IS LANGUAGE UNIQUE TO THE HUMAN SPECIES?
by Ulla Hedeager INTRODUCTION The assertion that humans differ from animals in their use of language has been the subject of much discussion as scientists have investigated language use by non-human species. Researchers have taught apes, dolphins, and parrots various systems of human-like communication, and recently, the study of animal language and behaviour in its natural environment rather than in the laboratory has increased. It is my aim to discuss human language within an evolutionary perspective, to step across disciplinary boundaries of different fields of science, and to show how we may consider language only as one of the many forms that animal communication has taken and that it may not be out of reach of other species. WHAT IS LANGUAGE ? What is language? A universally accepted definition of language or the criteria for its use does not exist. This is one of the reasons for the disagreement among scientists about whether non-human species can use language. In nature we find numerous kinds of communication systems, many of which appear to be unique to their possessors, and one of them is the language of the human species. Basically, the purpose of communication is the preservation, growth, and development of the species (Smith and Miller 1968:265). The ability to exchange information is shared by all communication systems, and a number of nonhuman systems share some features of human language. The fundamental difference between human and non-human communication is that animals are believed to react instinctively, in a stereotyped and predictable way. Mostly, human behaviour is under the voluntary control, and human language is creative and unpredictable. It is generally assumed that only humans have language. Parts of the problem of differentiating man from the other animals is the problem of describing how human language differs from any kind of communicative behaviour carried on by non-human or pre-human species. Until we have done this, we cannot know how much it means to assert that only man has the power of speech. (Hockett 1967:570). In order to contrast human language with animal communication, the linguist Charles Hockett (1967:574580) introduces a generally accepted check list for language, a set of design features that all human languages possess. His seven key properties are: duality of pattern (the combination of a phonological system and a grammatical system), productivity (the ability to create and understand new utterances), arbitrariness (when signs/words do not resemble the things they represent), interchangeability (the ability to transmit and to receive messages by exchanging roles), specialization (when the only function of speech is communication and the speaker does not act out his message), displacement (the ability to refer to the
IS LANGUAGE UNIQUE TO THE HUMAN SPECIES? past and to things not present), and cultural transmission (the ability to teach/learn from other individuals, e.g. by imitation). Until recently, articulate speech was also considered crucial to language, and the visual grammar of sign languages was not studied or recognized as true language. One famous view of language is that of the influential Noam Chomsky. He assumes that a kind of language organ within the mind is part of the genetic make-up of humans. A system which makes it possible from a limited set of rules to construct an unlimited number of sentences is not found in any other species, and Chomsky believes that it is an investigation of this uniqueness that is important and not the likeness between human language and other communication systems (Wardhaugh 1993:18-26,60-65). Apparently, linguists should not be concerned with this question because it is outside their field, and it is outside their field because the linguists themselves have defined language as uniquely human. This approach does not operate within an evolutionary perspective and does not consider...
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