Introducing the Scope of Linguistic Enquiry. A Student´s Overview

Textbook, 2019

75 Pages, Grade: 18


Table of Contents

Course objectives

Introduction to the module

1. What is Human Language?
1. On the origins of human language
2. Language as a means of communication
3. Dictionary definitions of language
4 Linguistic definitions of language
5. The notion of double articulation
References/ Suggested reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

2. Features of Human Language
1. Discussion of the target features
2. Why study language?
References/ Further reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

3. Human Language vs. Animal Communication
1.Major distinctions between human language and animal communication
2. Some experiments on various animals
Chimpanzee experiment on language use
Dolphins: conversation or communication
Displacement in honey bee dances
References/ Recommended reading
Self- assessment/ Activities

4. Functions of Human Language
What are language functions?
Micro functions
Physiological function
Phatic function (sociability)
Recording function
Reasoning function
Communication function
Pleasure function
Macro functions
Ideational function
Interpersonal function
Poetic function
Textual function
References/ Further reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

5. What is Linguistics?
Definitions of the concep
Is linguistics a science?
Purposes of linguistics
Linguistics as a social science
Language and linguistics
References/ Suggested reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

6. Branches of Linguistics (Micro Level)
Micro Linguistics/Theoretical Linguistics.
References/ Further reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

7. Branches of Linguistics (Macro Level)
Macro-linguistics/ Applied linguistics.
References/ Further reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

8. Traditional Language Studies
Foundations in antiquity
The different grammars
Classical gramma
Medieval grammar
Pedagogical grammar
Comparative philology.
References/ Further reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

9. Approaches to Modern Linguistics
The structuralist approach
The Chomskyan approach
References/ Further reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

10. Major Distinctions in Linguistics
References/ Further reading
Self-assessment/ Activities
De Saussure’s Dichotomies
a Langue vs. Parole
b-Signifier( signifiant) vs. Signified (signifié) - 55 -
c- Synchronic vs. Diachronic
d-Syntagmatic vs. Paradigmatic
References/ Suggested reading
Self-assessment/ Activities
Chomsky’s Domination
The fundamentality of syntax
Chomsky’s central dichotomies
Competence vs. Performance
I-language vs. E-language
Deep structure vs. surface structure
References/ Further reading
Self-assessment/ Activities

11. Key to Activities
What is Human Language?
Features of Human Language
Human Language vs. Animal Communication
Functions of Human Language
What is Linguistics?
Branches of Linguistics (At the Micro Level)
Branches of Linguistics (At the Macro Level
Traditional Language Studies
Approaches to Modern Linguistics
Major Distinctions in Linguistics
Prescriptivism vs. Desriptivism
De Saussure’s Dichotomies
Chomsky’s Dominance

Course objectives

The study of linguistics is a vast and fascinating field. One of the central aims of this course book is to initiate and familiarize students with the most significant linguistic concepts which can be valuable for their future studies, since this course is meant to help students understand and be acquainted with the basics of linguistics.

A series of lectures are given along with activities to provide students with a certain amount of knowledge concerning the components that are relevant and necessary to be learned in order to master the basic concepts in linguistics.

-Course aims

The course book is designed to expose students to an overview of linguistics at the various levels of language description. Its aims are:

1. to introduce students to the nature of human language;
2. to enable them to have a broad view of linguistics and its relation to language;
3. to help them comprehend theoretical linguistics and analytical skills for recognizing and describing the various levels of analysis (micro-level)
4. to familiarize them with the basic linguistic concepts, such as language, the linguistic sign, linguistic competence and so on.
5. to help them make the difference between micro and macro linguistics.
6. to help them distinguish between De Saussure’s and Chomsky’s different linguistic conceptions.

