Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Nature of Human Language

Write short notes on the following properties that differentiate human communication from that of animals


There is no correlation between a symbol and what it means; lack of correlation between the linguistic form, sound and meaning.

the multiplication symbol (x) does not resemble its meaning.
the relationship between the symbol and what it represents for is thus arbitrary.

In contrast
Telephone (icon) is to indicate that there is a public phone nearby.
The relationship between the icon and what it stands for is thus non arbitrary.
However, the icon and the real thing will never look exactly alike, if so, it would then be known as the referent.

In context of language
The word table does not look or sound like the actual 4 legged wooden thing in our room (table) . In fact, it is known as zhuozi in chinese. There is no logical explanation to why it was so named but the relationship between the word table and its meaning is arbitrary.

Although words are largely symbolic, in the context of human language, words that mimic natural sounds are actually iconic. these words actually do resemble actual sounds to some extent. For eg: Oink sounds like the sound a real pig makes.



the property of displacement states that we are able to use language to talk about things not in our immediate surrounds or occurring at the moment of speaking.

3 aspects
This means that we are able to use language to talk about things in 3 aspects
1) in space
animals cannot talk about place that is not here but humans are able to talk about things distant in place.
2) in time,
humans are able to talk about things in the past, in the present as well as in the future
3) in reality
humans are able to talk about things that are not in reality; things that are abstract, fiction.

Why the importance of displacement

Displacement is built on top of social communication system which is based on facial expression, gesture and sounds.
However, it is an aspect of communication that cannot be replaced by gesture, grunts, facial expression, body language and other non linguistic communication.
It involves in some way of symbolizing by creating abstract referent.

- we're able to talk about mythical creatures like dragons and fairies (whose existence we are not sure about)
- a person can relate what he did last summer in Britian even though now is not summer and he is not in Britain



the ability of the human language to create new words and utterances

- human language are not limited to reproducing sentences they have heard but also produce and comprehend novel utterances.
-thus humans are able to communicate a wide variety of information.
- a finite number of linguistic units and rules are capable of yielding an infinite number of grammatical utterances.
- thus humans are able to communicate facts, opinions and emotions regardless event in the past, present or future.
Eg :
Pidgin is a contact language that was formed to enable communication between inhabitants of a country with no common languages

- humans are constantly making new words as inventions are created and new ways of living emerge.
For eg:
1)i invented a new type of candy and decided to give it a brand name 'sweeeeeeeetiez'
2) the above sentence may have never been used before, it is a complete new utterance which has been just been composed by me.
3) age of computers with new words like mouse, facebook, blog, frienster

Comparison to animals
For animals, every signal has a fixed reference which means that it can only refer to one idea and meaning cannot be broadened.
Bees for examples have a fixed set of signal. This gives them the inability to communicate the concept of vertical distance.


Cultural Transmission

Acquiring of language and not inherit it the way human get genes from parents.
Language is passed on from one language user to the next, consciously or subconsciously.
  • Eg :If we have chinese parents, we will inherit physical features like black hair. However it doesn't mean we'll grow up speaking one of the chinese languages. If we grew up in the Great Britian instead, we will most likely grow up speaking British English
How language is passed on
) Language is culturally transmitted to the extent that learners acquire linguistic competence on the basis of the observed linguistic behavior of others.
  • Eg:Thai children grow up speaking Thai.

2) cultural transmission leads to cultural evolution.
3) the distinctive structural characteristics of human language are a consequence of its cultural transmission.

  • Eg: French children learn to put adjectives after the noun but English children learn to put adjectives before the noun
Animals like the German sheepdog born in Germany will make the same sound as the one born in Thailand.


Language is organised in 2 layers, 1) layer of sounds 2) layer of meaning

Eg :
the word cat is both a symbol meaning a feline animal and a sequence of 3 sounds : /k/ /ae/ /t/

Duality of patterning

***2 levels of minimal units
1) alphabet for writing and phonemes for speech which do not have meaning on their own
2) the level where the meaning emerges as a result of combination of the units from level one.

Important property to help make use of the existing inventory of sounds in language to form countless words simply by manipulating the combination of sounds.

In english, there are distinct sounds like /p/, /ae/ , /t/
However we can combine these sounds together to form the word pat /paet/
it can also be /aept/ /taep/

Different from animals
cows say moo, can never say oom.
dogs can say bow-wow, can never say wow-bow.


Definition :
-sounds in a language are meaningfully distinct and separable.
- language can be broken into discrete units ( words and phonemes )
the word mess consists of 3 separate sounds and phonemes /m/ /e/ /s/

-there is no gradual continuous shading from one sound to another in linguistic system although there may be a continuum in the real physical world
-consists of small units, words which can be combined into larger units (sentences)

In english /t/ and /d/ are meaningful.
-helps us to differentiate between two words tin and din which refer to 2 different things.
Phonemes can be differentiated easily using minimal pairs where the words sound very similar but have only 1 differing sound.
- /paet/ /paed/ /tIn/ /dIn/

Eg: the|cat|is|fat
small units (words) combine to be larger units , sentences


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