What makes a language? (Part 1)

Now that I am over two months into this blog about linguistics and language, I suppose it would be nice to define what exactly a language is. Even more specifically, what makes a natural human language, and what can we learn about the complexity of our own languages by looking at the language of animals.

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I will start like most average university papers do; Websters dictionary defines language as “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community” as in “I studied the French language”. This definition is entirely serviceable, but we can break down the concept of what makes a language even further by introducing some more terminology and definitions. Specifically, what characteristics of human language can differentiate them from non-human language.

These characteristics I am alluding to are known as ‘language design features’. These design features were first defined in the 1960’s by a linguist named Charles F. Hockett and are what set apart human communication from animal communication. There are a total of 13 design features that he initially proposed, which is far too many to talk about in one post, so this will be split up into at least three parts (this is what we call milking for content).

It is worth noting that these are not necessarily all characteristics that are unique to human language. Many forms of animal communication posses some of these features, but as we will see over the next few weeks, there is no form of animal communication that possesses ALL of these features. So, let’s begin with some of the shared characteristics, and in later weeks we will talk about what makes human language unique.

The first feature we will talk about is specialization. Specialization means that the communication system is only used for communication and nothing else. In other words, we do not use our speech for any other biological purposes than for communication. This is not something that is unique to humans though. Many animals such as dogs also communicate with specialized systems. When a dog barks or howls, this serves the purpose of communicating their location to other animals or to communicate that something is in their territory.

While it may seem like many small dogs will bark just for the fun of it, they are still communicating in some way. For a counter example of specialization in dogs though, we can look at an action like panting. When you see a dog panting on a hot day, you know that the dog is hot, but this action of panting is not only a way of communicating that they are hot. It also serves as a method of sweating and trying to cool themselves off. Because it also serves some biological function to the animal, we can say that this is not a specialized system.

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In humans, speech is simply speech. We only use it communicate a message to others. We do not get any biological benefit or other functions from speech so we can say that this is indeed a specialized system for us.

The next feature is that of interchangeability. Interchangeability means that all members of a species are capable of both sending and receiving messages. This is certainly something that we as humans have. It is not just restricted to spoken languages. Sign language is also a natural human language, so even people who are unable to hear or speak can satisfy this feature by communicating in sign language.

As you can imagine, many animals who communicate in some way also meet this feature. In the majority of animals, all members of the species will be capable of roaring, meowing, or hooting to their hearts content. There are cases where this feature does not show up for all members of a species though.

An often studied and fascinating communication method (which will come up a few times in this series) is the bee dance performed by forager bees which serves to communicate the location of food to others in the hive. This particular phenomenon (also known as the waggle dance) is a complex figure eight like pattern that these forager bees will move in to share with others what the angle and distance of a particular food source is located in relative to the sun. It is a complex, multistage form of communication that we will be returning to when discussing other design features, but for the sake of this one it is important to simply note that it is only performed by the forager bees for other foragers.

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Forager bees make up a subset of the honeybee species and serve a different function in the bee ecosystem from other subsets like drones. Both drones and foragers are members of the honeybee species though, and since the drones are incapable of performing or understanding the waggle dance, we can say that this particular communication system lacks interchangeability.

The final feature that we will talk about today is feedback. Feedback is defined as the fact that users of a system are aware of the signal they are transmitting. This means that we as humans can understand the speech that we are saying and if there are any errors, we are able to correct them.

This is yet another obvious one to see in human language. When you say something, but it doesn’t quite come out right because your voice cracks or you have a slip of the tongue or something, you are able to recognize the error and correct yourself to make sure you are understood.

This is a tough one to analyze in animal communication because we simply don’t understand their communication systems. We don’t have evidence of a cat saying something like “meow. Pardon me, I meant MEOW!” so we can’t confidently say that this is a feature that these animals have.

We can infer that at least some animals have this feature in their communication system though. Take the warning calls of vervet monkeys as an example. Vervet monkeys have three specific calls that they use to signal to other that there are predators nearby. Depending on the call that they use, it could signal that the predator is in the sky, or that a leopard is in the trees with them, or even that a snake is on the ground. The fact that these three specific calls exist and are shared by members of a tribe means that they would need to be learned by the young primates.

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Part of learning any speech sounds in this instance is a trial an error period. It’s not as if there is an automatic system in the vervet monkeys to produce these particular calls that they are all born with innately. If we then assume that these primates are having to learn how to make these sounds, we can assume that there are instances where they get them wrong and they would need to be able to recognize that somehow. Because primates are our closest biological analogue, we can give them a little bit of the doubt on this one.

This covers the first three design features of language. These are all commonly shared features with many animal species, but they are certainly not universal features. Come back next week for and we will talk about semanticity, symbolism and displacement. Hopefully everything that I said here is clear and interesting. If you can think of any other examples of communication that fits these features, let me know in the comments.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


4 thoughts on “What makes a language? (Part 1)

  1. Fern says:

    Really engaging blog post! 🙂 Language is fascinating stuff. I hadn’t thought about whether drones and foragers could understand each other, so finding out that they couldn’t was interesting for me. That meowing example was also much appreciated. I wonder if anyone has tried to look for any alternative biological functions of human speech, though, for instance, what purpose it serves if someone is talking aloud to themselves rather than communicating to someone else . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jesse Weir says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I do think that there may be differences in talking to one’s self as opposed to talking to others in things such as tone of voice. It would be related to the idea of speech register. It feels like it is something that would be incredibly difficult to capture because you would need to record someone talking to themselves in a natural way! It’s an interesting question though, and now I know I need to write about speech register soon. 🙂


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