Language is a uniquely human phenomenon

New Era Newspaper Namibia
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Language is one of the major facets which clearly differentiate human beings from other living species. Language is a very complex method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of produced symbols. Language is not merely speech or signs. It involves sounds (phonetics), a sound system (phonology), internal structure of words (morphology), combining words to develop understandable phrases (syntax) and connecting words to things to make meaning (semantics). Humans have various ways to communicate through language, either through written language, spoken language, sign language, facial expressions, and signs. Animals on the other hand are able to communicate, but they however do not have language and cannot use or successfully learn language.

Human beings are said to be born with a language acquisition device. Although human beings are not born speaking, Chomsky believes that they are born with a very special ability, specific to human beings, the ability and drive to learn a language. According to Chomsky, humans are born with minds that contain inborn language ideas called ‘Universal Grammar.’

‘Universal Grammar’ is not grammar of any particular language, but it contains the essentials with which any particular language can be acquired. What is written into our brain is not the ability to speak a particular language, for example English. Rather, it is the ability and drive to acquire any human language as a first language. This hypothetical device is activated by the language the child is exposed to. That is why, if a child is born in Namibia to Oshiwambo-speaking parents, and grows up in India, surrounded by Hindi-speaking individuals, this child’s first language would be Hindi and not his or her parents’ language. Language does not come naturally like suckling milk or crying. This is because human beings are not born speaking but they acquire language from their surroundings.

Therefore, if a human child is placed in an environment where no language is spoken, they will not be able to speak any language.

Animals are not born with ‘Universal Grammar’, that is why they do not have a language. Animals are however capable of communicating messages using signals. Animal communication, whether prompted by hunger, anger, danger or attraction is represented by a specific signal. A dog for example would howl or bark to communicate danger. Animals can vary their signals depending on the intensity of the situation, but the means to communicate the intensity are only quantitative and not qualitative. That is, if a dog is very angry, it will only bark louder and repeat the same bark frequently (quantitative). While, when a human being is angry, she or he will choose suitable words from their vocabulary, to express and explain the anger (qualitative).

Human language is very creative, and using different individual words human beings can come up with an infinite number of sentences. Humans can communicate about the past and the future, which animals cannot do. Animals are not capable of combining signals to form more complex structures.

Researchers have attempted to teach language to animals. Contrary to popular belief, parrots cannot successfully communicate using human language. Parrots are excellent in mimicking sounds in their environments and are particularly good at imitating human language. Parrots are however, not capable of complex forms of communication. Even though parrots can vocalise and imitate simple sentences, they are still not able to use language in the way humans do and therefore their way of communicating cannot be called language. Washoe, a chimpanzee was taught language.

She learned more than a hundred individual words and could combine them communicatively to request food or play. The chimpanzee could not, however, order the words in consistent ways to convey language. Her utterances also did not have any kind of structural organisation. Other animals to which language was attempted to be taught include dolphins and other apes. Research concludes that although animals can be taught certain single words, no animal has been able to learn the syntactic system of language.

It can be generalised that every species has a communication system of some sort. Animals are adapted to communicate in various ways that is beyond human capabilities. Bats for example, communicate with ultrasound, some fish with electricity, elephants use infrasound and whales use underwater songs. Equally, humans are physically adapted for speech.

Certain human features allow humans to have a language. The voice box placement, the vocal tracts, specific brain areas for language as well as the design of the mouth apparatus such as the tongue, the teeth and lips, are specially designed to make speech possible.

In conclusion, it is clear that language is unique to humans. No other species has a communication system like the language system used by humans. Even though animals have their own way to communicate, their communication does not seem to have enough similarity or complexity to a human language to be called a language.

Leena Iitula is a Master of Arts degree student in the Department of Language and Literature Studies at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Namibia. E-mail:


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