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Is Use Of Language Restricted To Humans English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2202 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Chomsky (1968) claimed that language in specific to humans as only humans possess a language acquisition device to acquire language – the universal grammar. It is a hard matter to define what language really is. According to the layman definition by Cambridge University Press (2008), language is a system of communication that consists of sounds, words and grammar. In the past literature, there have been claims that non-human primates like chimpanzees and bonobos are capable of comprehending human language (Benson et al., 2002; Brakke and Savagerumbaugh, 1995). However it is doubtful whether comprehension constitutes a comprehensive use of language. In this essay, we would discuss whether non-human animals are capable of commanding the comprehensive use of language by critically evaluating whether they show some of the design-features of human spoken language in their speech documented in Hockett (1960) and whether they are able to acquire syntax and morphology (Laidrem, 2008).

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The first design-feature is the vocal-auditory channel, where communication occurs whenever the producer speaks and the receiver hears (Harley, 2001). There are communication systems using other channels, for instance gestures, bee dancing (De Marco, Gurevitz and Menzel, 2008) or the courtship ritual of sticklebacks. Having a vocal-auditory channel enables primates to free up much of their bodies to carry out activities other than communicating language simultaneously. Primate calls and the singing of a western meadowlark possess this design-feature.

The second one is arbitrariness, where abstract symbols do not necessarily resemble what they stand for, for instance salt may neither mean salty nor granular (Hockett, 1960; Harley, 2001), except a few onomatopoeic exceptions. It has a shortcoming of being arbitrary, but advantageous in the way that what can be communicated about is limitless. In a semantic communicative system, ties between meaningful message-elements and their meanings can either be arbitrary or non-arbitrary (e.g. salt would mean salt instead of sugar or pepper) – there are relatively fixed associations between elements in messages, like words, and recurrent features of our world. The western meadowlark song holds semantic arbitrariness whereas gibbon calls hold a general arbitrariness design-feature.

The third one is discreteness, where vocabulary comprises of discrete units and contrasts with the use of sound effects by the vocal gestural way (Harley, 2001). Human vocal organs produce an array of sounds, but in all languages only a relatively small set of ranges of sound is sound, and differences between these ranges are functionally absolute, e.g. ‘pin’ and ‘bin’ are different to the ear only at one point. The hearer can either compensate based on context, or fails to understand. However, in some systems there may be effectively continuous scale of degrees to which one may raise his voice as in anger or lower it to signal confidentiality – bee-dancing is continuous rather than discrete. Grylliade (e.g. crickets) and tettigoniidae (e.g. bush-crickets) and primate calls carry discreteness. There are a dozen or so distinct gibbon calls, each appropriate vocal response, or vocal part of the whole response, to a recurrent and biologically important type of situation, for instance discovery of food, detection of predator, etc.

The fourth one – ‘displacement’ design-feature is very evident in humans, where we are able to talk about things remote spatially and temporally from where the conversation begins. It seems lacking in vocal signaling of primates, however it does occur in bee-dancing – bee dances convey information about how far the food source is (De Marco, Gurevitz and Menzel, 2008). A parrot is unable to demonstrate displacement (Pepperberg, 1987). Monkeys are also limited to chattering and squeaking about immediate threats like snakes in the grass and eagles overhead (Muncer, Malone and Ettlinger, 1982), therefore they also fail the displacement criterion.

Concerning traditional transmission design-feature, it refers to the fact language can be taught and learned. In humans, imitation and teaching occur together smoothly. A chimpanzee mother could not teach her infant anything because, although the infant watches her problem-solving skills intentionally, she never returns the infant’s observation. Similarly, if a vervet monkey gives a leopard call and its recipient, say its offspring, takes countermeasures for python, there is no evidence that monkeys correct errant listeners or that their communication is intentional (Premark, 2004).

It was noted that Washoe, another chimpanzee, adopted a younger chimpanzee Loulis as his son. He spontaneously acquired signs from Washoe and was also seen to be taught by Washoe. Although this is a clear indication of what is known as cultural transmission, it is unclear whether it is a language that has been transmitted, or just a sophisticated communication system (Premark, 2004). At first sight Washoe appears to have acquired the use of words and their meanings, and at least some rudimentary syntax-that is, being sensitive to word order in both production and comprehension. However, Washoe did not show learning of functional words like prepositions and inflections, neither was he able to differentiate between different parts of speech like conjunctions, nouns and verbs.

Productivity is one of the most important design-features of human spoken language, which refers to the capacity to say things that have never been said or heard before and yet to be understood by other speakers of the same language (Hockett, 1960). One would be able to coin new utterances by incorporating pieces familiar from old utterances and assembling them by patterns of arrangement also familiar in old utterances. In human speech where ‘blending’ exists, a speaker would hesitate between two words or phrases, both reasonably appropriate to context, a combination of parts of each. It is also involved in slips of tongue which would assist infants in switching from a closed to an open system – productivity also known as openness, the ability to invent new messages, where syntax, the grammatical arrangement of sentences, plays an enormous rule (Shostak, 2009). It can be demonstrated using syntax, where in humans, there is a finite number of grammatical rules and a finite number of words, but humans are able to combine them to produce an infinite number of sentences once they associate the words with particular meanings or concepts, and put them into different orders (Chomsky, 1957; Marshall, 1970).

