Understanding Human Language: An In-Depth Exploration of the Human Facility for Language

By Kendra A. Palmer
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 2/5 |

Greenspan and Shanker contest that individuals must be able to connect and engage with one another and have the ability to form relationships (Greenspan and Shanker, 322, 360). In order to assemble supportive groups with shared goals, these early peoples had to be able to converse more productively. They experienced the desire to express themselves and to talk. They were equipped with adaptations which selected for language, and they built upon it. Then, a sound was paired with a meaning. This involves what is called the “arbitrariness of the sign”— the word cat does not look like a cat, walk like a cat, or meow like a cat, but it carries the meaning of ‘cat’ nevertheless. This is because every speaker has undergone a like act of learning in childhood that associates the sound with the meaning. Due to this uniform memorization, “the members of a language community receive an enormous benefit: the ability to convey a concept from mind to mind virtually instantaneously” (Pinker, 75).

When examining human history, the language community is a natural sort of unit. “Languages, by their nature as means of communication, divide humanity into groups: only through a common language can a group of people act in concert, and therefore have a common history” (Ostler, 7). The most basic way in which a language can come to thrive is called the Farmer’s Approach (Ostler, 19). All the community needs to do is stay united, understand and communicate in the same designated language, and grow in population. This language becomes natural to the defined group. It is then enculturated, learned by the young from transmission of the old, steeped in habit. Steven Pinker claims, “once invented, language would entrench itself… as parents taught their children and children imitated their parents” (19). Use of language, in practice, is persistent over generations.

Trying to determine exactly when humans began using language is extremely difficult, but one method is to date the emergence of certain languages or language families. Proto-Indo-European, the ancestral language of Indo-European (of which English is a part), is thought to have emerged six to eight thousand years ago in the general area of Turkey (Davis, 25). However, some paleolinguists propose that Proto-Indo-European, in its earlier phase, belonged to a more ancient and larger “superfamily” of languages known as Nostratic, believed to be spoken 15,000 years ago by the peoples living between the areas of the Caspian and Black seas. (It should be noted that this puts the emergence of language before the invention of agri, before sedentism and the appearance of the complex society). Even more, Davis indicates, the real date is “likely more than twice as long ago as that… [and] some scientists… think they can push the date for the origin of human language back even further” (Davis, 26). Stanford University geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, for example, believes that tracing the earliest migrations of humans around the world coincides closely with previous work by historical linguists. Provided with recent discoveries of archaic Homo sapiens in the around 90,000 B.C., Cavalli-Sforza supports the notion that modern humans were speaking some form of real language nearly 100,000 years ago.

Given anthropological and paleolinguistic evidence, it becomes clear that humans have biologically and mentally provided themselves with a way to take communication to a higher, more complicated level.

How Language Works: Functions in The Body and Mind

So then, how do these conditions—the physical changes in body and brain, and the history of use of language, manifest themselves now? Physically, what are the faculties that humans possess so that they are capable of forming various and wide-ranging sounds? There are many more than one might think. In regards to the body, all of what are known as the vocal organs aid in the production of speech. These include, generally, the lungs, mouth, throat, and nose. Inside the mouth, the lips, tongue, teeth, palate, and uvula are all involved. How Language Works, by linguist David Crystal, states that inside the throat, the pharynx (upper part), larynx (lower part), vocal folds, and glottis are engaged in the speech process. The vocal tract, which consists of the pharynx, mouth, and nose, form a system of cavities that can alter their shape, and this is what allows the many different sounds of spoken language to be created. Crystal explains that the lungs produce a stream of air (called pulmonic air), which helps the chest to contract and expand and the ribs to move, causing the diaphragm to move downwards; all of this reduces the air pressure in the lungs (Crystal, 20). But pulmonic air has to be converted into audible vibrations, in the lower region of the vocal tract, the larynx.

Thus, one of the main functions of the larynx is to create a kind of buzzing sound, known as phonation, which is used for most of the consonants and all of the vowels. The larynx is also capable of pitch movements (when the vocal-fold vibration is altered at will), glottal stops (when the vocal folds are held tightly closed), and glottal friction (when the vocal folds are held wide apart). Once the given air stream passes through the larynx, it enters the vocal tract and is manipulated by several mobile vocal organs—the tongue, soft palate, and lips, mostly. This is the point at which articulation is achieved (Crystal, 27). The tongue is able to conform to more shapes and positions than any other vocal organ; it therefore assists in the making of a high number of speech sounds (Crystal, 29). It is the soft palate that, during normal breathing, is lowered to allow air to pass through the nose, and it affects the quality of sounds. The lips are employed for sounds such as “p” and “m” and create the various spreading used with vowels. Resonance is produced through the cavities in the throat, mouth, and nose. When the body exhales, the chest and lungs are then contracted, the ribs lowered, and the diaphragm raised, forcing air out. When one speaks, “the pattern [of the respiratory cycle] changes to one of very rapid inhalation and very slow exhalation... [carrying] much larger amounts of speech than would otherwise be the case” (Crystal, 21). As Crystal clarifies, of course, humans are capable of many other “sound effects,” possibly considered more emotional noises than speech sounds—but these communicate something nonetheless (23).