The objectives of the module can be listed as follows:

-Introducing the discipline of linguistics
-Explaining the meaning of language
-Providing brief information about the history of linguistics
-Describing the methods of studying language
-Developing learners’ linguistic knowledge
-Developing learners’ linguistic skills

By the end of the course, the students should be able to:

-explain the nature of human language;
-identify the levels of linguistic description;
-use the basic terminology of linguistic subfields, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics.
-systematically analyze the linguistic structure of the English language;
-explain the history and development of linguistics;
-describe theoretical frameworks;
-apply linguistic principles to the various levels of linguistic description in English and other languages.
-discuss and explain the basic distinctions and dichotomies provided by De Saussure and Chomsky.

Introduction to the module

Since the study of linguistics is a broad field, students are not expected to learn everything about linguistics while going through this course book the first time, and they should not feel linguistically sluggish if they find that there are many questions that will remain unanswered at the end of it. This is an introductory course. Learners can actually study linguistics by sifting through the various lectures and doing the activities that accompany them. Suggestions for further reading will always be listed alongside each lesson that may help them in the future, when they need more detailed information.

The organization of the material involves ten lessons. In the first lesson, the meaning of language is considered encompassing an overview on the origins of human language, language as a means of communication, dictionary definitions of language, linguistic definitions of language and the notion of double articulation.

The second lesson deals with the various features of human language as listed by Hockett (1960) including a discussion of the target features and the reason why study language.

The third lesson called ‘Human Language vs. Animal Communication’ is concerned with the major distinctions between human language and animal communication and some experiments on various animals.

The fourth lesson deals specifically with the micro and macro functions of human language.

The fifth lesson entitled ‘What is Linguistics?’ embraces the following: definitions of the concept; Is linguistics a science? Purposes of linguistics, linguistics as a social science and the relationship between language and linguistics.

The sixth lesson discusses the different branches of linguistics at the micro level, i.e., the fields of theoretical linguistics including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. The seventh lesson is also devoted to the various branches of linguistics, but this time at the macro level/ Applied linguistics.

The eighth lesson deals with traditional language studies and is concerned with foundations in antiquity and the different traditional grammars (Classical grammar- Medieval grammar- Pedagogical grammar- Comparative philology).

Lesson nine deals with the different approaches in modern linguistics. These include: the structuralist approach, the Chomskyan approach, cognitivism and functionalism.

Lesson ten, the last and largest one, entitled ‘Major distinctions in linguistics’, attempts to familiarize the students with the basic linguistic dichotomies and consists of three parts. Part A presents the prescriptivism/ descriptivism dichotomy. Part B exposes De Saussaurean dichotomies, provided by the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, and involves the following: langue vs. parole, signifier (signifiant) vs. signified (signifié), synchronic vs. diachronic and syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic. Part C is called ‘Chomsky’s dominance’ and discusses the basic distinctions provided by the prominent linguist Chomsky; these include: Competence vs. Performance, I-language vs. E-language and Deep structure vs. Surface structure.

It must be admitted that the course book also provides students with the correction of the different activities embraced within each lesson in order to give them the opportunity to assess and evaluate themselves, and know the extent to which they are able to find a solution to those activities.

To keep learners fascinated (which I hope they are) and to prevent them from becoming intimidated (which I hope they are not), we will start right away with the very principles that make human language so special.

1. What is Human Language?


Talking, shouting, whispering, lying, swearing, telling jokes and tales, in short, communication of all sorts by means of articulate sound is something we are so familiar with that we hardly ever come to think about it as something unique. However, no other living creature shows the ability to communicate verbally in the way we do. Take a minute to think about the immense impact spoken and written language has on your everyday life! You could not possibly do without it in situations where you meet other people, like in school, university, or at the breakfast table. The examples are countless.

