The case for the uniqueness of human language

Presuppositions All these studies appear to be presupposing a ladder model of evolution


and a design features presentation of the uniqueness of human language; see B9















if it is argued, that what makes humans unique is their capacity to verbalize,


and the ability to verbalize characterized by the design features then any encroachment on the design features - albeit through intensive training - blurs the distinction between humans and apes.


Design features - Charles Hockett


1. Vocal auditory channel efficient darkness no object

2. Broadcast transmission and directional reception - facilitates         diffusion and reception of signal

3. rapid fading - keeps channel open

4. interchangeability - great flexibility

5. complete feedback - fast monitoring

6. specialization - amount of energy expanded does not change         meaning

7. semanticity

8. arbitrariness

9. discreteness

10. displacement

11. openness

12. tradition - may be taught and learned

13. duality of patterning - requires few units

14. prevarication

15. reflectiveness

16. learnability


17. creativity - flexibility

18. turntaking

19. Recursiveness


features biased towards speech (acoustic features)


abstract properties of the system are the most interesting.


biased towards human language - productivity and semanticity important for human language but not for animal communication.


if productivity is renamed creativity in the sense of an infinite number of novel messages can be sent with finite means.


difficult sometimes to apply design features to animal communication systems.



Chomsky's framework - B9


            "each known animal communication system either consists of           a fixed number of "linguistic dimensions" each associated            with a non-linguistic dimension in the sense that selection     of a point along one indicates a corresponding point on the      other."


Bounded - unbounded - non-linguistic dimension tied to a specific    set of conditions or no.


Discrete - nondiscrete - whole signal not broken up or one made       up of smaller units with possibility of recombination to         encode different messages.


Bee dancing - unbounded, non-discrete within its parameters


Bird songs/calls primate calls/postures/gestures bounded, discrete


Human language is unbounded, non-discrete


            "available for the free expression of thought or for     appropriate responsesin any new context and is undetermined

            by any fixed association of utterances to external stimuli        or physiological states."





Unbounded scope - available for the free expression of novel thoughts and for the communicating of novel messages by novel signals.


Stimulus freedom - human language is not under the control of either external stimuli or internal emotional states.


contextual appropriateness - human language can be used             appropriately in novel situations.



These characteristics are not interdependent. Other systems may have 1 or 2 but not all 3. Normal language use is unbounded in scope, stimulus free and contextually appropriate.



Computer program with randomizer stimulus-free but bounded in scope.


Bee dancing unbounded in scope but stimulus bound.


Primate calls a bounded system could be used (by humans ?) in a stimulus-free and contextually appropriate way.


Structurally - human languages are primarily discrete at the minimal meaning-bearing level - words, sounds. Compositional in that the meaning of complex expressions determined by the meaning of their constituent parts and their grammatical relations.


Human languages are unbounded in scope and subject matter.




human language is almost entirely stimulus-free and contextually appropriate. speaker intention normally discernible, e.g. report, express fear, warn.


humans can react to stimuli in novel unpredictable ways.


Bird mobbing call difficult to describe functionally because it reports presence of predators, warns, expresses fear.


Language is species-specific. Celerity of acquisition. argument for LAD, or language gene.



Is human language unique ?


Scholars who have undertaken research with apes can claim to have shown that the design features are manifested in ape behaviour.


discreteness - specific signs used to represent particular words.


displacement - apes can refer to objects not in view


semanticity  - good question ? they have at least associations           between objects and events and responses.


reflectiveness claimed for Sarah ????? - I don't see it.


openness - combining signs in novel ways.


tradition - apes pass on signs to their young.





AMESLAN is said to be not truly symbolic. "gimme" "drive" signs non-arbitrary. Not true of sign language as used by humans.


Premack's plastic chips and lexigrams less open to this charge.


AMESLAN is condensed (few function words) and Washoe's language could be described as onomatopoeic. signs resemble natural gestures.


Trainers have given too much credit.


Data was reported in summary and without details of context.

"water bird" would be less interesting if Washoe had spent all day making signs like "water shoe", "water banana", "water fridge".


Real data more like reported by Terrace for Nim.


Imitation of immediately preceding human gestures abound. genuine recombination is rare.


Utterances of apes are tied to the spatio-temporal context. displacement is rare.


lack of syntactic structure and word order is erratic.


chimps cannot pick up ill-formed sentences.

they don't spontaneously ask questions. (cf. children)


chimps do not use language referentially - do they go beyond associating a particular word and a particular context.


Kanzi bonobo chimp whose behaviour is more child-like. acquired the understanding of symbols without specific teaching.


much depends on interpretation "strawberry" a name, a request to be taken to where the strawberries grow, eat strawberries etc.


do apes behave like pigeons who can be trained to react - pecking once or twice - to visual stimulus.


Pigeons can "name" but they do not know the meaning of say "tree", its associations within the vocabulary structure, its sense relations.


Naming by apes goes beyond what pigeons do. But Nim could not name two objects presented at the same time, e.g. an apple and a banana, although OK one at a time.


