Hi, I'm Leonie. 18 years old, from the Netherlands, studying linguistics. I'm mostly just reblogging stuff I like and sometimes I draw and post it on here :)
What makes a human language?
A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay on the ‘language’ of dolphins - and whether it can or can’t be classified as a language. Language is, exclusively a human invention, but how can we actually dictate if animals have their own language, or not, when we can’t fully comprehend what they’re communicating? Charles Hockett created 13 features that all human languages - and essentially therefore, all languages - possess:
- Vocal-auditory channel - You speak with your mouth, and hear with your ears.
- Broadcast transmission and directional reception - Human language is projected in all directions (out of the mouth) but received (heard) only from certain directions.
- Rapid fading/transitoriness - Speech waves fade very quickly and cannot be heard after (so, someone can speak to you and can hear it there and then in that instant, but you won’t still be able to hear the same utterance 8 hours later.)
- Interchangeability - You can both produce and receive the same ‘signal’ - i.e., you can make and hear the same speech sounds (there are some instances where speakers of another language may be able to make a certain sound more naturally and easily than others, but strictly speaking all humans are able to make the same sounds.)
- Total feedback - You can hear yourself as you speak, and monitor your performance in order to correct yourself (so if I were to slightly mispronounce a French word, I’d be able to hear that and rectify it.)
- Specialisation - Humans have organs, that are developed way beyond any other animal, specifically adapted for speech.
- Semanticity - Specific language signals (words) can be matched with a specific meaning - so if I were to say the word ‘tree’ in English, or ‘arbre’ in French or ‘árvore’ in Portuguese, a listener would know the entity to which I’m referring. Words aren’t just a bunch of sounds struck together with no purpose.
- Arbitrariness - Having said that, words are essentially just thrown together, with no necessary relationship between the formation of the word and the appearance of the entity (for example, the word ‘big’ is a very short word but actually refers to the opposite, and the word ‘mosquito’ is long but refers to something teeny tiny; there is no relationship between the two.)
- Discreteness - Phonemes are categorised as separate things, not as a continuous spectrum of one sound blending into another: for example, a speaker of English can distinguish between /s/ and /z/.
- Displacement - Humans can talk about things that aren’t present, or even things that don’t exist. We can talk about Pluto even though we can’t see it, and talk about things that happened in the past, and talk about unicorns. Pretty cool when you think about it, really.
- Productivity - Also pretty cool. Humans can combine sounds they know to construct novel utterances, even if they’ve never heard them before. So, I can say “The royal Pekingese turkey came for tea with John the Baptist” which is y’know, batshit, but a speaker of English knows what I’m on about, somehow.
- Traditional Transmission - At the risk of starting up the nature vs. nurture argument… language isn’t inborn. Some animals are born instinctively knowing something (e.g. a particular dance, for bees) even if they grow up in solitude, but the same can’t be said for a human. If we don’t hear speech, we don’t produce it (not properly, anyway: see the case of Genie and other feral children for reference.) The development of human language relies on the input of other humans.
- Duality of patterning/double articulation- This is a similar concept to Productivity, but it refers to morphemes (smallest meaningless elements of a language) rather than phonemes. We can combine different morphemes to create new words, so for example, I can use certain morphemes to create the word articulation, then I can recombine some of these morphemes to create accumulation.
These were the original 13 features, although Hockett did later rectify this list to add:
- Prevarication - The ability to lie or deceive.
- Reflexiveness - You can use language to talk about language, as I’m doing right now. Languageception.
- Learnability - In the same way a speaker learns their first language, you can learn a second, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and…
As this was a theory created in the 1960s, of course it has its flaws and can be picked apart, for example: a deaf person who uses sign language does not necessarily utilise a vocal-auditory channel, as well as the fact some of these do indeed appear in animal communication systems. However, it is the combination of these 13 (or 16) factors that make what comes out of our mouths and into our ears and across our brains, human.