji out of the blue, it is sweet; if I send it to a stranger, it is creepy. The symbol didn’t change, the context did. Furthermore, if the loved one is in a bad mood, the “:)” may be perceived differently than if they are in a good mood, and context matters in this way too.
A straight line can be near meaningless, or it can represent a meaningful “1” in the binary code that forms the foundation of your computer’s software. A wave of a hand can mean hello, it can mean I love you, or it can mean hail Caesar; it depends.
Thus, it is not just the symbols themselves, but how we use them that is symbolic, and while a given symbol can have deep semantic meaning on its own, it is context, subtext, and the paring of symbols which allows us to express complex ideas and deep meaning…. and, as noted above, can lead to miscommunication.
The Weight of Symbols and Miscommunication: We can define symbols, be defined by symbols, and identify with symbols. Sure, we can give names to terms and we can make up a code language, but most terms out there are already defined (imbued with thick layers of meaning, emotion, and other symbolism). Some terms, like those in the realm of politics, metaphysics, and other semantical arts where emotions and allegiances run high, can carry a ton of “weight” that can be hard to avoid “the gravity” of (note how those phrases are symbolic of the deep meaning of symbols). This makes communicating with these more complex symbols a complicating task. Learn more about Defining Labels, Being Defined By Labels, and Identifying With Labels.
Language as a Formal (and Informal) Symbolic System of Communication
Suffice to say, this definition of language as a formal (and informal) symbolic system isn’t just concerned with symbols themselves, but with the formal AKA “defined”, “bounded”, “specific” (and informal “not-purely-defined”) rule-sets for combining symbols to express meaning. We can also consider other aspects, such as how meaning can be expressed both intentionally and intentionally (such as reading unintentional body language as a social cue).
We may not be able to define a broad system like this completely, but we can argue that it is a discrete system (specifically it has the property of “discrete infinity”), as it is both limited (with some symbols and combinations of symbols being meaningless) and unlimited (we can create [essentially] endless constructs from a limited set of symbols). See a discussion on Chomsky’s concept of discrete infinity.
Below is a video explaining what we mean when we say “formal language”. Check out the Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker videos below for other perspectives (from [more] qualified linguists).
The core here is the theory that language is symbolic and symbols are language, the complexity that comes from that is what spans the works of figures like Locke and Chomsky (and this page). Feel free to comment below!
What is a Formal Language? A video explaining what a formal language is.
MUSING: A picture is worth a thousand words, and that is if one is being modest. The picture below tells the story of how wet sand was used to glide large statues and stones across the sands of Ancient Egypt, this is how the Pyramids were built. It took us until around 2014 to find out, because we didn’t understand the symbolism of the old Egyptian drawings despite them being in front of our face the whole time. The lesson here is that purposefully attempting to convey meaning is only part of the battle when it comes to communication, a lot has to do with our common rulesets for using symbols and context.
THOUGHT: As eluded to above, Lady liberty, the American flag, the bald Eagle, the national anthem, a quote from Thomas Jefferson, the papers of Alexander Hamilton, the U.S. Constitution these are symbols of America’s Civil Religion. Something as simple as the colors Red, White, and Blue can have vastly different and complex meaning depending simply on context and presentation. Just like a nation has a religion, so does a political party, or a sports team, or a city, or a club. Each has its own identity, each creates its own symbolism and imbues its own symbols with meaning (sometimes meaning only known to that group). For something way headier, see: A Theory of Government Concerning the Elements of Government and the Separation of Powers (a theory using historic symbols from Greek philosophy, to eastern philosophy, to western astrology).
TIP: As phrased well by the article Language as Symbolism which presents an excerpt from Language in Thought and Action, by S. Hayakawa, “The process by means of which human beings can arbitrarily make certain things stand for other things may be called the symbolic process. Whenever two or more human beings can communicate with each other, they can, by agreement, make anything stand for anything.”
TIP: In Binary 1=on and 0=off. Symbols sometimes have strict meaning in context, when bounds have been clearly defined. However, we are talking about a system with only lose boundaries. So outside of binary, we can redefine 1 and 0 for our conversation as 0=complex and 1=I think I get it. So, despite the inherent “0”, I’m hoping you feel like “1” by the end of this page.
TIP: There are many ways to muse on the concept that language is symbolic, we do our best to cover all of them below. When in doubt check out the greats like Chomsky and Pinker (but don’t forget to also study those who disagree with their stances for a full picture).