1. On the origins of human language

Human ability to communicate through speech sets him apart from other species. Language experts, historians and scientists can only hypothesize how, where and when human language starts. It is simply known that oral language developed well before written language. However, there are many theories about how language began, and five of the oldest and most common theories are as follows:

-The bow-wow theory: Language started when our ancestors began imitating the natural sounds around them. The first speech was onomatopoeic, i.e., marked by echoic words such as meow, splash, bang, boom and cuckoo.
-The ding-dong theory: Plato and Pythagoras maintain that speech originated in response to the main qualities of objects in the environment. The earliest sounds people made were probably in harmony with the world around them.
- The la-la theory: The Danish linguist Otto Jespersen proposed that language may have evolved from sounds associated with love, play and particularly song.
- The pooh-pooh theory: It holds that speech began with interjections; spontaneous cries of pain ‘ouch’, surprise ‘oh’ and other emotions…
- The yo-he-ho theory: This theory holds that language developed from the grunts, groans and snorts evoked by heavy physical labour. Though this notion may account for some of the rhythmic aspects of language, it fails in explaining where words come from.

Language has also been considered as a divine gift since all humans possess the ability to acquire their native language without effort. However, the study of the development of language is among the subjects that persistently generates wide interest and controversy. Christiansen & Kirby (2003) define provocatively this as the tough problem in science. The controversies are directly linked to the methodological issues embroiled in investigating such a topic. One of the most influential linguists, Noam Chomsky (1988: 183) believes that the study of the origin of language “is a complete waste of time”. It is a waste of time “because language is based on an entirely different principle than any animal communication system” (ibid). Modern man has existed for about 200,000 years and after 50,000 BC, language had developed all the structural properties, which are characteristic of it at present.

Indeed, Language is a constant evolutionary phenomenon, which is constantly adapted to its interlocutors’ communicative needs. The organs of speech are biologically essential and their improvement has led to a specialization such as the enormous flexibility of the tongue or the relatively deep larynx, which differentiates humans from other species.

However, most or all non-human species can exchange information, but none of them are known to have a system of communication with a complexity that in any way is comparable to language. Most linguists would probably agree that although many animals are able to communicate, they do not actually have ‘language’ in the sense that humans do. Birds may sing, cats meow, dogs bark, but they are not supposed to use these limited sets of sounds in the way we do, as each sound or cry means one thing reflecting basic needs like fear, hunger or an emotion. Thus, language is considered as a major aspect distinguishing humans from the rest of the living species in the animal kingdom.

2. Language as a means of communication

Human beings can communicate with each other to exchange knowledge, beliefs, opinions, wishes, threats, commands, thanks, promises, declarations, and feelings. People can laugh to express amusement, happiness, or disrespect, they can smile to express amusement, pleasure, approval, or bitter feelings, they can shriek to express anger, excitement, or fear, they can raise eyebrows to express surprise or even disapproval, and so on, but above all, our system of communication is language. As a first step towards a definition of this complex entity, language is a system of communication based upon words and the combination of words into sentences. In fact, no other living thing on this planet is capable to communicate verbally in the way humans do, and thus communication by means of language may be considered as linguistic communication, the other ways listed above such as laughing, smiling, shrieking, just to name a few, are kinds of non-linguistic communication.

3. Dictionary definitions of language

Human language, that unique characteristic of our species, has triggered great interest throughout history. In fact, various definitions of language have been introduced over time. Although they vary in the wording, they are generally similar in meaning. So, what is a language? What we have in mind here is a natural (i.e., not an artificial or computer-based) system for human communication, such as English, Arabic, French and Swahili.

Language (n.):

a. The system of human expression by means of words.
b. Any system of signs, movements, etc., used to express meanings or feelings.

(Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 1978)

Language (n.): a system of communication consisting of a set of small parts and a set of rules which decide the ways in which these parts can be combined to produce messages that have meaning.

(Cambridge International Dictionary of English 1995)

Language (n.):Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition ©2000.

Updated in 2009. ( retrieved 25/11/2010)

Any succinct definition of language makes a number of presuppositions and begs a number of questions. The second, for example, focuses on ‘thought’, and the third definition uses ‘arbitrary’ in a specialized, though authentic way.

