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The uniqueness

Of human language. What makes it special

We humans have capacities which no other species has. Humans can do experiments, write and play music, draw or paint a likeness, throw or kick a ball at a target or hit it with a stick or a bat, carry out successive operations with numbers, and more. Despite attempts by circus masters and entertainers, non-humans do not seem to be capable of any of these things. Some individual animals have learnt what may seem like the first steps to some of these skills. This can then be put on show, to be admired or unfairly mocked. But non-human levels in these skills would never be mistaken for human skills. What about language? Some people believe that their dogs understand everything they say, but only the rarest of dogs, specially trained over a long period, learn to understand some word combinations, such as “Put the ball in the bowl” or “Get the paper from the door”. And the nature of this understanding seems to be quite different from that of small humans who learn very early that there are special classes of words, like what and where, and elements of the sound structure, like the S in likes in “He likes it”, which are understood in relation to some position in the structure other than where they are pronounced. By the proposal here, the essentials of this understanding normally develop between the ages of one and three. This is commonly known as ‘Universal Grammar’ – what human beings share – although see Modesty and Caution for a variety of quite different views.

When the apparatus here is fully  developed, normally around ten, this allows an infinite number of structures, known as sentences, to be built from a finite number of elements, the speech sounds of the language. This is known as ‘discrete infinity’. By virtue of these properties, language is ‘compositional’ – based on words and parts of words not just in order, but in a structure ensuring that the words have a meaning that goes beyond their meanings other than by the structure.

Dogs have different barks and cats have different miaows. but they can’t be meaningfully brought together into a composition.

Some chimpanzees, bonobo apes, and gorillas, have learnt to process one or more aspects of human language, as signs. The most remarkable of these was a chimpanzee called Washoe who died in 2007. She had been taught over 200 signs in American Sign Language. One of her carers had a baby and then disappeared for a while. When the carer came back, Washoe reacted badly. The carer decided to tell Washoe the truth – that the baby had in fact died. Washoe made the sign for tears. This may have been the only real discussion of grief and condolence that has ever taken place between a human and a non-human. 

But in no case did Washoe ever show any evidence in her signing of words doing what the little word that does in “I’m sorry that your baby is dead” or of the same structure without that. Nor does her signing reflect any equivalent of the grammatical structures of typical three year old language with clearly identifiable subjects, verbs and objects, marked in English by the characteristic ordering of “I love her” and “She loves me” and by the form of the verb in loves.

As shown in The framework, the point applies across the whole range of grammatical categories that apply to English and their equivalents in other languages.

By this logic, that of the framework here by the new direction known as ‘biolinguistics‘, there is no evidence of the structure allowing discrete infinity in signing by apes. Chimpanzees’ gestures are not remotely on a pathway to what we know as language. 

Stephen Anderson (2006) sets out the thinking here in a very scholarly, but completely accessible and non-technical way.

Agreeing about what things mean

For any language, of which English is just one example, native speakers can agree about what things mean, or don’t mean, or if there is more than one meaning, and in ways that brook no argument.

Consider these two sentences, the first ambiguous, the second not:

  • I wonder who she wants to see her (she and her may refer to the same person, but not necessarily)
  • She wants to see her (she and her cannot refer to the same person)

In the biolinguistic framework assumed here and developed in my proposal, in order for speakers come to these contrasting judgements, there has to be a universal grammar UG, defined in the human genome. This UG is a point of potential vulnerability in human development.