Defining Language as Other Systems
With the above covered, it should be noted that there are many different ways to define language, and to express the concepts behind how we communicate, beyond looking at the symbolic nature of communication (i.e. it is semantics).
Other definitions of language focus on our neurology, our communication tools, or the cryptographic nature of language.
I feel this is all encapsulated by studying symbols, but since the topic is ultimately semantic, you shouldn’t stop your studying on this page (to say the least). The goal here is to get you thinking of language as symbolism.
Defining Terms Related to Language
Before we move on to deeper explainers and insight, let’s clarify a few terms. For the purposes of this article:
- Language is the ability to acquire and use a system of communication (it isn’t just the system itself, it is the ability to acquire and use of the system). It is the ability to transfer ideas.
- Linguistics is the scientific study of language.
- Communication is the imparting, reception, or exchange of information.
- Memory, as a broad term, is our ability to glean sensory data, record information, connect information, and then recall information. See our section on memory.
- Formal Language is when we follow common, structured, and accepted rule-sets. When we “play” with those rule-sets, we are using informal language.
- Discrete language is a limited system of language with specific or discrete possibilities (there is no 5 1/2 word sentence for instance). Discrete infinity denotes the ability to construct endless combinations within the discrete system.
- Language as a technology is language as a tool-set, it is somewhat of a philosophical concept.
- Symbolism is something that stands for something else. Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas and deep concepts.
- Semantics is the study of meaning. It is looking at not “what we say”, but “what it means”. 
- Language is symbolic means what we say has deeper “symbolic and semantic” meaning. EX. Your partner says, “we have to talk”. 
- What isn’t Language? As noted above, the term language doesn’t technically describe symbols like the spoken or written word on their own (so, by a more strict definition, the letter A is not language until it is used to communicate something). Symbols are simply tools used by humans to communicate. Language is a broad term that describes all the communication tools used by humans that emerge from how our thought process works. 
- This is important because it allows us to better understand how our systems of communication work. By studying linguistics through the lens of symbolism, we are able to better understand the complexity of language and the communication systems we use.
Below is an excellent overview of language by Harvard professor Steven Pinker to compliment the above study of how language works as a symbolic system.
Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. This is an excellent overview of how language works.
QUESTION: Have you ever thought about how hard it can be to say what we mean? I have. Here is the page on it.
Language and Symbolism: What Type of Symbols do We Use to Communicate?
Symbols used as communication tools for language can include: the written and spoken word, numbers, equations, pictures, body language, inflections and tones in our voice, other sounds like music, expressions, metaphors, rhythms, pitches, clothes we wear, slight gestures, eye movement, or literally anything you can think of that another person can “sense” directly or indirectly. If it coveys sensory data, and carries meaning, it is a symbol.
Different symbols have different meanings in different contexts, and studying how those systems work is the root of much of the social sciences, language arts, and the arts in general.
Symbols and Symbolism explained.
Non-Traditional Symbols as Communication Tools
Even a simple symbol, like an emoji or phrase can carry a lot of deep meaning in regards to emotions, to concepts, and more. A few simple well placed strokes of a pen can land you in jail, and you could easily lose life long friends over a few choice words.
Even a lack of communication is symbolic, thus even the absence of symbols can be symbolic.
FACT: Even the cognitive machines we are building run on the concept of symbolism, much like Turning machine did. It isn’t just humans who communicate with symbols, we have taught computers too as well.
Conveying Meaning Vs. Understanding
What we say is one thing, what people understand is another.
We rely on symbolism, metaphors, and context to express the deep meanings, but interestingly we can only control out-put and not input.
It is always up to others to process what we say on a conscious and subconscious levels. The power of symbolism is vast, especially formal symbols (as we can be more sure of the meaning they will convey).
Although the ability to clearly convey deep meaning (including emotion) isn’t something we think about every time we communicate, it is something we know intuitively from fields like marketing where a little swoosh can convey in one symbol what we struggle to convey in tomes.
Language as an Evolving Technology
The practice of using symbols as communication is at least as old as the first communications between our ancestors. We can see pictograph symbols painted on cave walls and we can find them in the ancient text of past civilizations.
Over time, as cultures change, the meaning of words and symbols change rapidly as well. Given the changing meaning of symbols and language information must constantly be translated to retain its original meaning as language changes.
How languages evolve – Alex Gendler.