One of the obvious ways of thinking about language is as a systematic way of combining smaller units into larger units for the purpose of communication. For example, we combine the sounds of our language (phonemes) to form words (lexical items) according to the ‘rules’ of the language (s) we speak. Those lexical items can be combined to make grammatical structures, again according to the syntactic rules of our language(s). Language is essentially a rule-governed system of this kind, but there are other ways of thinking about how language works and what we do with it. For example, we usually assume that we use language to say what we mean, and for every meaning, you can think of, there is a corresponding group of sounds (a spoken word) and letters (a written word).

Indeed, no other creature on this planet shows the ability to communicate verbally in the way we do. Thus, we may say that language is God’s special gift to humankind. It is an exclusively human property. Without language human, civilization, as we now know it, would have remained something impossible. Language is present everywhere, in our thoughts and dreams, prayers and meditations, relations and communication. Besides being a means of communication, and storehouse of knowledge, it is an instrument of thinking.

4. Linguistic definitions of language

Although linguists vary in their definitions of language, they all agree that language is a system of ‘vocal signs’ with an ‘internal structure’ and used for the purpose of ‘human communication’. Here are some of these definitions:

Sapir (1921: 8) writes, “Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols”.

Within this definition, there are two important terms that call for discussion: human and non-instinctive. Language, as Sapir rightly says, is human which means that human beings are the only species that possess language and all normal human beings uniformly possess it. Animals also have their own system of communication, but it is not sufficiently developed compared with human language. As such, language is said to be species-specific and species-uniform. Moreover, this complex entity which is language does not pass from a parent to a child (it is not hereditary). In this line of thought, it is non-instinctive. A child has to learn language and he/she learns the language of the society he/she is placed in.

In the same vein, Hall (1968: 158) defines language as “the institution whereby humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used- oral- auditory arbitrary symbols”.

What is most noteworthy in the definitions proposed by Sapir and Hall is that both scholars view language as a purely human institution and a system of symbols assigned, as it were, for the purpose of communication. Hall uses the term ‘institution’ to clarify the fact that the language used by a particular society, is part of the culture of that society.

Language has also been defined as “a system of vocal auditory communication using conventional signs composed of arbitrary patterned sound units and assembled according to a set of rules interacting with the experience of its users” (Bolinger, 1968:12).

For humans, language is a system of speech sounds or signs which constitute linguistic knowledge of both speaker and addressee to convey and receive information. The speech sounds are referred to as consonants and vowels. Indeed, all the definitions listed above refer to the arbitrary nature of the symbols representing sounds in language. The relationship between signs and what is symbolised is arbitrary, but fixed by social convention.The reference is arbitrary and conventional because each language expresses ideas using different words; for example ‘house’ is house in English, ‘ maison’ in French, ‘ casa’ in Spanish, ‘’gída in Hausa and منزل’ in Arabic.

5. The notion of double articulation

In linguistics, the term double articulation, or duality of patterning, first introduced by the French linguist André Martinet (1961), refers to the way in which the stream of speech can be divided into meaningful signs, which can be further subdivided into meaningless elements. Languages comprise tens of thousands of signs, which are combinations of form and meaning. In spoken languages, form refers to a sequence of sounds; in written languages, it refers to a sequence of letters (based on the kind of writing system we are speaking about), and in the sign languages of the deaf, form refers to a certain combination of gestures. Concentrating on spoken language (which is our aim here), let us take an example: in the word ‘smell’, which has the form /smel/, speakers of English may connect a definite meaning with this form: ‘to get the odor or scent of something with the nose’. When combined, the form and meaning together constitute what is known as ‘a sign’, as shown in the table below:

Table1: A Sign

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Languages embrace tens of thousands of signs, and the term double articulation involves the fact that the formal sides of these sign are constructed from a relatively small repertoire – usually between 10 and 100 – of meaningless sounds. In English, the number of sounds is around 50 – almost uniformly divided between consonants and vowels. There is no combination between the meaning and any of the sounds. If the /e/ of /smell/ is replaced by /a/, we get /small/ which has the meaning ‘having comparatively little size or slight dimensions’. This meaning is completely disconnected to the meaning ‘to get the odor or scent of with the nose’, despite the fact that the units /smell/ and /small/ both start with /s/ and end with /l/ and have a vowel in between, and the distinction in meaning is in no way related to the phonetic distinction between the vowels /e/ and /a/.


