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How is language symbolic?

Language is symbolic because it just stands for the items it represents. This is like how a symbol just stands for the item it represents without actually being the item itself.

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Some languages are more obviously symbolic than others. Chinese, for instance, uses ideographs, many of which are based on pictures of the object or representations of the concept for which they stand. However, all language is a refinement of this principle, and the only reason why this is not immediately obvious is because, by the time people understand the concept of symbolism, language is already deeply familiar to them.

If you ask a skilled artist to draw a man, they will create something that looks recognizably similar to a man, though it will probably be small and certainly be flat when compared to an actual man. However, someone who has no artistic training or ability will probably draw a "stick man." This is a line with a circle at the top, with two lines emanating at angles from the top of the central line, and two from the bottom. This looks nothing like a man, and someone who had not been taught to recognize it as a symbol would probably not know what it was supposed to represent.

From this depiction, it is a short step to the word "man" (or "homme" if you happen to be French, or "hombre" if Spanish). These words look even less like a man than the stick man, but they are no longer intended as any kind of visual representation. They are a pure symbol, signaling the concept without depicting it. This separation of depiction and symbol allows language to express very complex concepts, particularly abstractions. While a talented artist could draw a clear representation of a man, they could not draw love or tragedy. However, these simple words have the power instantly to symbolize ideas which would take a long time to describe and explain.

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Both in written and in spoken language, words have the function of a symbol. To understand this better, it is important to know that symbolism is defined as "the use of symbols to represent deeper meanings or themes." For example, a cross is a symbol for Christianity, one which reminds people looking at it of the Christian faith. This is what makes it a symbol. The same is the case for language: a word is just a word, a combination of sounds and letters. However, every word stands for a certain concept; it provides deeper content than just the mere sound. It represents the thing that is meant when the word is spoken. For example, the word "bread" isn't actual bread, but it represents bread like a symbol so that other people can understand what a person is talking about.

You could also mention that some words are a lot more obvious symbols than others. Take onomatopoeic words, for example. These are words which sound like the thing they represent. A good example for this would be the word bang—it actually sounds like a bang, which makes it an even stronger symbol.

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Language is symbolic in the sense that it consists of a system of arbitrary or conventional signs. 

Imagine, for example, that I speak of a "cat." The term cat is a "sign." The sign "cat" can be separated into two components, the noise I make saying the word (or letters on a page), which is a "signifier," and the "signified," or the concept with which the signifier is associated, namely a small furry domestic animal that likes to attack my mouse when I am trying to work. 

We understand language as a symbolic system. No one sign is meaningful by itself, but instead each sign accumulates meaning in terms of its similarities and differences to other signs. For example, we might understand "tabby," "Siamese," and "Maine coon" as types of "cat," while "lynx," "bobcat," and "dog" are not domestic cats and thus by thinking about them we clarify the demarcations of our concept of "cat." These demarcations are arbitrary (one could imagine a language that did not distinguish among domestic cat, bobcat, and lynx, for example, or that assigned different signifiers to long- and short-haired cats).

Each language has different conceptual demarcations. Thus when we look at how kinship terms, for example, differ from one language to another, we learn something about how cultures differ.

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This is a good question, and the answer is that language is symbolic in many ways.

First, language (written or spoken words) is just a symbol of something else. I can write the word heart, for example, but the word itself is not a heart. I can say the word peanut butter, but the word is certainly not edible. Language itself is symbolic of the words we speak and write.

Second, language is a symbol (a representation) of a culture. The words--both acceptable and unacceptable--which comprise a language reflect the culture of those who speak it. If a language has many definitions for a word such as love, for example, that is an indication of perhaps a more formal and precise culture. If a language includes a lot of acceptable slang, on the other hand, that is an indication of a less formal culture. (Sidenote: look at the words whicih have been added to the dictionary in the past few years to see where America is heading.) People think differently, and this is reflected in both an individual's and a culture's language.

Finally, language is often a symbol (a reflection) of intellect. Complex actions and accomplishments generally require communication, and a shared language is generally the most efficient and effective method of communication.

Language is symbolic in literature, of course, but it is also symbolic in other ways.

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