Six things we have and they don’t — part 1

Jan 26, 2011 by

In the last couple of postings I argued that animals — dogs, apes etc. — do not have language. Of course, animals of various species have communication systems but these communication systems do not count as language. Why? What is it that we, humans, have and they don’t?

Six properties (the so-called Hockett’s “design features”) have been said to characterize human language and human language alone. These features are arbitrariness, reflexivity, displacement, productivity, duality and cultural transmission. Let’s consider each one in turn.

As has been discussed first by the great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, linguistic signs (for simplicity, words) are arbitrary in that there is no intrinsic connection between the sound of a word and its meaning. The sound sequence /haus/ is just as good for expressing the concept ‘house’ as are the sequences /kaza/ (Italian), /dom/ (Russian), /ev/ (Turkish), /bait/ (Hebrew) and many others. Even the so-called onomatopeic words which are supposed to sound like what they represent — like words for animal sounds — are conventionalized in language. For example, an “English-speaking” pig “says” oink, whereas in German pigs “say” grunz. Some other languages have reduplicative words for pig sounds: øf-øf in Danish, knor knor in Dutch, boo boo in Japanese, groin groin in French and khrju-khrju in Russian.

In animal communication systems, signs are often non-arbitrary, for example, the loudness of the danger signal corresponds to how close the predator is. We use such non-arbitrary symbols too, for example as pictograms or road signs. So although we may loosely speak of the “road sign language”, to a linguist this is not a language proper.

The second important design feature of language is reflexivity. We humans can use language to think and talk about language itself — which is exactly what we’ve been doing in this blog. In contrast, animals are not able to reflect on their communication system(s). As George Yule (2010: 11)puts it: “Dogs aren’t barking about barking”.

The third design feature of human language is called displacement. Unlike animals, humans can refer to past and future time and to other places: I can tell you about my trip to Paris 20 years ago or about the future trip there that I am planning. We can even talk about non-existing and imaginary entities and locales, such as angels and fairies, Santa Claus and Superman, Heaven and Hell. Neither Greek mythology nor Viking legends would have been possible without this property of language. Nor would fiction be possible at all. Even the concept of ‘would’ is made possible only by displacement: it signifies the state of affairs in a different world, similar to our real world but also different from it in important respects. For example, the sentence If I were a Rothchild, I would donate all my money to charity means that in a slightly different version of the world (one where I am very rich), I give money to charity.

All of this is true of human language but not of animal communication systems, which are designed exclusively for this moment, for the “here and now”. It cannot be used effectively to relate events that are far removed in time and place. A dog cannot bark about that marrow bone you gave him yesterday or about the cute little puppy who lives north of the town. In fact, they cannot manage “north of town” at all, but this is a subject for a separate future posting. They do not have doggie heaven, but also no doggie hell.

Another thing that we can do because of displacement (and animals cannot) is lie. After all, lying is in a way talking about things that are not “here and now”. Dogs don’t lie — maybe that’s what makes them so attractive to us.

But wait, I hear you saying, what about honeybees? Those honeybees that dance to tell their fellow honeybees about the location of good nectar-bearing flowers? Can’t they “talk” about flowers they found far away from the hive? Isn’t that animal “language” used beyond “here and now”. The answer is no. Even honeybees, however sophisticated their communication system is, cannot “talk” about that delicious rose bush north of the town that they visited last weekend. They cannot do displacement in time and as it turns out they cannot do displacement in space either. All they can “share” is geocentric position of the flowers with respect to the hive. However, remote the flowers are, they are indicated in relation to “here”.

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