Do Animals Use Some Properties of Human Language

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Are there special properties of human language or can they be found in the communication systems of other creatures?
Philip Tweedle

This essay will discuss whether six of Hockett’s design features, which are properties of language, are exclusively human or can they be found in other creatures communications. For each of the features, the communication of wild apes, trained apes and humans will be compared. This will not be based solely on vocal communication, but explore the research into signing and ‘pointing’ apes (apes using symbols on a keyboard, Aitchison, 2008). The first reason to discuss this, is because human language is not restricted to vocal communication: we can use sign language and the written word. The second reason is that the chimps’ vocality is restricted to chimp calls. This was shown by an experiment by the Kelloggs with Viki the chimp, which was to ascertain whether chimps could learn and use spoken human language. Viki only learned four words in three years and these “were sometimes confused and were used incorrectly”(Hill, 1978, p91). This is because chimps are not physiologically equipped to produce human spoken language.

Listed below are the six design features that will be used to compare humans and apes:

• Vocal-auditory channel use
• Specialisation
• Non-directionality
• Rapid fade
• Reciprocity
• Prevarication

The first feature, vocal-auditory channel use, is where sounds are produced by the vocal chords and received aurally. This is found in both humans and apes: for example if I shout to a friend he will hear it, likewise if an ape produced a danger call another ape will hear; however for the signing and pointing apes, as with a deaf or mute human, it is found in neither of their communication systems. Although the trained apes signed or pointed, they still tried to use their natural, spontaneous calls to communicate.

The second feature, specialisation, is a deliberate...
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