Is Language an Instinct

Topics: Linguistics, Language acquisition, Language Pages: 8 (2631 words) Published: March 20, 2011
Is language an instinct? Before discussing this question, the definition or area of language should be considered first. Many introductions to the study of language, linguistics, avoid giving a definition, or consider it to be so obvious that it does not need to be defined (Harley, 1995). According to Gleason and Ratner (1998), one of the properties attributed to language is that it is a uniquely human behaviour.

Pinker (1994:334) points out that:

nonhuman communication systems are based on one of three designs: a finite repertory of calls (one for warnings of predators, one for claims to territory, and so on), a continuous analog signal that registers the magnitude of some state (the liverlier the dance of the bee, the richer the food source that it is telling its hivemates about), or a series of random variations on a theme (a birdsong repeated with a new twist each time: Charlie Parker with feathers)

On the other hand, Hockett (1960, as cited in Harley, 1995:9) listed 16 universal characteristics of human language, which provide a useful framework for thinking about how animal communication systems differ form human language. Three characteristics are picked out to discuss in details for making a clearer distinction between human language and animal communication.

1. Arbitrariness
The particular words used to describe entities, actions, and attributes in any language are arbitrary (Gleason & Ratner, 1998). The words of a language are symbols, which are abstract and do not look like what it stands for, but are agreed to abide by any individual within the community. Take “books” for example, although the word has nothing similar to the entity books, like shape, colour and so forth (in fact, “shape” and “colour” are also arbitrary words used by people), every one agrees with its meaning. However, animals may have their arbitrary symbols in their groups, but they lack a sufficiently rich system of symbols and rules for their combination to allow transmission of a large variety of concepts (Gleason & Ratner, 1998).

Languages do not vary infinitely in that there are constraints on the nature of possible linguistic rules that reflect the nature of human cognition (Chomsky, 1981, as cited in Gleason & Ratner, 1988). Gleason and Ratner (1998) propose that language is a rule-governed system of behaviour and the rules are quite arbitrary in nature as words. English, like other language, has conventions for putting and ordering specific words in a sentence with no real reasons. Sentences, for instance, “I like studying English”, are hierarchical structured, with arbitrary words combined by arbitrary grammar. In brief, both vocabulary and grammar of any language represent arbitrary conventions that the users of a language agree to abide by (Gleason & Ratner, 1988). In contrast, it is difficult to analyze the “substructure” of infant or animal cries, not to mention syntactic constructions. Although some substructure may appear to exist in the bee’s dance and the bird’s replication of human speech, such messages lack the infinite productivity of human language (Gleason & Ratner, 1998).

2. Productivity:
Human language is so much more creative and flexible than the communication system of any other species (Cairns and Cairns, 1976:5). For example, “Internet” is a word created with the development of technology by people. It is true that some of the signing apes (Terrace, 1979; Rumbaugh, 1977; as cited in Gleason & Ratner, 1998) produce brief utterances that relate to their current intents (for example, “Tickle Nim”), but, as Demers (1989, as cited in Gleason & Ratner, 1998) notes, animal communication lack unbounded productivity of new and varying messages compared with human language.

3. Displacement:
Marshall (1970, as cited in Harley, 1995) points out that language is under our voluntary control, intentionally expressing the full range of speakers’ experiences, even imaginary ones (in remote time and...
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