The Origin of Language

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There has been considerable historical discourse over the nature of language. Most contend that thought and language are two interrelated criteria. Just how these criteria relate to the controversy over whether animals have language capabilities and even more specifically to the Sapir-Whorf human language thought debate, however, is not always clear. From a human context we know that language is a skill which allows us to communicate our thoughts to others and in so doing to attain desired "biological, cognitive, and social/behavioral feedback" (McDonnell, 1977). The question as to whether language is a skill that human beings are born with or whether it is a skill that is acquired is a complex one and not one in which all researchers are in agreement. Neither are researchers in agreement about whether animals have the capability of language. To resolve these controversies we must look to both human and animal research. The linguistic relativity theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed by Benjamin Lee Whorf (a linguist and anthropologist) and Edward Sapir. The theory argues that language is a finite array of lexical and grammatical categories that group experiences into usable classes which vary across cultures but influence thought. The theory maintains that a concept cannot be understood without an appropriate word for that concept. To explore this theory and the animal language controversy we must first accept that both animals and humans have the capacity for language. The next task then would be to determine whether that capacity is innate or acquired. A characteristic which is innate is an instinctual behavior and most often one which one was born with. An innate or instinctual behavior is often associated with an organism's genetic propensity to behave or react in a certain way.

Innate language ability or our genetic makeup, under the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, would serve to limit the conceptual ability of an individual for without words concepts could not be understood according to this hypothesis. There are numerous points which can serve to discredit this hypothesis. The interaction between genetic makeup and behavior or reaction is an interesting one. Some researchers contend that basic linguistic organization, or grammar, is a one, which is built into the human brain (McConnell, 1977). These researcher believe that humans develop the capacity for speech because of a sort of preexisting central nervous system map which allows us to translate our mental experiences into words (McConnell, 1977). They believe that the "baby talk" uttered by infants is simply a precursor to actual language and that both "baby talk" and the ability to translate one's thoughts into language is one which is part of the human genetic blueprint (McConnell, 1977). If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were accurate, therefore, human conceptualization would be limited to the words which we were born understanding. We know that this is not the case. We can demonstrate this inaccuracy with a brief look at the animal language controversy which rages on in many circles. While it is agreed in most cases that humans have the genetic blueprint for language, it is not always agreed that animals have this same blueprint. Most researchers recognize that human infants can distinguish between various sounds in human speech at a very early age. According to psychologist Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington, for example, infants can distinguish between each of the 150 universal components of human speech (Grunwald, Goldberg, and Be; 1993). It could be contended that, while they may not have the same range of sound recognition, young animals also associate various sounds emitted by their species as having particular associations. One has to only observe the interactions between a family pet and their offspring to be cognizant of this fact. Indeed, animals quickly learn to recognize the meaning of various human words as...
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