Theory, Model, Method


1. Communication and human language

Questions like “What is language?” are often combined or even mixed up with questions like “How does communication work?”. Thus, language is often reduced to communication in linguistics books. However, communication, in general, is to be distinguished from what language is. We should even differentiate between a “language” (including computer languages, sign language, among others) and human or natural language.

If language is the same as communication, then all species “speak” , which is obviously not true. We have the ability to realize the forms of a human language and may exclude other forms, for example sounds and noises, from human language. There are sounds that do not belong to language, and do not even have to be communicative.

On the other hand, animals possess some kind of communication system and can communicate with others of their species. Research shows that this communication depends on a system, which is characteristic of any human language. But the question is whether this communication is a variety of human language or something else. Language, as represented by the linguistic knowledge acquired by children, seems to be the exclusive property of the human species.

Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world ... There is no reason to suppose that the ‘gaps’ are bridgeable. There is no more of a basis for assuming an evolutionary development of "higher" from "lower" stages, in this case, than there is for assuming and evolutionary development from breathing to walking.
(Source: Chomsky, N. (1972). Language and the Mind, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, pp. 67-68)

Ali G - Language with Noam Chomsky

Even when parrots vocally imitate human utterances, it does not mean they possess “language” in the sense of a human language. Some birds may even be able to faithfully reproduce words and phrases such as “Polly wants a cracker”. Linguists have to find out – in defining “human language” , what the difference between this kind of “language”, or communication system, and human language is. They will look for the absence of meaning (See Semantics) and of verbally expressed intentions, found in linguistic speech activities (See Pragmatics).

The fact that speech is a peculiarly human trait was also emphasized by Steven Pinker, in The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind:

As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with remarkable precision. I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science; even in the depictions of believers, these are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. That ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is ... [H]uman language is based on a very different design ... Even the seat of human language in the brain is special...
(Source: Pinker, S. (1997). The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind, Penguin, London, pp. 1395)



Exercises on Human Language