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Human Language and Animal Communication

Fri, 06/27/2008 - 14:35 - Mano Singham

By Mano Singham

In his book The Language Instinct, (1994) Steven Pinker pointed out two
fundamental facts about human language that were used by linguist Noam
Chomsky to develop his theory about how we learn language. The first is that
each one of us is capable of producing brand new sentences never before uttered
in the history of the universe. This means that:

[A] language cannot be a repertoire of responses; the brain must contain a recipe or
program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words. That
program may be called a mental grammar (not to be confused with pedagogical or
stylistic "grammars," which are just guides to the etiquette of written prose.)


Did the brain increase in size to cope
with rising language ability or did the
increasing use of language drive brain
development?

The second fundamental fact is that children develop these complex grammars rapidly
and without formal instruction and grow up to give consistent interpretations to novel
sentence constructions that they have never before encountered. Therefore, [Chomsky]
argued, children must be innately equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all
languages, a Universal Grammar, that tells them how to distill the syntactic patters out of
speech of their parents. (Pinker, p. 9)

Children have the ability to produce much greater language output than they receive as
input but it is not done idiosyncratically. The language they produce follows the same
generalized grammatical rules as others. This leads Chomsky to conclude that (quoted in
Pinker, p. 10):
The language each person acquires is a rich and complex construction hopelessly
underdetermined by the fragmentary evidence available [to the child]. Nevertheless
individuals in a speech community have developed essentially the same language. This
fact can be explained only on the assumption that these individuals employ highly
restrictive principles that guide the construction of grammar.

The more we understand how human language works, the more we begin to realize how
different human speech is from the communication systems of other animals.

Language is obviously as different from other animals' communication systems as the


elephant's truck is different from other animals' nostrils. Nonhuman communication
systems are based on one of three designs: a finite repertory of calls (one for warnings of
predators, one for claims of territory, and so on), a continuous analog signal that registers
the magnitude of some state (the livelier the dance of the bee, the richer the food source
that it is telling its hivemates about), or a series of random variations on a theme (a
birdsong repeated with a new twist each time: Charlie Parker with feathers). As we have
seen, human language has a very different design. The discrete combinatorial system
called "grammar" makes human language infinite (there is no limit to the number of
complex words or sentence in a language), digital (this infinity is achieved by rearranging
discrete elements in particular orders and combinations, not by varying some signal along
a continuum like the mercury in a thermometer), and compositional (each of the finite
combinations has a different meaning predictable from the meanings of its parts and the
rules and principles arranging them). (Pinker, p. 342)

This difference between human and nonhuman communication is also


reflected in the role that different parts of the brain plays in language as opposed to other
forms of vocalization.

Even the seat of human language in the brain is special. The vocal calls of primates are
controlled not by their cerebral cortex but by phylogenetically older neural structures in
the brain stem and limbic systems, structures that are heavily involved in emotion.
Human vocalizations other than language, like sobbing, laughing, moaning, and shouting
in pain, are also controlled subcortically. Subcortical structures even control the swearing
that follows the arrival of a hammer on a thumb, that emerges as an involuntary tic in
Tourette's syndrome, and that can survive as Broca's aphasic's only speech. Genuine
language . . . is seated in the cerebral cortex, primarily in the left perisylvian region.
(Pinker, p. 342)

Rather than view the different forms of communication found in animals as a hierarchy, it
is better to view them as adaptations that arose from the necessity to occupy certain
evolutionary niches. Chimpanzees did not develop the language ability because they did
not need to. Their lifestyles did not require the ability. Humans, on the other hand, even
in the hunter-gatherer stage, would have benefited enormously from being able to share
kind of detailed information about plants and animals and the like, and thus there could
have been an evolutionary pressure that drove the development of language.
Human language was related to the evolution of the physical apparatus that enabled
complex sound production along with the associated brain adaptations, though the causal
links between them is not fully understood. Did the brain increase in size to cope with
rising language ability or did the increasing use of language drive brain development?
We really don't know yet.

The argument against a linguistic hierarchy in animals can be seen in the fact that
different aspects of language can be found to be best developed in different animals.

The most receptive trainee for an artificial language with a syntax and semantics has
been a parrot; the species with the best claim to recursive structure in its signaling has
been the starling; the best vocal imitators are birds and dolphins; and when it comes to
reading human intentions, chimps are bested by man's best friend, Canis familiaris.
(Pinker, PS20)

It seems clear that we are unlikely to ever fully communicate with other species the way
we do with each other. But the inability of other animals to speak the way we do is no
more a sign of their evolutionary backwardness than our nose's lack of versatility
compared to the elephant's trunk, or our inability to use our hands to fly the way bats can,
are signs that we are evolutionarily inferior compared to them.

We just occupy different end points on the evolutionary bush