Primate calls constitute a small finite repertory of familiar calls, therefore they are considered having a closed call system and do not demonstrate productivity. According to Hockett (1960), bee dancing shows productivity. However, this is questionable as types of dancing bees do may barely be repertoires.

There is a belief that whales and dolphins possess language. However, there is no current evidence suggesting that dolphins employ sequences of sub-units conveying particular messages, which is in the same way we combine words to form sentences to convey messages (Pearce, 2008). In early research by Evans and Bastian (1969), dolphins carried on making sounds even when other dolphins were absent, where communication with each other in carrying out cooperative tasks to obtain fish seems to be explicable by conditioning (Holder, Herman and Kuczaj, 1989). There is no evidence that dolphins can produce even the simplest sentence in language (Pearce, 2008). By now, there is no animal communication system that can satisfy the four properties of syntax identified by Kako (1999) and iteration and recursion properties of language (Hauser et al., 2002).

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Herman, Richards, and Wolz (1984) taught two bottle-nosed dolphins, Phoenix and Akeakamai, artificial languages. One artificial language was visually based using gestures of the trainer’s arms and legs, and the other was acoustically based using computer-generated sounds transmitted through underwater speakers. However, this research tested only the animals’ comprehension of the artificial language, not their ability to produce it. From the point of view of answering our questions on language and animals, it is clearly important to examine both comprehension and production. Even just testing their comprehension, the dolphins’ syntactic ability was limited, and they showed no evidence of being able to use function words (Kako, 1999).

Although others have claimed that chimpanzees could comprehend spoken English, they have failed to present adequate data to substantiate such assertions (Pearce, 2008). In repeated tests since 1977, Sherman and Austin, two chimpanzees, consistently failed comprehension tests of spoken English though they have constantly been exposed to it from infancy. Kanzi, however, was displaying a remarkable comprehension of spoken English, where Kanzi was not being reinforced nor trained to do the experimental task (E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, et al., 1985).

Kanzi is a pygmy chimpanzee, and it is claimed he has made a vital step in spontaneously acquiring the understanding that symbols refer to things in the world. He first acquired symbols by observing the training of his mother on lexigrams – devices that produce word sounds when pressed. He was sensitive to word order, and understood verb meanings- he could distinguish between “get the rock” and “take the rock”, and between “put the hat on your ball” and “put the ball on your hat”. He also formed spontaneous utterances. Petitto (1987, cited in Pearce, 2008) argued that Kanzi’s understanding of names is not like that of humans. Kako (1999) argued that Kanzi shows no signs of possessing any function words, nor any indication of being able to use morphology: he does not modify his language according to number, as we do when we form plurals.

Pepperberg (1987) embarked on an elaborate formal programme of training of her African grey parrot called Alex. After 13 years of training, Alex developed a vocabulary of 80 words including object names, adjectives, and verbs. He could even produce and understand short sequences of words understand concepts of same and different. Alex showed evidence of being able to combine discrete categories and use syntactic categories appropriately, but was unable to relate objects to verbs, and knew very few function words (Kako, 1999). Therefore, Alex had limited linguistic abilities.

The last design-feature to be mentioned, the duality of patterning, means that only combinations of meaningless units are meaningful, and this is applicable to both the sound and word level, and word and sentence level (Hockett, 1960). It provides much efficiency and flexibility to human language. When a vocal-auditory system carries a larger and larger number of distinct meaningful elements, they become more similar to one another in sound, where there is a limit for any species to how many distinct stimuli they are capable of distinguishing between, in particular they have to be made under noisy conditions. This design-feature is illustrated by English words ‘tack’, ‘cat’ and ‘act’, which are composed of only three basic meaningless sounds in different permutations, yet totally distinct in meaning. Very few animal communicative systems share this design-feature of language – none among other hominoids (e.g. apes, monkeys), or maybe humans are the only one (Harley, 2001).

To conclude, none of the animals mentioned seemed to be capable of possessing the above mentioned design-features of human spoken language (Hockett, 1960). They were also unable to command the complicated syntax and lexical competences that humans possess. This may be due to humans having large and convoluted brains acting as better storage units for conventions of a complex communicative system as language (Pinker, 1994). Though many animals possess rich symbolic communication systems enabling them to convey messages to other members of the species which would influence behaviour and possess many of Hockett’s (1960) design features, they all lack the richness of human language, which is manifested in our ability to limitlessly talk about anything and using syntax. The failure to teach apes to speak is partly due to the fact that their vocal tracts are incapable of producing all sounds of human speech, where according to Duchin (1990, cited in Pearce, 2008), a major constraint on the ability of the chimp to produce sounds of human speech is its tongue which is unable to move to correct positions for creating sounds that are necessary. It is possible that by reducing methodological flaws in language learning paradigms and more investigations of different animals, we would be more informed about whether animals are able to use language comprehensively in the humans do.


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