Unique Features of Human Language

Posted by. Muhammad Umer Toor, On Nov, 23 2008.

Those who meditate on their human nature and their enviornment with a keen or philosophical outlook, find themselves eagerly observing and studying human language. I am no exception as I have an intellect that takes pleasure in reflecting over its own 'self', and certainly there's a language of self.

In this post I will be sharing with my intelligent readers a few basic but unique features of human language - rather 'design featurs' as R. L Trask call them. This man - R. L. Trask - wrote a book for layman like me, Language: The Basics [1], from where I actually came to appreciate the following conepts of human language:

Desgin Features of Human Language:

1. Duality or Duality of Patterning.

In simplest terms, duality or duality of patterning states that 'by combining a very small set of meaningless speech sounds in various ways, we can produce a very large number of different meaningful item: words. For example, let these be special symbols for speech sounds: /K/, /a/ and /t/. These are called by Trask phonemes [2]'. Individually they mean nothing. But, if we combine them together in different ways, different meaningful English words will be produced, like cat, tact, tacked or act.

It is unique to human language only that we have a very small number of phonemes and we can produce a very large number of meaningful words, even such words which we never have heard before [3]. Whereas non-human creatures communicate on the basis of "one word, one meaning" principle, as the book says. That means, they can't combine their signals to form new signals or calls. Their this signalling system 'consists of usually between three and six signals, or calls - monkeys remarkably have total of twenty or so!![4]'. On the other hand, humans have around 45 phonemes, as mentions the book, and, many, many thousand words, increasing day-by-day, which are made only by the combination of different phonemes.

2. Displacement.

"Displacement is the use of language to talk about things other than the here and now."[5] Have you ever seen the movie "The Day After Tomorrow" or "10,000 B.C"? Even if you've not, the title suggests clearly that both movies must be about time and space not in the present, and they do so (as I have seen both). This is exactly displacement. And no non-human creature except honeybee enjoys this quality. Even so, honeybee's ability to communicate things in displacement is seriously limited as to be compared with that of humans', e.g, it can't mention height, it cannot refer to future events, and so on. Its systems of communications can have no match to what we possess.

3. Open-endedness.

Here are some interesting, mind-boggling sentences from the book:

Luxembourg has invaded New Zealand. [Keep in mind, Luxembourg has no Navy, no Air Force and only a small Army of 800 men.]
(1.2) A large pink spider wearing sunglasses and wielding a feather duster boogied across the floor.
(1.3) Shakespeare wrote his plays in Swahili, and they were translated into English by his African bodyguards. (Shakespearean fans are requested not to outrage for few moments only.) [6]

"Open-endedness is our ability to use language to say anything at all, including lots of things we've never said before [7]." The preceding examples are ones you most probably have never heard before, and almost all of them, to my knowledge, are flat lies. A monkey can warn, "[Roger that] Look out - hunters," if data's at hand'. But they cannot certainly say, "Two hunters with Rifle Belgian FAL prototype (ca.1950) chambered for British .280 (7x43mm) intermediate cartridge." [8]

4. Stimulus-Freedom

This ability of ours, as it will be defined in the next sentence, also testifies of a fact Stephen Covey has advocated in the Ist habit (I leave it upto you to detect this, and mention it in the comments, if it pleases you. Further, see note # 8). I have a friend in some part of
Pakistan, when I like to irritate him, I reply to his serious questions and requests in some of these ways: "Well, Well" or "Yes, yes", or, to bruise him completely, by saying, "No thanks." I do this in a context which is utterly different to the answer. We usually don't prefer answering a person, "No thanks," when he's asking, "Hello, how are you?"! I have done this many time, because I'm stimulus-free!

Trask's knowledge also shows that almost all non-human signals do not have such 'liberty' in saying or reacting to particularsituations, as humans normally can do. He labels non-human creature's signalling system as being, "stimulus-bound" [9]. Humans are, to the contrary, stimulus-free. Most of us reply in 'expected' manner only because of, what Trask puts as, 'social norms or pressures'. Otherwise, "there's nothing about English that prevents us [10]" from saying whatever we want, no matter what is being asked or whatever be the context.


To finish the post in Trask, author of Language: The Basics [1], "Lacking duality, lacking displacement, lacking open-endedness, lacking stimulus-freedom, animal signalling systems are almost unfathombly different from human languages." And, he goes further to declare boldly, "...human language is unique on earth, and without it we could not count ourselves human at all."! [11]


[1] "This second edition of R. L. Trask's Language: The Basics (LTB), provides a concise introduction to the study of language, Routledge - Publisher." [Source is here.]

[2] LTB, 2nd Ed. Routledge. Reference to quotation, Pg. # 3.

[3] The concept human language can produce words which we know not of before, falls under the heading of arbitrariness [Pg. # 12, LTB, 2nd Ed.]. Which says that words do not, mostly, contain inherent meaning within themselves, they are only labelled particular meaning. And, its, obviously, is a matter of convention. For instance, what is the meaning of word meaning? Why we call dog, d-o-g in English? This is arbitrariness. To give you more clearer idea, consider word mean again. Trask explains that mean has different meanings in English. [This is again arbitrariness.] 'The French word mine sounds exactly like English mean, but the French word means (coal)mine', he says. And, there are so many other meanings of words of form like of mean, yet they represent utterly different truths. Now, it should be clear to my reader that this happens because mostly words are born out of conventions. And, conventions are conventions, they're absolute in such cases.

[4] Quote: LTB, 2nd Ed. Routledge, Pg. # 4.

[5] Quote: LTB, 2nd Ed. Routledge, Pg. # 5.

[6] Quote: LTB, 2nd Ed. Routledge, Pg. # 6.

[7] Quote: LTB, 2nd Ed. Routledge, Pg. # 5.

[8] The book accounts of one rare spectacle ever recorded, which is an example of stimulus-freedom in animals. 'A fox, Arctic one, was found signalling danger signs to her cabs, when there was no danger around. Probably to distract them from her meal she was trying to eat'. [Pg # 11, LTB, 2nd Ed.]

[9] Quote: LTB, 2nd Ed. Routledge, Pg. # 11. Moreover, notice, this can be a clue to my question.

[10] Quote: LTB, 2nd Ed. Routledge, Pg. # 10.

[11] Quote: LTB, 2nd Ed. Routledge, Pg. # 11.

1 did criticisms:

Anonymous said...

starch Take a piece of me

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