Language is the use of a shared set of signs or symbols to interact and express their feelings, ideas and emotions. Language is also a system by which sounds, signs and gestures are used to communicate meaning. That humans have the capacity to generate new sentences according to certain rules in a language is evidence that human language is a biologically endowed faculty. In fact, every human society has a language, a shared set of symbols, which they use in communication. Language has changed the entire gamut of human relations and made it possible to grow into a human community on this planet.

References/ Suggested reading

- Aitchison, J. (2000) The Seeds of Speech (Canto edition) Cambridge University Press.
- Bolinger, D. (1968). Aspects of Language. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc.
- Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and problems of knowledge. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Christiansen, M., & Kirby, S. (2003). Language Evolution: the Hardest Problem in Sciences? In Christiansen, M., & Kirby, S. (Eds.), Language Evolution, New York: Oxford University Press, 1-15.
- Hall, R.A. (1968). An essay on language. Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Books.
- Kennelly, C. (2007). The First Word Viking Press.
- Martinet, A. (1961). Éléments de Linguistique Générale, Colin. Paris.
- Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language: An Introduction to the study of Speech, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.
- Yule, G. (2014). The Study of Language. Fifth edition. Cambridge University Press.

Self-assessment/ Activities

Activity 1: Answer the following questions

1- What is the basic idea behind the “bow-wow” theory of language origin?
2- What do you call the following words in your language: (i) baker,(ii), water, (iii), finger, (iv) ladder, (v) fire, (vi) air, (vii) mountain, (viii) sun, (ix) necklace, (x) oven, (xi) , (xii) administration, (xiii) star, (xiv) lawyer, (xvi) pot, (xvii) advertisement, (xviii) proud, (xix) generous.
3- How is the relationship between signs and what is symbolized? Is it applicable to all languages? Why?
4- What is meant by double articulation?
5- A message conveyed that affects the behaviour of another organism is an instance of

a) language,
b) a signal,
c) thought,
d) communication,
e) electrical conduction.

Activity 2:

1- Try to define the concept of language using your own words.
2- Is language unique to human beings? Why?

2. Features of Human Language


Human language is so intricate, but despite this intricacy, languages still share some aspects in common. Hockett (1960) has outlined thirteen features that characterize human language, and which differentiate it from other communication systems. The diagram below graphically represents each of the thirteen aspects. Each aspect is numbered and listed accompanied with an analysis of each feature.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Adapted from Hockett, Charles. 1960. The Origin of Speech.)

1. Discussion of the target features

In this section, the thirteen features listed by Hockett (1960) are represented and discussed:

