Human Language—A Unique Gift
By “Awake!” correspondent in Ivory Coast
A TRANSLATING machine once took the English expression “out of sight, out of mind” and rendered it in another language as “invisible idiot”! Did that mean that the machine had snapped a gear? No. It was making a very pardonable mistake. And it was also highlighting one of the many factors that make human language unique among known methods of communication—its complexity.
To the machine, “out of sight” was, in a certain sense, to be invisible. To be “out of [your] mind” was to be mad or an idiot, and yet “out of sight, out of mind” does not mean “invisible idiot”! It is this sort of thing that gives inventors of translating machines headaches.
Of course, it is not only complexity that makes human speech unique. There are many other factors involved—so many that some scientists maintain that, instead of labeling man homo sapiens (“man with wisdom”), it would be more appropriate to label him homo loquens (“man who talks”).
But someone may protest: “Have they forgotten all the recent research in animal communication systems? Man speaks, yes. But so do animals, in their own fashion. Dolphins whistle, bees dance, birds have distinctive call notes and some can even imitate human speech. And what about the monkeys that have recently learned some ‘sign’ language? Although their way of communicating might not work in quite the same way as man’s, surely the purpose and results are the same, are they not?”
Well, yes and no. Yes, they do communicate; and no, as a rule the purpose and results are not the same. Much research has gone into this question. The different call sounds made by creatures as varied as gibbons, geese and dolphins have been catalogued—in some cases even worked into a sort of vocabulary. Gibbons apparently have nine calls or so and dolphins more. Dolphins even appear to have different “dialects,” according to where they live.
Yet, there are several vital differences between man’s speech and that of the animals—even beyond the obvious fact that human language is immeasurably more complex. One difference is . . .
The Intention to Communicate
When they use their own call signs, do animals or birds consciously intend to communicate with one another as humans do? Or is the sound merely an instinctive reaction to their momentary situation? Konrad Z. Lorenz, a world-renowned authority on animal behavior, claims that they do not intentionally communicate, although they often appear to.
Should a jackdaw, for example, be alarmed while feeding, it will fly up into the air uttering a warning “Kia, kia” cry, and any fellow jackdaw hearing that cry will fly up automatically also. The perfect coordination of the warning cry and the reaction of the other birds creates the impression that they are talking and understanding a language of their own. But not so, explains Lorenz in his book King Solomon’s Ring:
“The animal, in all these sounds and movements expressing its emotions, has in no way the conscious intention of influencing a fellow-member of its species. This is proved by the fact that even geese or jackdaws reared and kept singly make all these signals as soon as the corresponding mood overtakes them.”—P. 77.
When a man uses the voice signals that he has learned, he intends to convey something to his hearers (unless, of course, he is singing in the bath!) and he will stop if he notices that no one is listening. The jackdaw, however, does not care if another is listening. It merely emits the sound as an instinctive reflex action, just as a man will yawn when tired. This highlights another difference with man’s speech . . .
Mobility of the Signal
Most animal signals are not what linguists (students of language) call “mobile,” or separable from the situation that prompts the signal. The gibbon, for example, uses its danger call only when danger actually exists.
Animal signals are also fixed in the sense that the animal does not, in general, listen to the sound it makes and then try to modify it into another sound. Certain birds, it is true, are able to mimic sounds that are not in their inborn “vocabulary.” They can learn to copy sounds made by other birds, or even those made by man, like the parrot that says, “Pretty Polly!”
However, Lorenz insists that birds rarely manage to associate consciously even one of the word sounds that they had learned with a certain action, and then never to any practical purpose. One old gray parrot called Geier, who had quite a large “human” vocabulary (including saying “Auf wiedersehen!” in a deep benevolent voice whenever anyone got up to leave), never did learn to say “food” when he was hungry and “drink” when he was thirsty.
This lack of “mobility” is even more noticeable with the bees’ dance. This is a sort of sign language akin to semaphore flagging, and men have even succeeded in using it to communicate with the insects. The explorer bee indicates distance to the flowers by the speed of his dance (thus showing the effort required), and direction by its axis in relation to the sun.
However, this is all that can be transmitted. Each sign, the “meaning” of which is fixed, cannot be separated and used in other ways for little chats about “How’s the weather over there?” or “Seen any beautiful flowers lately?” Thus we come to another difference of human speech . . .
Makeup of Language
The big deficiency of animal codes is that they lack the creative capacity that enables humans to produce and understand sentences that they have never heard before, and that may never have even been uttered before. This is due to the way human language is made up.
Speech has what is called a double structure. By that we mean that human utterances can be broken down into smaller units: first, into units of meaning or single words, and, secondly, into sound units, called phonemes. Phonemes can be used to construct other words having nothing to do with the original one.
Suppose, for example, that an animal had a call sign for meat. Now that call, whatever it was, would mean meat and nothing else. But the English word meat not only can be used to signify the flesh of an animal, but also can be separated into three distinct sound units or phonemes: m, e and t. Those three phonemes can then be used to make all sorts of other words: teem and me, as well as eat, tea, meaty, and so on.
