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

By Kendra A. Palmer
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/6 |
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Language: Indispensable to Humans

What critical evolutionary events does the span of human progression include? Anthropologists agree that decisive transitions such as sedentism, domestication, the use of , and the arrival of and complex societies are associated. Although this is true, and all these issues will be addressed in some capacity, the main objective of this piece will be to examine the marvel of language thoroughly, along with its effects. Why is language so essential to humanity, and how has it affected human history so profoundly? Examining the relationship between language and its derivatives is vital, and it becomes imperative to distinguish which came first in order to better understand the history of man. There are language principles that are “universal by biological necessity and not mere historical accident” (Chomsky, 4). It is this text’s declaration that language stands alone as the greatest accomplishment of man and it is language, sequentially, that fostered a myriad of cultural products.

First, the concept of language should be discussed. What is it, exactly? As Joel Davis notes in his work, Mother Tongue, “Everybody uses language, but nobody knows quite how to define it” (6). He indicates that renowned linguists, such as Edward Sapir, G. Trager, and Robert Hall have all attempted their own classifications but have not quite succeeded. Some of these proposed definitions seemed accurate at the time, but then excluded individuals who use Sign Language (through a purely nonverbal transmission), or animals, some of which are known to employ a kind of communication in their own interaction. Perhaps a meaningful classification with which to proceed can be found in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, wherein the definition of language is: “A systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings” (Davis, 8). This acknowledges that language is not necessarily limited to sounds and that, possibly, (some) other animals are capable of something like it.

The Characteristics of Language

Provided with a definition of language, it should be assigned more precise qualities. First, there is the characteristic of displacement. This is the ability to refer to an object, event, person or concept— to effectively discuss abstract ideas. Displacement “allows the users of language to talk about things and events not present in the immediate environment… [it allows] the human, unlike any other creature, to create fiction and to describe possible future worlds” (Yule, 21). Second, language holds an arbitrary nature in that its linguistic form has no natural relationship to the items to which it makes reference. In other words, linguistic signs have a subjective relationship and they do not match with the objects they specify. Third, there exists a property in language known as productivity, which means that the possible number of expressions in any human language is infinite. Fourth, language is passed from generation to generation through a characteristic process called cultural transmission (Yule, 24). Fifth, a distinction in meaning due to differences in sounds is described as discreteness. Each sound within a given language is treated as distinct, and it is possible “to produce a range of sounds in a continuous stream” (Yule, 24). Finally, language exhibits an attribute known as duality, which is related to discreteness. As individual sounds, none of the discrete forms holds intrinsic meaning, but “when we produce those sounds in a particular combination, as in bin, we have another level producing a meaning which is different from the meaning of the combination nib” (Yule, 25). These are the aspects that George Yule contends for as the “uniquely human characteristics” in his work, The Study of Language (25).

Given some of the qualities of authentic language, how does it differ from animal communication? Many of the answers can be derived from Laura Ann Petitto’s work, deliberated at length in Davis’s Mother Tongue. Petitto began studying the acquisition and use of language by humans in the 1970s; she was the primary teacher of ‘Nim Chimsky,’ the famous chimpanzee subject at Columbia University, for over three years. Petitto and Chimsky communicated via sign language. The object of this comprehensive scientific exploration was to determine whether nonhuman primates could, or do, possess language, and the study was dubbed ‘The Nim Chimsky Project’ (Davis, 269). Petitto deduced that “‘apes are very complex cognitively and communicatively. They can be referential and intentional, and they can demonstrate a variety of cognitive capacities… [But] no ape or primate project… claims that these apes master all the aspects of human language… there were key aspects of human language that they failed to master’”(Davis, 282).

What were these key aspects? First, based on the hypothesis that language plays an important role in how sophisticated a level of consciousness a being has, and that consciousness is a result of the brain “attending” to output and paying intense attention to it, Petitto observed that Nim Chimsky did not attend to the relevant aspects of the signing he was seeing (Davis, 283). To the apes that are the subjects of these studies, Petitto submits, the language is “almost superfluous,” and they are not fully aware of some of the information they are relating (Davis, 283). The apes, next, do not have a lexical or vocabulary knowledge, nor do they possess a phonemic inventory (which is, essentially, the collection of basic speech sounds or speech forms from which all human language is shaped). Animals cannot achieve complex syntax. They aren’t capable of referring to abstract things that are not physically present. “The ape doesn’t do that… probably because it doesn’t have the relevant brain tissue,” Petitto surmises, and as complex as the brains of apes may be, they do not have the intricacy in the human brain or the language regions found in the human brain (Davis, 284). Of course, apes are not the only animals to be able to communicate effectively. Dolphins and whales communicate with a varied system of whistles and clicks. “No one is arguing that these animals do not communicate,” Petitto urges, “but… communication and language are not the same thing” (Davis, 283).

The of Language in Humans

Next, how did this noted difference between animal communication and human language transpire? Most essentially, early hominids noticed a need for more involved, intellectually fulfilling expression.

In response to this need, humans biologically adapted for the capability. Davis notes, “we are Homo sapiens, ‘the thinking human.’ Our brains are uniquely endowed with an innate ability to detect the basic rhythms and structures in sound or movement that can become the building blocks of symbolic communication” (285). As Charles Yang, professor of linguistics and psychology at Yale University explains, “this means that the neural hardware for language must be plastic; it must leave space and possibilities to respond to… the environment” (Yang, 4). But, Yang acknowledges, this “great leap forward,” the development of language as the latest step that led to the rise of Homo sapiens, must have been preceded by other developments in history (7). The gift for language must have built upon and interacted “with other cognitive and perceptual systems that existed before language” (Yang, 7). What were these developments, and how do they prevail as proof?

It is accurate to maintain that the capacity for complex language in humans has become more accommodating in the course of evolution. This can be seen in the progressive selection for both corporal faculties more amenable for complex language and for bigger brains. Frank Wilson, author of The Hand, explains that “the brain and the musculoskeletal systems, as organs, evolve[d] just as organisms themselves do, by modification of structure and function over time” (16).

Anthropologists argue that the acquisition of upright posture, the change in dentition, and the alteration of the hand were the triggers that made the advancements in language possible. William H. Calvin, neurobiologist and author, confirms that early hominids became bipedal in adapting for scavenging, to be able to run more quickly (17). Bipedalism also seems to have developed in order to free the hands for using tools and for other various activities. Further, Calvin maintains that, unlike other primates who have large canine teeth for fighting, “smaller [teeth] in the hominid line suggest that something was going on that made aggression less important” (19). The changes from the ape-like hand to that of A. afarensis moved the radial (thumb) side of the hand dramatically, providing the “capacity to conform the thumb and first two fingers to a very wide range of object sizes and shapes, allowing them to be held and manipulated easily” (Wilson, 26).

Other changes in the pattern of evolution were beneficial. By the time of Homo erectus, the pelvis had become more bowl-shaped. The hominid knees were indented, while chimps’ legs still articulate straight down from the hip joint. The hole in the bottom of the skull, where the spinal cord is located, had moved forward, better balancing the head. The spinal column was now vertically-aligned. Body size was growing, and that encouraged the increase in brain size and enlarged cranial capacity. This all paved the way for the new complexities in the brain at the time of Homo erectus. Speaking in terms of cranial capacity, A. afarensis was 400 cc; H. erectus, emerging roughly 1.5 million years ago, had an average brain volume of 850 cc (Elgin, 39). Indeed, “the thought processes of Homo erectus were surely different from what is seen in great apes” (Calvin, 43).

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