a- Vocal-auditory channel: The standard human language takes place as a vocal (making sounds with the mouth) type of communication, which is perceived by hearing it. There are conspicuous exceptions: writing and sign language are instances of communication in the manual-visual channel. Nonetheless, the great majority of human languages take place in the vocal-auditory channel as their basic mode of expression. Writing is a secondary and somewhat marginal form of language, while sign languages are in restricted use, mostly among deaf people who are restricted in their ability to use the auditory part of the vocal-auditory channel.
b- Broadcast transmission and directional reception: The human language signal is released in all directions, while it is perceived in a restricted direction. As far as spoken language is concerned, the sound perpetuates as a waveform that extends from the point of origin (the mouth) in all directions. This is why someone can stand in the middle of a room and be heard by everyone (assuming that he/ she is speaking loudly enough). Nevertheless, the hearer hears the sound as coming from a specific direction and is notably better at hearing sounds that are coming from in front of him/ her than from behind him/ her.
c- Rapid fading (transitoriness): The human language signal does not remain over time. Speech waveforms disappear quickly and cannot be heard after they fade (disappear). This is the main reason why it is not conceivable to plainly say “good morning” and have a person hear it hours later. Audio-recordings and writing can be used to record human language so that it can be recreated later on, either by playing the audio-record, or by reading the written form.
d- Interchangeability: The interlocutor can both receive and broadcast the same signal. This is peculiar from some animal communications such as that of the stickle fish which makes auditory signals based on gender (basically, the males say “I am a boy” and the females say “I am a girl"). Yet, male fish are not able to say “I am a girl”, although they can perceive it. As such, stickle fish signals are not interchangeable.
e- Total feedback: The speaker can hear himself speak and can monitor his language performance as it goes. This varies from some other plain communication systems, such as traffic signals. Traffic signs cannot normally monitor their proper functions (e.g. a green light cannot tell when the bulb is burned out).
f- Specialization: The organs used for producing speech are particularly adapted to that function. The human lips, tongue, throat, larynx, etc. have been specialized into speech apparatus instead of being simply the eating apparatus. They are found in many other animals. birds, for instance, are not physically capable of all of the speech sounds that humans produce, for they miss the necessary specialized organs.
g- Semanticity: Particular signals can be matched with particular meanings. This is a crucial feature of all communication systems. For example, in French, the word sucre refers to a type of disaccharide made from the combination of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose. The same substance is matched with the English word sugar. Anyone speaker of these languages will recognize that the signal sucre or sugar refers to the combination of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose.
h- Arbitrariness: There is no essential link between the form of the signal and the thing being referred to. For instance, something as large as a dolphin can be referred to by a very short word. Likewise, there is no reason that a four-legged domestic canine should be called a cat and not a chat or a gato (all words for ‘cat’ in other languages). Onomatopoeic words such as “meow” or “bark” are often cited as counter-examples, based on the fact that they are pronounced like the sound they refer to. However, the correspondence (a cat that actually says “meow” would be very surprising) does not always hold up across languages (Korean cats, for example, say “yaong”). Therefore, even onomatopoeic words are, to some extent, arbitrary.
i- Discreteness: The fundamental units of speech (such as sounds) can be categorized as belonging to different categories. There is no gradual, continuous shading from one sound to another in the linguistic system, although there may be a continuum in the real physical world. Thus interlocutors will identify a sound as either a [p] or a [b], but not as an amalgam, even if physically it falls somewhere between the two sounds.
j- Displacement: The interlocutor can talk about things which are absent, either spatially or temporally. For instance, human language permits interlocutors to speak about the past, the future and even the present. Interlocutors can also speak about things that are physically remote (like other continents, other countries, the sun, etc.). They can even refer to things and events that are not present in reality) such as the Earth having an emperor, or the destruction of Tara in Gone with the Wind.
k- Productivity/ Creativity: Human languages permit speakers to create new, never-before-heard utterances that others can comprehend. For instance, the sentence “The little leprechaun which lives in my cupboard told me that Elvis Presley will come back from Mars next week to do a concert for unemployed French cats”, is a new and never-before-heard sentence (at least, I hope it is!), but any eloquent English speaker would be capable to comprehend it, and realize that, in all probability, the speaker was not completely reasonable.
l- Traditional transmission: Human language is not something hereditary. Although humans are probably born with a capacity to do language, they must learn, or acquire, their native language from other interlocutors. This differs from many animal communication systems where animals are born knowing their entire system. For example, bees are born knowing how to dance and some birds are born knowing their species of bird-songs.
m- Duality of patterning: The discrete parts of a language can be reconnected in a systematic way in order to create novel forms. This idea resembles the feature called ‘Productivity’ (Feature k). However, while Productivity refers to the ability of creating new meanings, Duality of patterning refers to the ability of reconnecting small units in distinct orders. In a particular combination such as cat, we have another level producing a meaning that is different from the meaning of the combination in act. Therefore, at one level, we have distinct sounds, and, at another level, we have distinct meanings. This duality of levels is one of the most economical features of human language as with a limited set of discrete sounds, we can produce a very large number of sound combinations (e.g. words) which are distinct in meaning ( for more details, see section 5:6).

