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Language has been characterized as the complex that makes humans 'human' and distinguishes us from all other creatures on the planet. Do you agree with this assessment? What is it about language that provides these unique elements and what can be said about language origins? Could we be who we are without language?
The use of language distinguishes humans from all the other creatures on earth. All mammals communicate, but their communication systems differ fundamentally from human language. Language provides the basis for complex human interaction, and as 'inner speech', is the basis for all organized and cultural behavior.
Human behavior is a product of the brain. Complex cultural behavior is made possible by the specific behavioral adaptation of human language, which has evolved ever since the hominid lineage split from that of the great apes. Human language is as much an anatomical as a behavioral adaptation. Modern humans are shaped by natural selection - in the anatomy of their throats and respiratory system and in structure and function of their brains - to produce language. There are specialized structures in the brain devoted to the motor control of the muscles of the larynx, tongue, lips and mouth, which are unique to humans, and which make specific speech sounds possible.
The supralaryngeal airway is the part of the airway in the throat that is located above the larynx (voice box). The larynx sits at the top of the trachea and has cords, which can modulate the passage of air through the trachea to produce different sounds. The cavity above the larynx, and the back of the mouth, is known as the pharynx. The posterior part of the tongue, the epiglottis, and the soft palate form the boundaries of the pharynx. The larynx in humans is much lower in the throat than in other mammals, which means the pharynx is larger. This expanded pharynx, the anterior wall of which is formed uniquely in humans by a shortened and rounded tongue, is much more efficient in modifying the stream of air passing through the larynx and makes possible a greater variety of sounds, leading to fully articulate speech. These same changes in human anatomy have greatly increased the risk of choking on food or liquid. There is too much distance between the human larynx and nasal cavity for a sealed connection to form between the two, as it does in the typical mammal. Everything humans swallow must pass over the incompletely sealed opening of the larynx. To offset the concomitant risk of choking, one can conclude that there must have been a strong selective advantage for the development of language abilities over the course of hominid evolution.
Because of the anatomy of the human throat and mouth, humans are limited to a specific number of speech sounds. All languages use only a small sample of all available sounds. At birth, infants are capable of recognizing and distinguishing all human speech sounds from other sounds. By the age of one year, however, a child will recognize only those speech sounds that are used around her. Children learn to articulate speech sounds by listening to their caregivers. The muscular control of the speech apparatus is such that in normal, fluent speech, humans are capable of producing 12 or more speech sounds per second. As with all motor control mechanisms, a child must internalize the motor sequences necessary to produce specific and understandable sounds. Even regional accents are the result of slight differences in the patterning of motor sequences, and were ultimately responsible for such major events as the emergence of the Romance languages from vulgate Latin.
Noam Chomsky argues that there are unique human speech centers in the human cerebral cortex that make the following essential properties of human speech possible: the production of articulate sounds, the decoding of these sounds, and the construction of grammatically correct sentences. Chomsky has described 'transformational grammars'. He describes two levels of brain structure. The first is the "deep structure" which represents our ability to internalize the rules governing the generation of grammatically correct utterances. The second level is the "surface structure" which represents the semantic level.
All mammals communicate and among our closest living relatives, the primates, there are complex systems for sharing information about the environment as well as the emotional state of an individual animal. There are four key differences that separate human communication from other animals. The first is productivity; a human can utter something that has never been spoken before, and yet every speaker of that language will immediately understand what was said. This is because human language is semantic: the words humans use when speaking have meanings that represent real-world objects, event, and actions. The second difference is displacement in terms of past, present, and future. Human language is grammatical. All languages have a grammar, an implicit set of rules that governs the way words classes are defined and used. Although there may be a limit on the number of words a person can know, there is no limit on the ways they may be grammatically linked together. As a child acquires its first language, he or she assimilates the grammatical rules of language subconsciously.
The fourth difference is the combination of sounds. Human language is phonemic. Words are made from small sound elements called phonemes; there is no biological limit to the number of words that can be formed from phonemes, and there is no intrinsic association between a word and the object or concept it represents.
In conclusion, primate communication systems are fixed, because they are not composed of a flexible number of phonemes that, used together in different sequences, allow a language speaker the unlimited freedom of expression. All human languages can express, in one way or another, a sense of the present, the past and the future. All can express notions of self, of others, and of place here and now and elsewhere. Of the more than 5,000 known human languages, all allow the full range of ideas, motives, concepts and emotions that are essential aspects of culture. In other words, there are no 'primitive' languages that might be thought of as ancestral to, or the basis of, more 'advanced' languages. All human languages create the human condition.