Savage-Rumbaugh claims that her apes have some notion of inclusion e.g. fruit.


Chimps syntactic ability is perhaps over-tied to set frames and therefore can be seen as merely a sophisticated version of stimulus-response.



Pinker's critique


Eroding the design features based uniqueness makes good television.


Beauty and the beast pictures on TV in magazines.


Animal rights arguments - certain species of monkeys are more humane than humans. Macaques would rather go hungry than harm their fellows. Does man have the right to do what he likes with other species ?


What if apes were not only the nice guys they were also semi-human as well. Destruction of species.


What about the nasty animals ?


1) Exaggeration of claims. People who live close to animals, develop an empathy which tends to exaggerate their communicative ability.


Aunt Mathilda "My cat "talks" to me."


2) Ape researchers - with the exception of Terrace - have been          coy about releasing their data.


Pinker says Apes did not learn ASL. a preposterous claim.


One of Washoe's trainers was a deaf signer.


            "Every time the chimp made a sign, we were supposed to write         it down in the log ... They were always complaining because   my log didn't show enough signs. All the hearing people        turned in logs with long lists of signs. They always saw            more signs than I did ... I watched realy carefully. The           chimp's hands were moving constantly. Maybe I missed     something, but I don't think so. I just wasn't seeing any         signs. The hearing people were logging every movement the        chimp made as a sign. Every time the chimp put his finger     in his mouth, they'd say "Oh, he's making the sign for         drink," and they'd give give him some milk ... When the             chimp scratched itself, they record it as a sign for scratch

            ... When [the chimps] want something, they reach. Sometimes           [the trainers would] say, "Oh, amazing, look at that, it's           exactly like the ASL sign for give !" It wasn't."


Such exaggerated empathy clearly increased the chimps' word count.


On the the lexigram, the key needed to initialize the computer was translated as please, which also boosted the word count.


3) Worse still, members of Terrace's team claim that the trainers were missing the really interesting things that the chimps were doing.


They were using instinctive gestures that they would have used in the wild.  Not ASL signs but natural gestures.


4) What syntax there is, is greater than chance order of 2-word          combinations.


ASL - no inflections, not well contoured. Any favourable comparison with young children depends on high degree of training. like behaviourist psychologist, training circus acts.


Chimps never develop longer utterances like children. Nim's data repetitive to the point of inanity. If you listen long enough to random combinations, you will notice some structure now and again.


5) No spontaneity. No comment for its own sake. No turn turntaking.


6) No indication that they 'understand' language. "toothbrush" means "toothbrush", "brushing teeth", "I want my toothbrush" "it's time for bed".


Terrace and Premack have more or less blown the whistle. Premack interested in chimp cognitive psychology.


The Gardners have isolated themselves.


Only Savage-Rumbaugh makes claims.



7) Kanzi's achievement spontaneous acquisition but mother intensively trained in his presence.


96% of his utterances are requests.

3-symbol utterances are fixed formulas. Just noticeable differences from other apes.


Pinker goes on to argue that the language instinct is unique to humans and that it could have evolved by natural selection.


no Creator, no Big Bang


Bush model of development. Each stage in evolution branches off. No possibility of chimps developing into humans. or developing language. Many species have existed and become extinct. Chimps may be the living species closest to us and therefore have maintained some ancestral language ability., but for Pinker that gives them no special status.


One can imagine contingencies which could have wiped out chimps. (Extraterrestrials with a penchant for fur coats) who would have to shoulder the language burden ? Hedgehogs, starfish ?


The development of the language instinct is unique but so are mant other developments in the natural world. The human brain has developed in a way (hard-wired) that makes it able to handle language.


Different wiring in the brain is morally neutral. It does not make us better, simply different.


The Design features-based debate is futile. Human uniqueness depends on a set of criteria that can be breached which pushes the Uniqueness camp to shift the goalposts.


Plato defined 'man' as a 'featherless biped'. Diogenes refuted him by plucking a chicken. It is not biology


fallacy of drawing a line across the evolutionary ladder.

distinguish analogous traits, similar in end result like bird wings and bee wings. Common function - different history.


Homologous traits - same history (same general architecture) function may or may not be different. bast wing, front leg of a horse, seal flipper.


This means that even if teaching ASL to cghimps had been entirely successful, it would have proved nothing in terms of homologous traits. Chimps would never have evolved natural language. Perhaps there could have been indications that language might have developed in chimps., e.g developmental grammar.


Elephant's trunk.


te evolutionary arms' race


Stagewise development - intermediate forms


Bickerton's protolanguage. Chimp signing, pidgins, 2-word child utterances.


immigrants, pidgins, telegrams, tourists, aphasics are examples of an intermediate language.


            "Why should language be considered such a big deal ? It has allowed humans to spread out over the planet and wreak large      changes, but is that more extraordinary than coral that           build islands, earthworms that shape our landscape by    building soil, or the photosynthesing bacteria that first           released corrosive oxygen into the atmosphere, an ecological       catastrophe of its time ?" (p.369)