NATS 1860 Note 20
- What is language?
o There are several different definitions for this – generally, language is
a system of signals, such as voice sounds, gestures or written symbols,
that encode or decode information
o Human languages are referred to as natural languages, and the
science of studying them is linguistics
o Other animal communication systems are not as complex or
expressive as human language
It’s unrelated to other forms of animal communication
It’s a very special thing that didn’t “pop” into our brains, and
isn’t a continuum to the normal
- Are we special among other species?
- What are other species capable of?
- Is the difference between an animal communication matter to the degree?
- Are language-learning capabilities related to other cognitive abilities?
- They do this form many reasons such as food, enemies, territorial display,
find mates, locations, and emotions/ feelings/ and thoughts
- The way we communicate is tied into animals
- When animals communicate they transfer a signal between the two
o There is a sender and a receiver
- Honey bees have a complicated communication system where they do some
waggling to such a degree where other bees can find honey based on the
waggles and the location of the sun
o It is done through a dancing communications talking about the quality
and quantity of the bees
- Birdsong: they communicate with each other through various ways of things
that they want to tell each other
o Regional variations based on specific types of birds
o Each of them have fixed meaning
- Vervet monkeys have three distinct predator alarm calls, even if the predator
is not visible.
o Learning is involved in narrowing down the referent
o Calls are not involuntary
o There is never a new creation of calls or any combination of old ones
o Referent is immediate of the call
o They never lie in their calls.
- Primates have more complex bodies and brains than mollusks
o Better learning and problem solving skills
o They have more complex structures and flexible behaviours
- Can other species learn languages?
o Alex the parrot was a bird who was trained to speak and understand
speech This parrot knew the names of 100+ objects
He produces speech sounds, but actually mimics and associates
the sounds with objects
It could answer simple questions about objects
o These animals require immense amounts of training
- Great Apes can’t talk because their larynx isn’t proper in the naval cavity
o There have been some attempts for gorillas to do sign languages
o Kanzi is bonobo money that learned a language called “Yerkish” and
used a keyboard to communicate.
It currently understands over 200 symbols.
- In general, animal languages have a fixed, limited range of messages –
whereas human language is infinitely creative
- There is not just a difference of degree- human language is fundamentally
o Creativity of human language results from its ombinatorial properties
- Communication is conveying information between a message-sender and a
- Language, on the other hand, is one form of communication system used by
human beings, and the only one we are aware of any species that takes a
finite number of pieces and combines them with a finite set of combinatorial
rules to yield an infinite number of messages about any topic.
- Animals have instincts which is a special property of individual species, not
related to general intelligence develop automatically
o However, can instinct be another human language?
- It is species specific
o Just like bats can echolocate
- Human spontaneously create languages
- Independence from other mental abilities and there is a sensitive period for
- All humans master a human language except under specific circumstances
o All human languages are similar in their basic properties
o All human languages are able to express an infinite number of new
o All are able to express ideas of a similar level of complexity
- Poverty of the Stimulus: Every child has to go beyond the data heard in the
o Children acquire many linguistic generalizations that experience
could not have been made available.
o Children cannot hear every possible sentence of their native language
Children never hear impossible sentences
o Children can learn language despite not being directly taught
- Spontaneous language creation is also present when the input is totally
absent, (home sign systems of deaf children) o Input is inconsistent
o Children learn to communicate with each other through specific hand-
- Simon, a child whose parents were late learners of ASL, had a new formation
of his own language through the regularization of input so that his own
language was developed properly to the daily use of sign language
- Creole and Pidgin:
o Creole languages develop “out of nothing”
o Speakers of pidgin use many mother tongues, mixing up words and
syntax, usually without articles or prepositions
Their children develop the Creole language, keeping the words,
adding preposition and articles
o The creole vocabulary is reduced, word-order is variable, with little
grammatical structure, meaning is context dependent.
- Why is language special?
o We have a huge vocabulary (10-100,000 words)
o We can change others’ minds by informing, persuading, deceiving, etc.
o We can communicate about future, past, and present
o Recursive compositionality: making bigger messages by combining
smaller ones, more complex meanings by combining smaller ones
- Contains Phonemes, Morphemes, phonological rules, grammar,
morphological rules, s