2. Why study language?

Having outlined the various characteristics of language, one may like to ask: why study or learn language at all? An answer to this question can be easily derived from a consideration of the situation this world was in before language came into being. One can easily imagine that man must then have been a denizen of the forest, very much like anyone of the other animals: horse, cow, tiger, elephant, and dog. The entire human progress, in fact everything that distinguishes humans from animals, depends on language only. Language is, today, a medium of literature, science and technology, computers and cultural exchanges between social groups, and the most powerful, convenient and permanent means of communication in the world. It is ubiquitous, present everywhere in all human activities, thoughts, dreams, prayers, meditations and relations. It is only through language that knowledge and culture are stored and passed on from generation to generation. Thus, all human civilization and knowledge is only possible through language.


To sum up, language is a patterned system of arbitrary sound signals characterized by displacement, duality, creativity, cultural transmission and structure dependence. All the features listed above show that acquiring a language is a complicated process which is unconscious and effortless when children learn their mother language, but conscious and difficult when learning a foreign language.

References/ Further reading

- Hockett, Charles. F (1960) The Origin of Speech, Scientific American 203, 88–111 Reprinted in: Wang, William S-Y. (1982) Human Communication: Language and Its Psychobiological Bases, Scientific American pp. 4–12
- Yule, G. (2006). The Study of Language, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press.

Self-assessment/ Activities

1. Which aspects/features of human language are missing in animal communication system?

2. The ability to put together combinations or series of words from a limited set of recognized sound units is one of the characteristics of human language, referred to as:

a) displacement,
b) duality,
c) productivity,
d) discretness,
e) semanticity.

3. What is meant by ‘arbitrariness’? Illustrate with examples.

4. What is the difference between productivity and duality?

3. Human Language vs. Animal Communication


Language is considered one of the most significant possessions of humans, and in fact, humans have been referred to as ‘the talking animal’ that is homo loquens. Language distinguishes human beings from animals in that it is far more sophisticated than any animal communication system. Different groups of investigators who believe in the existence of shared characteristics between human language and animal communication have been doing extensive research over the past 25 years, on humans, birds and apes, among others. The best way to find out what exactly makes human language so special is to compare human natural language to animal ‘languages’, i.e. systems of communication.

1.Major distinctions between human language and animal communication

Animals also have their own system of communication but communication between them is extremely limited. It is limited to a very small number of messages. Animal communication differs from human communication in the following ways:

(a) Language can convey a large number, rather an infinite set of messages whereas the number of messages conveyed through the communication system of animals is very limited. Animals, for example, are able to convey to their fellow animals if they are hungry or afraid. A bee, by its dance, is able to convey the distance or the direction of the source of nectar but it cannot convey how good or bad this honey is. Similarly, a bee cannot tell another bee that the source of honey is ten metres to the left of a point fifteen metres to the right. Language can thus convey messages along several directions whereas, in the case of bees, messages are differentiated along two dimensions only, i.e., direction and distance. Some monkeys, it is known, can produce a number of sounds (not more than 9 to 10) to express fear, aggression, anger, love etc.
(b) Language makes use of clearly distinguishable discrete, separately identifiable symbols while animal communication systems are often continuous or non-discrete: One can clearly distinguish between /k/, /æ/ and /t/ in the word cat but one cannot identify different discrete symbols in the long humming sound that a bee produces or the caw-caw of a crow.
(c) Animal communication systems are closed systems that permit no change, modification or addition. A bee’s dance or a cock’s crow is today the same as it was two hundred years ago or a million years ago. It is not so in the case of language. Language is changing, growing every day and new words continue to be added to it in the course of time. Words like sputnik, laser, video, software etc. did not, for example, exist anywhere in the English language three hundred years ago. Language is thus open-ended, modifiable and extendable.
(d) Human language is far more structurally complex than animal commu­nication. English (RP Variety), for example, has 44 sounds that join in different groups to form thousands of words. These words can be arranged into millions of sets to frame different sentences. Each sentence has its own internal structure. There is no such structural complexity in a lamb’s bleating or a monkey’s cry.
(e) Human language is non-instinctive in the sense that every human child has to learn language from his elders or peers in society. This process of learning plays an important part in the acquisition of language. On the other hand, bees acquire their skill in dancing as humans acquire the skill to walk. Bees are sometimes seen to make hexagonal hives. They do not learn any geometry. Their knowledge is inherited, inbuilt. It is not so in the case of human beings who have to learn a language.
(f) Another important property possessed by human language is called Displacement. A human being, for example, can talk about the past, the present or the future, of an event that happened nearby or thousands of miles away. An animal cannot do that. When a dog produces a certain sound, it generally refers to the present. A dog cannot tell his master that a thief had visited his premises the previous night or the previous Sunday. It cannot tell him that a piece of meat is lying 200 metres away on the left bank of a river flowing by the village. When a cat mews at the arrival of its master, it is expressing its present feeling only. It cannot refer to an event that took place two hours ago in the park. It is this property of displacement which enables humans to create fiction and describe the past as well as the possible future events.