FACT: Human communication was revolutionized with speech approximately 500,000 years ago. Symbols were developed about 30,000 years ago, and writing about 5000 years ago.
Language as Symbolism: The Deep Meaning of Simple Symbols
In its simplest form, every letter used to form our formal written and spoken language is a symbol. Words symbolize meaning; phrases and combinations of words symbolize different meanings. These all take on different meanings depending on context.
The word “good” is a symbol for about 7 or 10 different ideas according to a given dictionary. Depending on context, in a basic way, it can mean anything from “well-behaved” to “not evil” to “honorable”. In a more realistic way, “good” the word is a complex symbol that can mean much more than it’s dictionary definitions. It is within these lines of thinking that we can consider all language to symbolic and of the ways in which we use those symbols to convey meaning to be communication.
Below we explore some more ways in which all forms of language are symbolic and why symbolism is so important to communication.
Noam Chomsky discusses language. Noam Chomsky sees language as a formal symbolic system. Here is Noam on language.
Language: Symbolism Versus Metaphor
Language is symbolic in that the symbols we use “stand for a concepts and ideas“. It can also be symbolic in the metaphorical sense, as combinations of symbols can have an array of alternate meanings. For example: “I’m throwing in the towel” isn’t meant to be interpreted literally, it’s an expression that uses throwing in the towel to mean “giving up”.
Since we can consider all language as “symbolic” we can call this type of symbolic language “metaphor” for the purposes of this article (this avoids confusion over the semantics of words).
When we string words, phrases, and pictures together, we can paint a metaphorical picture. In other cases, deep meaning can be derived without words ever being said.
Allegorical stories teach us morality, sometimes without ever expressing a point directly. Symbolism plays hand-in-hand with metaphor, as language as symbolism involves using symbols as metaphors.
Pictographic Symbol as Language (From Cave Paintings to Emojis)
Imagine explaining to someone what the cross symbol (†) means. It’s hard to convey the breadth of this using the English language. We could write tomes on the meaning of the cross today and throughout history. It will mean different things in different cultures.
Symbols like the male ♂ and female ♀ symbols, the star of David ✡, a yin-yang symbol, or even an emoticon such as 🙂 can convey worlds of meaning on their own. They can be used with other symbols to make statements as. These “universal” symbols will be interpreted different depending upon a number of factors, but resonate and carry meaning throughout almost all cultures.
Because cave paintings used pictograph symbols we can sometimes understand their intentions today and they communicate ideas to us. Other more complex symbols that represented words in dead languages can elude us and the ones we can decode can lose their meaning in translation. Mathematic symbols that represent numbers are typically easier to backward engineer as they have a logical rational rather than an invented one (like the Modern English language).
Thinking about symbolism: What does this mean to you “♂ = ♀”? How about this “ = 1 + 0″? Or this “(♂ + ♀)< $ = 🙁 “? Symbols are powerful and they hold weight. What meaning does an “F” on your paper rather than “A” have?
Words and Phrases as Language
More than the meaning of pictographic symbols, words and phrases differ from culture to culture. Some society will interpret the meaning of a phrase or word differently; others will have to translate to the best corresponding words or phrases in their culture. Some cultures have words for concepts that other cultures struggle to even describe.
Examples of words and phrases as symbolism:
Assume I am speaking to someone who speaks my version of English. I can say the word “good” to convey a number of things based on context and tone. If I say it in a nice and loving way the reaction will likely be positive. Good doesn’t mean much on its own, but it’s a “nice” word.
If I say “is good”, that carries a meaning with a different nuance. This phrase invokes the idea that something “is not bad or evil”. With a simple phrase, I have implied a morality and have judged. We can pair words and phrases to invoke even deeper meaning.
As cultures changes, year-to-year or culture-to-culture, words become loaded with meaning. In America “Communism” carries a lot of negative weight. In Germany “Nazi” carries a lot of negative weight (and so does 卐 for that matter).
The basic symbol of a word or phrase may be able to be defined by a dictionary, but the true meanings of words and symbols are in a state of infinite growth and can be so ethereal they are hard to pin down.
Art, Music, and Body Language as Symbols
Symbolism in language and communication isn’t just limited to words. We use images, paintings, sculptures, music, body language, dance, and more to convey meaning. Lighting can convey meaning. Tone, context, and the absence of words (silence) can all convey meaning as well.
From here, it is simply a matter of using your imagination to think about the different ways in which language works as a symbolic system.