Thus fewer than fifty sound units in English have been combined to make up over half a million word units, and new words are being formed all the time. The words, in turn, can be combined to form an infinite number of sentences. This brings us to another facet of language composition the idea of grammar.
Grammar is the makeup of language in another sense: the network of relationships between individual words and the rules governing those relationships. Knowing or sensing the rules lets us make these different combinations and produce understandable sentences, despite our maybe never having heard any exactly like them before. And just think of the complexity!
Even a simple sentence, for example, will consist of at least one subject-predicate relationship. In the sentence from the children’s story, “This little pig went to market,” the subject or one talked about is “This little pig.” What is said about him, namely, that he “went to market,” is the predicate. Animal codes do not link thoughts in this fashion.
In contrast with animals, not only can humans grasp this and all the other grammatical relationships of word groups, but we can also vary them to express different points of view. For example, we can affirm that the little pig went to market, but we can also deny it, simply by making what is called a negative “transformation”: “This little pig did not go to market.” We can change it from past to present: “This little pig is going to market.” Or we can make it a question: “Did this little pig go to market?” One simple sentence is thus the basis for a great many others that we do not have to learn individually. But making such transformations also requires another ability . . .
To make the transformations required by everyday life, the speaker must be able to keep his distance, so to speak, from the message, not relating each element only to himself. This is called “objectivity.” Instead of being able to say only “I put the blue box on the red box,” for example, the objective communicator is able to say “The blue box is on the red box.”
Hence, when things go wrong with the human brain, the ability to make objective transformations often fails. Due to this, some schizophrenics, for example, have difficulty in making the negative transformation. Given the sentence “He will eat apples,” and being asked to make it negative by adding not, they will often produce “He will eat pears,” or oranges or some other fruit, instead of “He will not eat apples.”
Although certain chimpanzees have been trained to use simplified sign (not spoken) systems that men have invented for them after hundreds of hours of training, they still have very limited ability to make such objective transformations. They cannot go beyond the objectivity of about a two-year-old child. But remember that what little control human babies have at that age develops without any specialized training at all! And their ability to use all the progressively more complex language procedures in just a few more years leaves the chimps far, far behind.
Source of Language
Noam Chomsky, a prominent linguist, has suggested that this unique language ability must, to a certain extent, be innate or “built in” from birth. How else, he asks, are we to explain the rapidity and complexity of language development in small children with as yet undeveloped powers? Adults who try learning a new language can appreciate the enormity of their accomplishment.
Says the Encyclopœdia Britannica:
“It is, therefore, clear that all normal humans bring into the world an innate faculty for language acquisition, language use, and grammar construction. . . . The human child is very soon able to construct new, grammatically acceptable sentences from material he has already heard; unlike the parrot in human society, he is not limited to the mere repetition of whole utterances.”—1976 ed., Macropædia, Vol. 10, p. 650.
Animals do not have this “built-in” sense for language acquisition. Even the highly trained chimpanzees of recent fame have used only simple sign systems devised by humans, while their own natural communications are generally mere reflex signals, largely single calls and gestures. And such primates, though claimed by evolutionists to be “members of the animal kingdom nearest to man genetically,” actually “have proved highly resistant to the acquisition of [vocal] speech.”—Ibid., p. 649.
If human vocal language does not find its roots in the animal kingdom, then how did it get started? Was it through the grunts, groans and wheezes of some primitive evolutionary man in an effort to communicate with others of his kind? “We might then expect to find such a language in use among primitive and backward groups with a low standard of civilization,” wrote Columbia University language professor Mario Pei. But “such is emphatically not the case. The opposite is rather true. The tongues of primitive groups are, as a rule, complex in structure, while the languages of the more civilized groups appear to be more complex and involved the farther we go back into their history.”—Voices of Man, p. 21.
Language more complex as we go back in time? That certainly does not sound evolutionary, does it? This point has been observed by honest linguists. For example, John Lyons, when introducing the article “The Biology of Communication in Man and Animals” by J. C. Marshall in the book New Horizons in Linguistics, wrote:
“Marshall gives a summary of the available evidence and draws the conclusion that the evolutionary hypothesis, as it relates to language, far from being confirmed by recent research, is without empirical [observational] foundation.”—1970, p. 229.
In fact, Lyons continues: “Language is radically different from all known forms of animal communication, and ‘in spite of the vast accumulation of knowledge, scholars are still unable to propose a biological theory of language’ (p. 241).” Similarly, Professor Pei notes that “it is small wonder that linguists, as apart from philosophers, have renounced the topic of language’s origin, to the point where the Société de Linguistique of Paris banned this subject as a topic for papers.”—Voices of Man, p. 22.
Why is the subject of language origins so frustrating to linguists? Is it not because all the solid evidence points in a direction that they do not want to go—away from evolutionary theory? Thus Pei says: “This part of the problem, it seems, is insoluble. . . . If [language] arose by ‘nature,’ what do we mean by ‘nature’? Blind chance? An intelligent Supreme Being?”—Ibid.
Will your answer to that question also be shackled by evolutionary bias? Or will you accept language for what it is—a marvelous and unique gift from the Supreme Being, whose name alone is Jehovah?