2. Some experiments on various animals

Among the experiments that have been carried out by scientists to test whether animals can perform competitively in language use like humans, cover chimpanzees and other animals.

Chimpanzee experiment on language use

During the early 19th century an infant chimpanzee called ‘Gua’ and a child were raised by Luella and Winthrop Kellogg whose aim was to teach the chimpanzee how touse human language. ‘Gua’ was accounted to have understood about a hundred words, but was unable to perform any of these words. In the same era, other scientists called Catherine and Keith Hayes reared a chimpanzee called Viki in their home for a period of five years. It was treated the same way as a human child. The couple used to shape its mouth so that it could produce some words accurately. Despite all efforts spent by the chimpanzee, Viki showed the ability to produce some words with very bad articulation which can be ascribed to the fact that animals vocal structures are not as sophisticated as that of humans. They can make an immense range of vocal sounds, but it is not comparable to speaking.

Dolphins: conversation or communication

Dolphins use whistles as contact calls to facilitate encounters between separate individuals, and it is possible that they also use sounds and body postures to indicate their intention to play, and clicks to signal their emotional states and their intention to communicate (Kuczaj, 2013). Two dolphins called “Buzz and Doris” were accounted to possess a means of sending signals to each other through opaque barriers on their manner to catch fish snacks. They both used a flashing light signal pressing a hand paddle to signal to each other about the presence of fish. On several trials, they caught fish. This attempt showed that their behaviour consisted of conditioned responses to the various light signals. Nevertheless, given that conversation implies communication, but not the other way round, it is far to be established if dolphin communication implies some kind of conversation.

Displacement in honey bee dances

Human languages efficiently have the property called displaced reference, meaning that human beings are able to talk about objects and events which are absent in the immediate milieu. There is one animal, which is known for being able of displaced reference, honey bees.

Crist (2004) claims that honey bee dances are subject to distinct rules, embracing the following: (a) a conventional template must be followed in order to indicate distance, direction, and attractiveness of a source; (b) dances must indicate a relevant source for the most urgent needing in the hive. If nothing special is required, the dance indicates patches of flowers; (c) when sources of equivalent quality are found, the dance indicates the nearest of them; (d) if the resources can be found through smell, it will not be a dance; (e) non-abundant resources are indicated only when there is an urgent need in the hive; (f) the dance takes place in a specific location near the hive entrance, called the “dance floor”; and (g) dances are never performed without an audience.


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Introducing the Scope of Linguistic Enquiry. A Student´s Overview
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Chahrazed Hamzaoui (Author), 2019, Introducing the Scope of Linguistic Enquiry. A Student´s Overview, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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