Language is what makes us human

Aug 27, 2010 by

In the last couple of postings I talked about Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar (Principles & Parameters Theory), which is — sadly — misrepresented by Lera Boroditsky in her The Wall Street Journal article. However, there is one thing I must agree with Dr. Boroditsky on. She writes:

Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature.

Language is what makes us uniquely human. Bees use an elaborate communication system to tell one another precisely how to get from the hive to a source of pollen. Some birds can imitate human speech. Some monkeys use specific calls to tell one another whether a predator is a leopard, a snake or an eagle. And dogs are very good at reading our gestures and tone of voice. But we humans are the ones who can talk about politics or about who’s having an affair with who. Animals simply cannot do that.

What underlies language is our ability for symbolic thinking. To put it simply, symbols are signs that act as a stand-in or shorthand for something they are not. For example, the Christian cross stands for a certain set of beliefs and practices, and a $20-bill is a symbol of the gold in Fort Knox. Words are symbols too. Take, for example, the word cat. Even though the written word C-A-T looks nothing like a real-world cat, and the spoken sequence of sounds /kæt/ sounds nothing like a cat sounds, when you hear or see the word, you’re able to conjure up an image. Words are symbols in that they stand in for mental images or concepts, with which they are paired in an arbitrary fashion.

But language is much more than just a set of pairings between sounds (visual images, gestures) and concepts. What is crucial is that we can recognize patterns of symbols. And that’s what allows us to put words together to convey complex messages, such as the The cat got your tongue. While much of Boroditsky’s work is concerned with differences between languages that follow from languages “packaging” concepts into words in different ways (see also the postings on “Dividing up the world”, “It’s all in the family!” and “All the colors of the rainbow (and beyond)…”), I personally am more interested in the differences — and similarities — across languages that concern those symbolic patterns or rules that constitute the grammar of Human (or, as it is more widely known, Universal Grammar).

If language is what makes us human, when did we turn from an ape to a fully modern human? When were we first able to speak? We do not know for sure. The modern version of a gene called FOXP2, which is important for speech and language, didn’t appear until perhaps 100,000 years ago (although other estimates place it as early as 200,000 years ago). Recently discovered seashells with holes in them that must have been used as beads — and are taken as evidence for early symbolic thinking — are dated back 75,000 years. But modern human vocal apparatus did not evolve until as late as 50,000 years ago. So it is possible that we were able to use language (possibly, of the gestural kind) long before we were able to articulate the sounds that we associate with human speech today.

In the next posting, we will look more closely at the anatomical machinery that allows us to speak.

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