What makes a language (part 2)

Last week I started talking about some of the design features of language, and how they do or do not apply to various types of animal communication. Today, we will talk about a few more of these features that are present in both human and animal communication.

As you may recall, these design features are what set apart human communication from the communication of other animals. If you haven’t already, I suggest you go and read the first part of this series as I give a much better explanation there. For now, let’s dive back into some more design features.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The design feature known as arbitrariness means that there is no logical or intrinsic connection between a sound or word and the thing that it refers to. Now it’s important to note that a language doesn’t need ALL of the words to be arbitrary, but the vast majority of them should be. Some sounds and words that we have in English are closely related to, or attempted imitations of sounds, like onomatopoeias. Onomatopoeias like “meow” or “bark” are our attempts to develop words that sound like the sounds that cats and dogs produce. This is not to say that onomatopoeias are not valid words or not actually a part of our language (because they are), I am just trying to provide an example of non-arbitrary things.

Sign language also has a large amount of non-arbitrary signs. For instance, the sign for “house” in American Sign Language is a moving sign where the hands make a shape that resembles what we imagine a simple house to look like. Again, this design feature does not say that we cannot have iconic or logically connected words or signs, simply that there is a large amount of them that have no such connection.

Take the word “chair” for instance. A chair is typically a four-legged piece of furniture with a flat seat to sit on and a back to rest against. There is nothing about the word “chair” that contains any sort of information which may indicate anything I just told you about a chair. Because of this, we can say that this word is arbitrary.

There are concepts and ideas that have been studied within linguistics that seem to challenge parts of this design feature. Let’s run through a quick example. Look at the two shapes in the picture below and tell me which one is called “kiki” and which one is called “bouba”.

Drawing by Quinn Goddard

You probably guessed the one on the left was called a kiki and the one on the right was called bouba. This touches on the idea of sound symbolism. I won’t go too deep on this concept (I need something for when this series is over), but essentially it boils down to the fact that sounds that are rounder like an “o” or noisy like a “b” are associated with rounded shapes. Conversely, sounds that are sharp like an “I” or a “k” are often associated with pointy objects.

This idea of sound symbolism turns out to inform the design of some things in our world, but that’s a story for another week. The larger point is that this doesn’t mean that words that use sound symbolism are not arbitrary still, there just might be things we can predict based on how a word sounds sometimes.

Another design feature is known as prevarication. Prevarication is the ability for someone to lie or deceive another using their communication system. As humans, we are certainly aware of our ability to lie or to tell stories about things that do not exist. This should not come as a surprise unless you are stuck in the world of Ricky Gervais’s 2009 film “The Invention of Lying” where the ability to lie has not been invented yet.

Lying and deception is something that exists in the animal kingdom, although it is not as widespread as it is in humans. We can look at the behaviour of capuchin monkeys to see a good example of this.

Capuchin monkeys are small, nimble monkeys that use alarm calls to alert members of their troupe to predators that they may not be able to see. This is a common thing in smaller primates, but a study published in 2009 found some interesting behaviour in capuchin monkeys.

Photo by Charl Durand on Pexels.com

The study found that capuchin monkeys who are weaker or lower in the dominance hierarchy will use false alarm calls to make their stronger counterparts run away and drop high quality food sources rather than fight them for it. This behaviour is a good example of prevarication because they are knowingly using their communication system to deceive others. Obviously, this is not as broad as a humans ability to lie or tell a false story, but it is lying none the less.

The final feature we will talk about today is displacement. Displacement is the ability that we have as humans to talk about things that are not physically present, or event to talk about things that do not exist at all. This is one of the key features that can separate us from primate species that can only communicate about things that are within their eyesight.

There are some animals that can communicate about things that they cannot see. If you check out part one of this series, I talked about the honey bee and how the foragers are able to perform dances to let others know where the food is. This is a very good example of displacement because it is clearly a communication system that the other forager bees can understand, and it deals with a food source that is not visible from where the bees are (which is why they need this dance in the first place).

Photo by mostafa eissa on Pexels.com

The three design features discussed today are all present in both human and animal communication systems, but next week we will start to talk about features that are only present in human communication. Being able to draw these parallels between animals and humans can help us understand the intelligence and capabilities of these animals, while also helping us understand what sets us apart from them.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week when we start to talk about the uniquely human design features. 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.


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