Language: What separates us from the animals

by | May 10, 2016 | First Person

By Daniel Griffin:

You and I have the ability to use language without even thinking about it, literally. We can understand, speak, (and once we are taught) read and write. Animals, too, can communicate in some ways as well (anyone who has ever watched a nature documentary knows this), but nothing like we do.

In the 1960s, there was this linguist by the name of Charles Hockett, who sat down and tried to think about all the things that make human language human language. Taking from his list and others, here’s 5 things about human languages that will blow your mind and/or show you what makes human language different from animal language. I’m not going to use the technical terms, as that would be confusing, rather I’m gunna put things in my own words.

1. Words don’t sound like what they mean

Have you seen Carl Barron’s skit where he just says the word ‘one’ repeatedly until everyone cracks up laughing? The man is a genius because he recognises that the sound of the word ‘one’, really, has nothing to do with the meaning of “the number one”. Like, who sat down and thought, “y’know what ‘the number one’ should sound like? One.” ? Spoiler alert: Nobody. <sidenote> How human languages came into being in the first place is another story altogether. Let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Yet. </sidenote>

2. Talking about the future and stuff

You know what I’m going to do in the future? Probably travel overseas and learn Arabic. You know what I did last week? I watched Better Call Saul (Why was Harvey being so mean to Kim? Like what gives?) We can talk about stuff that is not in front of us. I just told you about my past and my plans for the future, both of which I can’t literally see, but I can remember and imagine them respectively. Animals can only ever talk about something in front of their eyes. They might have an imagination, who knows? But they never talk about stuff they don’t see.

3. Words about words, talk about talk

Doing English in high school, I don’t remember actually learning about English at all. I was never taught about grammar in any serious way, but I got through the HSC just fine. So what’s going on in these “English” lessons? Well, turned out it was about like talking about metaphors and analysing texts and that. Which is something language can do. Talk about itself. We can use words to describe words, use language to talk about language, but at the same time, we only ever come to know about language through language itself.

4. English language DNA: file not found

Not everyone speaks the same language. You can chuck a baby anywhere in the world and they will grow up to be a fluent speaker of whatever language they hear around them. That means there’s nothing in your DNA to say which language you will speak. It depends on your environment and the people around you. However, if you chuck a cat anywhere in the world, it’s going to meow the same whether it’s in Beijing or Bankstown, London or Lakemba, Sicily or Sydney. Disclaimer: I do not and have never endorsed, supported or encouraged the chucking of babies or cats.

5. Sentence level: infinity

Remember when ‘purple monkey dishwasher’ was first said? Yeah, that’s right, the Simpsons did it. But I could say, right now “people never eat pickled goat brains while reading about German blue-green cheese ball throwing competitions” and I can guarantee you, I am the first person in the history of the world to say that sentence. But, if you look at the words I used, most likely you’ve heard them all before, only never like that. All the words of any language are indeed limited. You could count them all, if you really wanted to. But you can produce an unlimited number of combinations of those words in ways that have never been done before and still make sense. Whereas animals have a limited number of meanings they could make. I mean, there’s only so many ways dogs can bark.

Daniel Griffin

Bankstown Student Campus Council (SCC)

Student Representative Council (SRC) member

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