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

By Kendra A. Palmer
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 3/6 |

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 , 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.


Languages all over the world have been thoroughly studied for similarities. “Literally hundreds of universal patterns have been documented,” Pinker asserts, and “linguists have long known that the basic design features of language are found everywhere” (Pinker, 234, 238). For example, no language forms questions by reversing the order of word sequence, like Built Jack that house the this is? (Pinker, 234). All languages have vocabularies with words in the thousands or tens of thousands, organized into part-of-speech categories. Also, it has been noted that subjects go before objects in almost all languages, and verbs tend to be adjacent to their objects (Pinker, 234).

Everything that Followed: Ideas brought to Fruition

But what did this innate ability to possess language do? Were there social consequences to such a mental, seemingly single ability? Yes, in fact—many. After language came the actualization of , the description of which will be presented briefly. All of the functions of culture necessitate communication, but more specifically, complex language; they also require an evolved intellect.

Among the brilliant distinctions exclusive to Homo sapiens, as opposed to other animals, the character and impact of culture is indeed prominent. But what is culture, and of what is it comprised? Culture can be seen as a collective source of knowledge, experience, outlook, values, and meaning shared by a group of people. Culture is learned, shared, symbolic, comprehensive, adaptive. Culture affects every aspect of society. It is instrumental in shaping the beliefs and behavior of the individuals accountable to them, and has physical and psychological manifestations. To be sure, it is chiefly because of language that other human endeavors within the context of culture were put into motion—among these, hunting, sedentism, agriculture, the of more complex societies, social stratification and specialization, formalized religious beliefs. There are other concepts that found themselves voiced in language as well: concepts such as ethnocentrism and . Conrad Kottak, author and anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, asserts that “for hundreds of thousands of years, humans have had some of the biological capacities on which culture depends; among them are the ability to learn, to think symbolically, [and] to use language” (Kottak and Kozaitis, 11).

The natural ability for language brings with it many cultural consequences. Language clearly “bridged the gap” and made many other concepts concrete to Homo sapiens; these perceptions were physically possible because members of Homo sapiens were able to articulate ideas to each other. In fact, it is the advancements in the application of language and cognizance that brought about the conception of culture and its derivatives. The culmination of culture, then, is what brought about social interpretations of the use of language—a few of these being writing and reading, access to literacy, and dialects.

The History of Writing

Writing is easily one of the most considerable of the cultural branches of language; its formation signifies a revolution in human progress. In fact, with the appearance of writing within a society, it must be stressed that other progressive patterns are also assuredly in place— patterns such as sedentism, agriculture and organized gathering, more formalized and shared religious beliefs, etc. So the discussion of writing and “advanced” societies should go hand-in-hand in regards to their manifestations after language. The development of a standardized writing system is a cultural off-shoot of a standardized language, observed in the evolution of many given “advanced societies.” As a culture or a people grow and expand in other areas, an apparent need for written communication arises. There is a transition from a simply widely-spoken and understood language to a designation of a palpable system of letters and symbols which correspond to that language. Therefore, writing is one of a number of indications of a truly emergent society. Richard Rudgley, author of Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, validates this: “writing is, of course, one of the main features of those societies considered to be civilized” (Rudgley, 15). (It is precisely because of writing and the written record that actual cases of writing in the world can be examined within this text.) This contention, regarding the necessity and the resolution of writing, can be seen repeatedly through some very particular examples in prehistory, which will be discussed.