Six things we have and they don’t — part 2

Jan 26, 2011 by

In the previous posting, I talked about three of the six design features that separate human language from other communication systems, including those in the animal kingdom. These three features are: arbitrariness, reflexivity and displacement. Now we’ll look more closely at the other three features: productivity, duality and cultural transmission.

Productivity concerns the possibility to be creative with a given communication system. Thus, birds, bees, monkeys and other animals can produce only a limited range of messages. For example, gophers have signs for messages like “danger from the ground” and “danger from the air”. But that’s about it. There are no signs for “danger from the north” or “danger from the east” or anything like that. And gophers have no ability to create such novel messages that are not given to them through their biological make-up. Similarly, if a monkey wakes up one day feeling a feeling he has never felt before, even if he tries to express it, his monkey-friends will be clueless. In another experiment, a hive of honeybees was placed at the foot of a radio tower and a food source placed at the top — what the scout-bee had to “tell” its fellow bees is “up”, but not such “word” exists in the bee vocabulary… and they could not make it up either!

Humans, in contrast, are endowed with an endless ability for linguistic creativity. We can and do express new messages about novel subjects — and the best part is that any native speaker of the language we use will instantly understand what we are saying! Try it: tell your friends “There’s an armadillo golfing next to the library” — and they will know immediately what you said (whether they will understand your hidden intentions, that’s another matter altogether!).

This unlimited productivity of human language results from its next property: duality (also known as “dual articulation”). What this means is that human language is organized at two levels or layers simultaneously: the physical level of sounds and the abstract level of meanings. An average language sound inventory is 22-24 consonants and 5-6 vowels, but such relatively small array of discrete building blocks yields a vast (in fact, infinite) range of possible messages. How is it done? When you understand/process human speech, you relate a stream of sounds to meaning and this relationship is compositional. In essence, the meaning of the whole is composed of the meaning of the pieces and how they are put together — this is known as Frege’s conjecture (after the philosopher of language Gotlob Frege).

With animals, each communicative signal appears to be a single fixed form that cannot be broken down into separate parts. For example, a dog’s woof meaning ‘I am happy to see you’ cannot be decomposed and reassembled into foow meaning ‘I am really bored’. Similarly, the gopher’s signals for the different types of danger are not decomposable into signals for “danger” and the sources thereof. This is exactly why a gopher cannot get creative with its communicative pieces: there are simply no pieces to be creative with in the first place.

Finally, let’s consider the last crucial property of human language: cultural transmission. While “language genes” such as FOXP2 have been discovered (and discussed in several earlier postings), they encode our predisposition to learn a human language, not a specific language. It is quite obvious that we do not acquire the specific language of which we become native speakers from our parents via genes. We may be born looking Chinese, but we are not born speaking Chinese (or English, or any other language). Instead, we acquire a language in a culture, surrounded by other speakers. As parents, we tend to think — wishfully! — that our children learn the language from us; however, it seems that children actually learn more of their native language from their older peers than from their parents. However, what’s crucial is that regardless of the child’s biological parents and their language, the child would always acquire the language of the environment. For instance, a child born to Korean parents but adopted by English speakers in the U.S. will have the physical appearance inherited from her parents, but will speak flawless English. Animals are different: a kitten, adopted by a dog, will produce “meow” regardless.

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