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1.3: Hallmarks of human language

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    Creativity and Generativity in Anderson's Essentials of Linguistics


    Video Script

    Probably the most fundamental property of human language is creativity. When we say that human languages are creative, we don’t just mean that you can use them to write beautiful poems and great works of literature.

    When we say that human language is creative, we mean a couple of different things:

    First, every language can express any possible concept.

    That notion might surprise you at first. I often see magazine articles or blog posts that talk about supposedly untranslatable words that exist in other languages but that don’t exist in English. A quick search online leads me to these gems:

    Kummerspeck is the German word for excess weight gained from emotional overeating.

    In Inuktitut, iktsuarpok is that feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet.

    And in Tagalog, gigil is the word for the urge to squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.

    So if you believe that kind of article, it might seem like some concepts are restricted to certain languages. But think about it: Just because English doesn’t have one single word that means “the urge to squeeze something cute” doesn’t mean that English-speakers can’t understand the concept of wanting to squeeze something cute. As soon as I described it using the English phrase “the urge to squeeze something cute” you understood the concept! It just takes more than one word to express it! The same is true of every language: all of the world’s languages can express all concepts.

    The other side of the creativity of language is even more interesting. Every language can generate an infinite number of possible new words and sentences.

    Every language has a finite set of words in it. A language’s vocabulary might be quite large, but it’s still finite. And every language has a small and finite set of principles for combining those words.

    But every language can use that finite vocabulary and that finite set of principles to generate an infinite number of sentences, new sentences every single day.

    Likewise, every language has a finite set of sounds and a finite set of principles for combining those sounds. Every language can use those finite resources to generate an infinite number of possible new words in that language.

    Because human languages are all capable of generating new words and generating new sentences, we say that human grammar is generative.

    Remember that when we use the word “grammar” in linguistics, we’re talking not about the prescriptive rules that your Grade 6 teacher tried to make you follow, but about mental grammar, the things in our minds that all speakers of a language have in common that allow us to understand each other. Mental grammar is generative.

    The final, and possibly the most important thing to know about the creativity of language is that it is governed by systematic principles. Every fluent speaker of a language uses systematic principles to combine sounds to form words and to combine words to form sentences. In Essentials of Linguistics, we’ll use the tools of systematic observation to discover what these systematic principles are.

    Check Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    What does it mean to say that mental grammar is generative?

    • Every child inherits a mental grammar through their genes.
    • Some languages can generate concepts that are impossible to express in other languages.
    • The principles of mental grammar allow us to form completely novel sentences, and to understand them when we hear them.

    "The principles of mental grammar allow us to form completely novel sentences, and to understand them when we hear them."

    The reason: A mental grammar is just that, a concept that we have of how to put together words and phrases in a given language. Primarily, it's for our native langauge(s), but it can also include those languages in which we are fully fluent. This mental grammar helps us to both produce and comprehend langauge.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The systematic principles of English phonology generate some word forms but not others. Which of the following words could be a possible word in English?

    • Klaff.
    • Fkal.
    • Flakf.
    • Sflak.


    The reason: When we think about possible combinations in English, we think about what could possibly be used together--what sounds could possibly work in the language. We'll get more into this in Chapters 2 and 3, but for now it's more of an issue of what could be possible. The other options are 'hard to pronounce' from an English point of view.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The systematic principles of English syntax generate some sentences but not others. Which of the following sentences is not possible in English?

    • You ain’t going nowhere.
    • Herself have wrote these excellent book.
    • Sam said she needed to speak to Chris and me.
    • This expedition aims to boldly go where no expedition has gone before.

    "Herself have wrote these excellent book."

    The reason: There are a number of issues, both morphological and syntactical, with the sentence.

    • 'Herself' is a reflexive pronoun, and has to refer back to someone--but as the subject of the sentence, that can't be done, as there's nothing before it to set up the reference.
    • The verb 'have' is not a third person singular form--what we would expect for a 'She' subject.
    • The past participle should be used in this verb construction, because this is a perfective form. But 'wrote' is not the past participle of 'to write'; it would be 'written'.
    • 'These' implies a plural noun, but it is paired with 'book', which is singular.

    Hallmarks of Human Language, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    What is a language? For now, when we talk about a language, we're talking about a human language, and there are certain components that are found in human languages. They are consistent and they are unique, at least in their sum, that human languages all have certain components to them. With respect to animal communication, we’ll cover that at a later point.

    What are these attributes of human language? These hallmarks of human language? There are six in total. And it kind of goes in order, meaning that probably the most important aspect of human language is arbitrariness. Arbitrariness means that a given sign and a given meaning are arbitrarily connected. That means that there is no reason whatsoever that this thing is called a ‘cup’ or a ‘mug’ or a ‘bottle’. In fact, the fact that we can use three different terms in mainstream American English for just the same thing, shows the arbitrariness. There is no reason whatsoever that this thing is called a ‘telephone’; it just happens to be called telephone. Now I would also argue that arbitrariness may be the hardest of the areas to understand; in fact, it's the next section of this chapter is devoted to arbitrariness, and we're going to come back to arbitrariness in a number of chapters in this course. It is fundamental to what a human language is; there's no reason why anything is given a specific name. It just happens. Either we as a speaker of a language decide that's the name it should be, or we’re trying to connect it to something else, but even that connection is arbitrary in and of itself. We will come back to that one.

    Displacement. You might think of with respect to physical sciences about displacing water like you see in the picture. So displacement is the fact that we can use language to talk about things that are not in front of us. We can talk about anything at all. It doesn't have to be right in front of us. It can be something tactile but just not in front of us; it can be something abstract; it can be something hypothetical. We can use language to describe all of it.

    Cultural transmission is pretty much what you think it is, meaning that we use language to transmit culture from one person to another. Culture is not just music, art and literature; when we talk about culture, we talk about anything that is a human artifact. Remember, this is a social science.

    The next one is duality. Duality is the fact that we can use a limited amount of lexicon or terms and a limited amount of phrase possibilities, as far as the construction of a phrase in a language. But we can create an infinite number of statements, questions, thoughts, declarations, hypotheses, anything. As we go through this course, it's really interesting to look at what a given language does. All languages have peculiarities, but they all have certain things in common as well. And one of these is duality.

    Productivity or creativity, they're used interchangeably. Productivity is the word I tend to use; creativity is perfectly fine. It's the fact that we talk about things that we have never thought about before. We create, we produce with language. We do it in a way that is inventive. Again, humans seem to be pretty unique in this.

    Last is reflexivity. We don't just talk about things around us; we talk about ourselves.

    As we'll discuss later down the road with respect to these attributes, we can find a lot of them in a number of types of animal communication. But to this point in time, human beings are the only ones that have a type of communication that encompasses all six of these attributes. It's not to say that other animal languages don't. It's that we don't understand, or that it's possible but we just haven't figured out their code yet. We'll talk more about this when we get to human language, processing and how the brain works. In the next section we're going to focus on the main one, the biggest element, with respect to human language: arbitrariness.

    1.3: Hallmarks of human language is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.