Origins of Language
Where did language come from?
Is it unique to humans?
• Do non-human animals have “language”?
• Can non-human animals learn language?
What does it mean to communicate?
What does it mean to use language?
Are they the same thing?
Signal –the thing that communicates some kind of information
• Wilderbeast on the plain
Sign—needs to be a deliberate thing
• Iconic: the sign has something to do with what it is representing ie. Drinking gesture
(looks or sounds like the thing—there is a real relationship between the physical nature
of the thing and what it is representing)
• Index: pointing to things (referring to something, indexing some thing through a point or
gesture—referring to it in space)
• Symbol: sign that is arbitrary (sound symbolism—roosters “cockadoodle doo”
Referent: the thing that we are talking about—say dog –correlates to dog
• Not all words have referents ie. The
Message: the idea that you want to convey using language
• Not necessarily the thought
o The bit of thought you want to convey to something or someone else
Some animal communication systems
• Bee dance (distance and direction to food source)
• Vervet monkey calls (warning calls depending on what it is ie one for jaguar, one for
snake etc.) –it is kind of an arbitrary symbol
• Birdsong (they can be complicated—the songs can be learned—patterns can be innate,
different variations—is it symbolic to some degree)
What do you think are the important aspects of language
Hockett’s Design Features
1. Vocal-auditory channel a. Fully fledged human languages
b. Flapping around and making sound (tongue and mouth)
c. You can talk to people who cannot see, talk to people in the dark
Broadcast transmission, directional reception: when you speak you cannot really control who it
• As a listener, you have a better idea of who said that
Rapid fading: spoken language, manual language—said, there was the signal, it is gone—written
language is designed to counteract this problem
• Spoken language is rapidly depleted
Complete feedback: able to get feedback on the signal we sent out
Specialization: same meaning regardless of energy—parts of the code that are important, parts
that aren’t important—they essentially mean the same thing
Semanticity-signals have referents: not all signals have referents ie. The, but we have this
capability to see referents—something that is in the world, language is grounded in the real
world—it refers to things
Arbitrariness-relation of sign and referent: able to be completely arbitrary—talk about things
without having a way of making it look like it
• Justice—word that sounds like justice—once you leave the iconic—there is a very
Discreteness (of units): putting together units of things, which is different from birdsong etc.
does it have to be that to be a language? Maybe.
Displacement (remote time and space): this is one of the things that makes language so powerful
—talking about things that aren’t here—refer and talk about them
Openness (new messages): I can say a sentence that I’ve never said before and never say it again
—you can comprehend something you’ve never heard before—vervet monkeys would get stuck
Tradition (learned and taught): facilitates social interaction, it can change and evolve
Duality of Patterning (combinations are meaningful): patterning of it is important
Prevarication: lie (able to trick)
Reflectiveness: able to talk about language—makes it a pretty powerful system—what is the
word for this?And able to discuss it—changes the language Learnability: a system that can be understood, that works and that is good
• Putty-nosed monkeys (Arnold and Zuberbuler, 2006)
• Evidence for syntax?
1. Discrete combinatorial system. New meanings from combinations, but elements retain
2. For a sentence to be well formed, it must order syntactic categories in correct sequences
4. Distinction between content and function words
Is recursion a defining characteristic of human language (i.e. Hauser, Chomsky & fitch, 2002)?
See also Everett about piraha language
• Recursive sentences
• Phrases contain examples of themselves—infinite sentence
• SNP V S
• “I know the girl went to the store”
• “I know the boy knows the girl went to the store”
• this gives you an infinite number of possible sentences
• most important point
• humans say new things all the time, sentences that have never been said before, can
describe sentences that are brand new
• Seems to be not just a matter of degree, the difference between human language and
animal communication—a real difference in kind
CAN non-human animals learn language?
• Maybe they could, they just haven’t needed to
o What does it mean to say they “could”
• Many studies training animals human-like systems
o Clever Hans example
Alex, theAfrican grey parrot
• Can learn words for things, sequences, some syntax Dolphins
• Either gestures or acoustic signals
o Comprehension only, limited syntactic ability
• Herman, Richards, Wolz (1984)
• Especially chimps