The physical means for language within the body have been discussed. Now, what of the brain’s role as it relates to the human capability for language? Neurolinguists contend that, in fact, extremely detailed processes trigger speech; although as of now there is no set, detailed model of neurolinguistic operation, it is still possible to speak generally of neurolinguistic processing. It seems that the theory of cerebral localization (the idea that a single area of the brain is related directly to a single behavioral ability), proposed by neurolinguists such as Broca and Wernicke, has some validity. For example, the area in front of the fissure of Rolando is mostly involved in motor functioning, thus significant in speaking and writing. Part of the upper temporal lobe (known as Wernicke’s area) plays a major role in the comprehension and production of speech, and the lower back part of the frontal lobe (Broca’s area) is primarily concerned with the encoding of speech. Part of the left parietal region performs tasks related to manual signing. And the area at the back of the occipital lobe is mainly used for the processing of visual input.

But David Crystal stresses that a multifunctional view is held today. He offers, “while recognizing that some areas are more important than others, neurolinguists postulate several kinds of subcortical connection, as well as connections between the hemispheres [of the brain]” (Crystal, 176). There is a general understanding of the model of the production and comprehension of language, containing several steps, each of which has some kind of neural representation. In speech production, an initiative to communicate is followed by a conceptualization of the message. The conceptualization is encoded into the semantic and syntactic structure of the language the speaker utilizes. For the structure to be verbalized, it first has to be assigned a sort of phonological representation, such as syllables. A motor-control program (functioning within the cerebellum, thalamus, and cortex) is then used in order to coordinate the multiplicity of signals which have to be sent to the appropriate muscles managing the different parts of the vocal tract. While these actions transpire, feedback is being received back from the ear through sense of touch. The brain demonstrates an inclination for “scanning ahead” while issuing commands for particular segments of previous thoughts, known as coarticulation (Crystal, 177).

More Proof for Innateness

There are other factors to consider when reflecting on the natural quality of language. “Language,” Steven Pinker contends in his book The Language Instinct, “is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture” (5). For example, there is to consider the universality of complex language, a strong reason to infer that language is the product of a special human instinct. Pinker points out that “there are Stone Age societies, but there is no such thing as a Stone Age language. Earlier in this century the anthropological linguist Edward Sapir wrote, ‘When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam’”(Pinker, 14). And there is still a uniquely human quality to this form of contact: notwithstanding decades of effort, no artificially engineered language system comes close to accomplishing that which comes naturally to the average human in terms of understanding and utilizing speech. This even includes such complicated programs such as HAL and C3PO (Pinker, 15).

The instinctive language facility can further be observed in children. There are children who are exposed to a pidgin language, and also deaf children, whose parents’ flawed signing is the only example of how to communicate, at the age when subjects acquire their mother tongue. Instead of settling for a fragmentary language as their parents did, children actually “fill in the gaps” or “inject” grammatical complexity where none existed previously, thereby transforming an enriched language into what is known as a creole (Pinker, 21). Noam Chomsky’s experiments support this idea; he derived the notion from his studies that, “the only way for children to learn something as complex as language… is to have known a lot about how language works beforehand, so that a child knows what to expect when immersed in the sea of speech… the ability to learn a language is innate, hidden in our genes” (Yang, 8).

Another example of the inherent language capability can be demonstrated in the following set of sentences:

A. Sarah appeared to Angela to like herself.

B. Sarah appeared to Angela to like her.

C. Sarah appealed to Angela to like herself.

D. Sarah appealed to Angela to like her.

How does one know how to distinguish between ordinary pronouns like “her” and reflexive pronouns such as “herself,” while also being able to tell the difference between verbs like “appear” and “appeal?” Ray Jackendoff, author of Patterns in the Mind, concludes that “grammatical patterns [are] deeply ingrained… much that we know about [language] has not been taught” (23). Jackendoff concludes his argument for innateness in recalling Chomsky’s argument: humans do not learn to have arms rather than wings. Why, then, is it surmised that the human brain acquires fundamental structure through learning rather than genetic inheritance? “The ability to learn language is rooted in our biology,” he states, “a genetic characteristic of the human species, just like an opposable thumb and a pelvis adapted for upright stance… the supporting brain structures are present” (30). Provided with these hereditary precedents, it hardly seems surprising that there could be a structural specialization in the brain for language and language acquisition.

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