What makes a language? (Part 4)

For the past few weeks, I have been discussing the design features of language, and how we can use them to compare our communication systems to those of animals. Today we will discuss the final language design features and how they set us as humans apart from all the other animals.

First, let’s talk about the idea of discreteness. Discreteness is the idea that spoken language can be broken down into individual parts that can be combined in many different ways to create many words and phrases. If you say a word like “pan”, all you are really doing is saying a combination of a “p” sound, an “a” sound, and an “n” sound to make up the word. These same sounds also exist in other words with completely different meaning. The “p” sound also shows up at the end of the world “rip” while the “a” sound can show up at the beginning of “apple” and all three of these sounds show up in different places of a word like “eggplant”!

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The point here is that we have infinite ways to combine these same sounds to make infinitely complex words and phrases. Like we discussed previously with recursion, there is no limit to the length and complexity of human language other than our own mortality.

This design feature also pairs nicely with the next feature, duality of patterning. Duality of patterning is defined as the ability to combine these meaningless individual units of sounds into something meaningful. In human language, we can create a sort of hierarchy of meaning so to speak. We can start at the bottom with individual sounds for instance. Like we have already discussed, these sounds can be combined into words, which we can use to form sentences and it just builds up from there.

There is a basic unit of meaning though at some stage between a sound and a word that we haven’t really talked about, and that unit is called a morpheme. A morpheme is a combination of sounds that carries some sort of a meaning to it. Some words can be made up of several morphemes and some words stand alone as a single morpheme. We know that morphemes are different than words because there are some morphemes that cannot stand on their own.

Take the word “unrecoverable” for instance. This word is composed of three morphemes; the base word “recover”, the suffix “-able”, and the prefix “un-“. These three morphemes have their own meaning that they contribute to the word, but of the three of them, only “recover” can stand on it’s own. You cannot use the word “able” on it’s own… well… you can, but it doesn’t quite carry the same meaning as it does when used as a suffix of a word. The stronger example in this case is the prefix “un-“. A prefix like this absolutely not stand on it’s own. There is an entry for the word “un” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it is listed as rare and the only two cited instances of it are being used to refer to refer to several “un” prefixed words.

All of this is to say that we have evidence for combining units in human language in meaningful ways, but this does not show up to the same degree in animal communication. Of course, there is evidence of animals using the same sounds repeatedly such as bird calls, but we do not have evidence that they are combining smaller units in unique ways to form new, novel meanings like we do as humans.

And speaking of novel meaning, this leads us nicely into our final feature which is productivity and creativity. This feature is self explanatory, but it is extremely important. This feature is the main thing that allows something like this blog to exist! I mean think about it. Everything that I am saying here is from the top of my head. The actual ideas and concepts are not brand new. Like I mentioned in part 1, have been discussed since the 1960’s. Even though they are not my own original concepts, I am still able to create new sentences and find unique ways to express these concepts that have never been used before.

Every single day, you are being creative with language. You are saying things that have likely never been said before. You are expressing old concepts in new ways. It is not as if you are creating new sounds and using them in unique ways either. You are using the same sounds over and over in different ways to make new sentences. We can do so much as humans with what seems like a finite language. Our ability to utilize all of these features that I have discussed over these past four weeks is what sets us apart.

At this point, we simply don’t have the evidence to support animals being creative in the same way that we are. Sure, animals might produce unique sounds from time to time, but there is no way for any other animal in that species to innately understand what they mean by that new sound the same way we as humans can.

For example, let’s take a completely made-up verb like “flup”. Now let’s assign a meaning to this verb. Let’s say that “to flup” means to hide an object under your desk. With this verb, we can start to describe objects around us according to their flupability. I mean, a car is certainly not a very flupable object, but a paper clip is quite flupable. This word does not exist. I completely made this up, but we can have intuitions about it and use existing meaningful morphemes to do creative things with it!

This has been a very long and drawn-out series. I feel like I have really broken form on these posts several times and turned into something that is much to “lectury” for my taste (more creativity!). Once I started part 1 though, I kinda had to finish it so I really want to thank everyone for sticking it out with me. Everything will return the casual format starting next week I promise, so be sure to come back then so we can talk about more fun language facts. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.