How is Human Language Different From Animal Communication Systems
In the 1960s, linguist Charles Hockett identified a set of “design features” to distinguish human language from animal communication systems. While there are ongoing debates about the usefulness of these design features, they do accurately describe the unique properties of human language.
Let’s explore the wonders of language through these distinctive design features.
How Design Features Distinguish Human Language From Animal Communication
The Six Design Features of Human Language
Language properties are shared by signed and spoken languages alike. The list of original design features has been revised over time, but there are a few properties that all human languages seem to share at the exclusion of animal communication:
Languages are made of discrete, repeatable units that create meaning when combined.
This means that we can combine words or pieces of words to make new ones, and combine those words to make sentences. And every language has ‘rules’, for lack of a better term, that govern how its units can be combined.
English plural -s can only come at the end of words: ‘pens’, never ‘spen’ or ‘psen’.
English prepositions must come before their dependents: ‘her with’ (instead of ‘with her’) is not grammatically correct in English. Every language is made of grammatical ‘rules’ like these, though they vary widely depending on the language.
2. Duality of Patterning
Words and pieces of words are made up of smaller, but meaning-less, units.
These smallest units of speech are phonemes, which are sounds in spoken languages and gestures in sign languages. Phonemes distinguish between words but are not independently meaningful.
Consider the words ‘fib’ and ‘fit’: phonemes /b/ and /t/ don’t mean anything in English on their own, but they distinguish between two words with different meanings.
This is how language communicates things that aren’t immediately present, either in space or time.
This includes the past and future, physically distant events, and things that are mentally experienced, like stories, dreams, and emotions.
Using terms such as ‘back then’ or using future tenses such as ‘will’, show this to be a part of language structure.
The sounds or gestures of a word usually aren’t related in a rational way to meaning.
There is no logical relationship between, say, the word ‘cat’ and the animal to which it refers.
That is not to say that languages don’t have iconicity—similarity between form and meaning—but that no language is entirely (or even mostly) iconic.
When you picture the word ‘bed’ there is no reason for a bed to come into mind. A bed is simply called a bed because we say so, and continue to teach so.
There is an indefinite number of linguistic constructions that can be made and understood.
There are no limits to how many different versions of words that can be used to communicate.
I went to the store. I was going to the store earlier. Earlier, I went to the store. There is no limit on how to express this through communication.
Parts of a language including words, pieces of words, and phrases—have a specific meaning
Words and sentences are not just said to speak. They are spoken to communicate meaning in some way shape or form.
Cat flushes wall. This does not mean anything to an English speaker because it has no meaning. It is a cluster of words that do not communicate meaning.
Is Recursion A Design Feature?
Recursion, while not a ‘design feature,’ is arguably the only completely unique feature of human language.
Recursion means that a unit of language can contain a unit of the same type: a sentence or phrase can contain many more sentences or phrases.
‘Claudia thinks’ is a sentence, which can contain (potentially) infinitely more sentences. ‘Claudia thinks voting is important’ is a single sentence that actually contains two sentences, and could contain many more.
*** Recursion has not been found in any animal communication but seems to be a universal feature of human language.
Design Features Found In Animal Communication
While recursion is language-bound, some design features of human language can be found in animal communication.
For example, bee communication has displacement, because bee dances can describe nectar sources that were discovered in the past and are not immediately experienced.
However, in addition to lacking recursion, bee communication has limited productivity, because the only messages that can be conveyed are about nectar and the production of honey.
Limited productivity of bee communication also entails limited displacement: the only non-immediate entities that can be talked about are nectar sources.
Is There A Connection Between Ape Communication & Human Communication?
While great ape communication is much more complex than bee communication, there is no evidence our fellow hominids have true language.
Whether they can learn language has been hotly debated, but the consensus among researchers is that they cannot. However, one study on the gestures of wild chimpanzees showed that they spontaneously use at least 66 gestures, none of which were taught to them by humans.
The same study showed that there is considerable overlap between these gestures and those used by gorillas and orangutans. Orangutans can apparently mime, a communicative behavior thought to be unique to humans.
Studies like these show that great apes are sophisticated communicators and social actors.
Regardless, great ape communication systems lack the key feature of human language: recursion.
The Connection Between Dolphin Communication & Human Communication
The hominid language debate may be settled, but the status of dolphin communication has been recently debated. We know that dolphin communication is sophisticated and that they can learn complex linguistic concepts, including abstract ones.
Dolphin brains are second only to human brains with respect to body-brain ratio. In part, because they’re so smart, there’s a lot we still don’t know about dolphins’ cognition, communication, and behavior.
And yet, there’s no evidence that dolphins have language. Claims otherwise are critiqued as misleading and having poor data collection methods or misinterpretation of results.
Does Dolphin Communication Have Human Language Features?
We have no evidence that dolphin communication has key human language features, like productivity or recursion. There isn’t even sufficient evidence that dolphins use words in the wild, let alone sentences.
This isn’t necessarily disappointing: there’s a lot to learn about dolphin cognition, social behavior, and communication regardless of whether they might have language. In fact, dolphins seem to be even more social than us.
A lack of dolphin language doesn’t diminish their intelligence but instead highlights how special human language really is. Social and communicative behaviors are not at all unique to humans, but only humans have developed language.
Language can be considered a capacity or a behavior, or perhaps both, but status aside, it is uniquely human. All of our behaviors and accomplishments, as individuals and a collective, rely on the foundation of language.
Are You Interested In Learning a New Language?
Whether it is human language or animal communication, learning a new language allows us to push the boundaries on discovering our behavior, communication, and cognition.
Whatever reason you have to learn a language, Pimsleur has the product for you to continue exploring different means of communication! Try Pimsleur today!