Essay: Human language and animal communications

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  • Subject area(s): Linguistics essays
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  • Published on: July 16, 2019
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A key aspect of distinguishing humans from other animals has been the development and use of language. Our understanding of language, its characteristics, its development and its evolution have indicated that language did not evolve from a single ability but from a mass of abilities (Bloom & Tinker, 2001). This essay is going to discuss what language is defined as, it will also cover the different theories of language acquisition and whether it is a learnt aspect or an innate trait.

Human language is primarily a communication system, a means for speakers of a language to communicate with one another. Communication systems have been found in other species such as birds, lions and dolphins, however, none of the communication systems of other species have been found to possess all of the characteristics found in human communication (Slater & Bremner, 2011). Human language is apparently the most complex and diverse means of communication known to any species on Earth. ‘It is a symbolic, rule-governed system that is both abstract and productive, characteristics that enable its speakers to produce and comprehend a wide range of utterances.’ (Slater & Bremner, 2011. P323).

Many years ago, a theorist came up with The Infinite Monkey Theorem. ‘The legend goes that if you sit a monkey down at a typewriter for an infinite length of time, then eventually by hitting the keys at random, the monkey will type out the complete works of Shakespeare.’ (Saxton, 2010. P27). Animals like monkeys don’t have language, however, this theory suggests that they could possibly learn the language, if given enough time. The primary assumption is therefore, that humans and monkeys are not that much different when it comes to communication and language. From the following assumptions, it highly suggests that more intelligent animals could possibly acquire language. (Saxton, 2010).

Several species of birds, parrots for instance, have amazing abilities to impersonate the human voice, but does it mean that the birds can actually ‘talk’ and hold a conversation? Many and possibly all animals can, and do communicate, in the sense that they deliberately send information to each other. Dogs bark and cats meow, but they don’t have a language (Saxton, 2010).

The human language has several features that separate it from the animal communications. Charles Hockett, who is an American linguist, worked on this for several years and he came up with 16 defining characteristics of language. Most of these characteristics and features are shared to some extent with animal communication systems (Saxton, 2010). All languages have rules, which are understood and used by both the speaker and the listener. These rules are often referred to as grammar. By following the rules of grammar, speakers as well as listeners can understand each other and therefore communicate. Linguists who study the structure of language, use the term grammar to describe the package of a language. This consists of 3 key elements: phonology, semantics and syntax (Groome, 2014).

‘Phonology is the organisation and patterning of the sounds of the language, including essential elements such as emphasis and intonation. Phonology also records the regional and social variations of sounds among speakers of the same language. These pronunciation differences are known as accents. The study of phonology also includes an understanding of the physical processes involved in making the sounds we call language’ (Whitehead, 1996. P10).

‘The syntax is concerned with words and the ways in which they can be modified and changed themselves, as well as combined together in groups. Modern syntax records and analyses what is heard and written. The rules of syntax emphasize those word changes and word orders which affect meaning and communication. In the same language community there can still be differences between distinctive groups of speakers in the vocabulary and the patterns of syntax they use’ (Whitehead, 1996. P10).

‘Semantics is the study of meaning in a language and takes us beyond the surface of the words, sounds and into the workings of the mind. Word meanings change over time and have dramatically different effects on our perceptions’ (Whitehead, 1996. P11).

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