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1.6: Human Language Compared with the Communication Systems of Other Species

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    1.6 Human Language Compared with the Communication Systems of Other Species

    Human language is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the communication systems of all other species of animals. Linguists have long tried to create a working definition that distinguishes it from non-human communication systems. Linguist Charles Hockett’s solution was to create a hierarchical list of what he called design features, or descriptive characteristics, of the communication systems of all species, including that of humans. Those features of human language not shared with any other species illustrate exactly how it differs from all other species.

    1.6.1 Hockett’s Design Features

    The communication systems of all species share the following features:

    1. A mode of communication by which messages are transmitted through a system of signs, using one or more sensory systems to transmit and interpret, such as vocalauditory, visual, tactile, or kinesic;

    2. Semanticity: the signs carry meaning for the users, and

    3. Pragmatic function: all signs serve a useful purpose in the life of the users, from survival functions to influencing others’ behavior.

    (We will skip features 4 to 6!)

    Only true human language also has the following characteristics:

    7. Discreteness: every human language is made up of a small number of meaningless discrete sounds. That is, the sounds can be isolated from each other, for purposes of study by linguists, or to be represented in a writing system.

    8. Duality of patterning (two levels of combination): at the first level of patterning, these meaningless discrete sounds, called phonemes, are combined to form words and parts of words that carry meaning, or morphemes. In the second level of patterning, morphemes are recombined to form an infinite possible number of longer messages such as phrases and sentences according to a set of rules called syntax. It is this level of combination that is entirely lacking in the communication abilities of all other animals and makes human language an open system while all other animal systems are closed.

    9. Displacement: the ability to communicate about things that are outside of the here and now made possible by the features of discreteness and duality of patterning. While other species are limited to communicating about their immediate time and place, we can talk about any time in the future or past, about any place in the universe, or even fictional places.

    10. Productivity/creativity: the ability to produce and understand messages that have never been expressed before or to express new ideas. People do not speak according to prepared scripts, as if they were in a movie or a play; they create their utterances spontaneously, according to the rules of their language. It also makes possible the creation of new words and even the ability to lie.

    A number of great apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, have been taught human sign languages with all of the human design features. In each case, the apes have been able to communicate as humans do to an extent, but their linguistic abilities are reduced by the limited cognitive abilities that accompany their smaller brains.

    1.6 Adapted from Perspectives, Language (Linda Light, 2017)


    The Linguistic Perspective
    • The study of the mechanics of language.
      • e.g., final –s with 3rd person verbs in English. It marks the 3rd person.
      • e.g., word order in a sentence
      • e.g., how do we produce sounds, and how do sounds affect meaning?
    The Ethnolinguistic Perspective (linguistic anthropology)
    • The various uses of language in different cultures, and what type of language is needed to function appropriately in a given culture.
    • What kind of language you need to know to function in society (means the anthropologist needs to also study the culture of a society).
      • e.g., honorifics in Japanese culture
      • e.g., what does one have to do or say to apologize or make a request politely in a given community?
    The Sociolinguistic Perspective
    • The study of language use (i.e., variations in usage) amongst different groups of people. Linguistic characteristics in relation to specific social groups
      • e.g., rising intonation in American women
      • e.g., final –r dropped in African American vernacular English, ...

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