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Critically Evaluating Hocketts Definition Of Language English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2094 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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There are 2 main disciplines that study the phenomenon that is language; linguists and psycholinguists. Language can have many meaning and therefore is hard to specifically define. For some language may be specific to humans, for other language could describe any communicative system between the same species. Hockett (1960) attempted to avoid this dilemma of defining language by defining a list of features which all human languages have. (Harley, 2001).

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The first feature is that a language uses the auditory vocal channel in order to broadcast a message to others. This is a feature we share with many other animals, for example vervet monkeys use alarm calls to communicate with others (Hauser, 1998). However a major criticism of this feature is that people can use sign language order to compensate for their inability to use the auditory vocal channel; we cannot simply discount this as language. Written language is also excluded by this feature, and by many others that Hockett defined, despite the fact that written language is a huge part of what makes humans so distinct to animals (Lock & Peters, 1999).

Another feature that Hockett defined is that the message being portrayed can be broadcast by transmission and with an intended direction in order for the receiver to hear this message despite the fact they might not be stood within close proximity to the person broadcasting the message (Noble & Davidson, 1996).

Broadcasting a message also means that rapid fading occurs as the message being communicated leaves no traces behind once it has been transmitted. This feature also excludes sign language, written language and body language (Harley, 2001). Many communication systems used by animals have rapid fading as they use the vocal channel or movements like the mating dance used by honeybees (Whitney, 1998).

Human language also has interchangeability according to Hockett so that humans can produce and receive any message unlike many animals, for example, the stickle fish is able to communicate to others what sex they are but cannot lie and communicate the message it is actually a member of the opposite sex, despite the fact it can perceive this message when it is broadcasted by others (Whitney, 1998).

Humans also have the capability to carry out the process of total feedback. This means that we are able to produce a message, broadcast it, and monitor what it is we have said in order to correct any mistakes that may have been made with regards to the semanticity and grammatical order of the message. A honey bee will dance to communicate to bees of the opposite sex, this of course cannot be monitored by themselves as they cannot perceive or monitor the message that they have broadcasted (Hayes, 2000).

Hockett expressed the importance for organs to be specially adapted to carrying out the task of speech, in humans for example the tongue, mouth and teeth are designed so that we can carry out spoken language. In animals however these organs are not designed in a way that makes speech possible and so they do not have specialisation (Harley, 2010). Lieberman (1975, cited in King, 1999) believed that the place of the larynx in chimpanzees precludes them from producing certain vowels but not all vowels and so it is actually possible for chimps to produce a limited range of speech sounds despite the fact they don’t.

Perhaps one of the most important features that Hockett (1960) defined, separating human language from any animal communication system, is that of semanticity. In human language we have specific words linked to specific symbols or objects. This allows us to understand what message people are conveying across many different situations (Caroll, 2008). However Bickerton (1990) argues that it is internal representations that are most important in any given situation and not the representations existing between people.

Arbitrariness also exists within a language. This describes the fact that there is no particular reason why an object has been given a name, it just has. For example, why is a dog called a dog. Hockett believed it was important that there was no link is existence between the nature of reality and its signal (Caroll, 2008).

The different sounds that exist within a language have no meaning but combine into messages which can covey meaning. This is contrasting to animal warning calls which stand alone and do not need to combine with other calls in order to make sense to the other animals present.

Speech uses a small set of contrastive, discrete tokens and so Hockett described discreteness as another feature of human language. An example of this is that a bee will dance faster or slower depending on the message trying to be portrayed to others and so this is a continuous scale. If a person is trying to say to another person that they are angry they must use different words to portray this message they cannot simply talk slower or faster (Whitney, 1998). However, some aspects of the human language are, in fact, continuous e.g. a person will raise their voice if they are angry or mad, but will soften their voice if they are empathising with that person. People can also talk a lot faster if they are excited about the message they are conveying. These continuous changes, although not altering the actually message that is being said, allows the listener to infer how the speaker is feeling or what message they are trying to convey to them (Harley, 2001). This helps the listener to abstract the right information from the message they hear. A good example of this is if a child is being told off for not putting their toys away, they know their parent is mad because they raised their voice, they can then take from the message what they have done wrong in order to prevent being shouted at again (Whitney, 1998).

Hockett realised the importance of being able to make reference to the past and future as well as the present, and this is something language allows us to do; this is called displacement. This is something which is not possible through many of the different ways that animals communicate and is therefore a specific feature of human language. Humans are also able to talk about things that do not actually exist in reality (Scupin, 2002).

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A language must be obtained by traditional transmission rather than being inherited or inbuilt at birth. This explains why different languages exist in the world as no child is born knowing a particular language (e.g. Spanish) but they are able to learn whatever language they are taught (Locke, 1995). Chomsky (2006) however believed that children are born with an innate ability to acquire language as language is too complex to obtain simply by imitation and learning.

All of the tests proposed by Hockett (1960) so far in this essay combine into the crucial question of productivity. Humans have a set number of symbols (words) of which they can combine into an infinite number of message. We also have the ability to create new words; this is known as duality of patterning. However, we have to follow the rules of syntax in order to create these infinite messages or those trying to perceive the broadcasted message would not be able to do so (Carroll, 2008).

Despite the supporting evidence explained so far in this essay for the work of Hockett (1960) there has also been much criticism brought forward by psycholinguists and linguists. A criticism brought forward by Allen (2009) is that by defining language in the way that Hockett (1960) did, is that animal communication systems and their different and unique features are underestimated. Ottenheimer (2008) said that productivity, displacement, traditional transmission and duality of patterning are the only 4 of Hockett’s 13 features which are specific to humans and not shared by any other species in their communication system. This means that these are the only features that make human language different to all other communication systems used by animals. Hauser (1998) criticised Hockett (1960) for failing to provide detail and insight into the functional significance of the language features he defined.

The main question existing within linguistics is can certain animals be taught to use language in the same productive way as humans? If so then Hockett’s (1960) design features would not be specific to human language as we would not be the only species able to use language.

In 1976 Alex the parrot was introduced to the world due to the fact he seemed to possess an ability to produce sounds and respond to his trainer suggesting there was a mutual understanding between Alex and his trainer with regard to the messages being conveyed to him. His trainer helped him to produce a number of set expressions and Alex could therefore answer simple questions such as the colour of an object (http://www.alexfoundation.org/research/scientific.html). However, there has been much debate about whether this shows Alex to be capable of language. Many people would argue that the training he has undergone can take years of practice and hard work, if he was capable of language this should come a lot easier and he should be able to create more complex phrases and answers in a reflective way to how humans acquire language at a young age (Harley, 2001).

If parrots are capable of languages then surely our closest primates, chimpanzees, are capable of it too. Kellogg and Kellogg (1933, cited in Parker & Gibson, 1994) first set out to prove this by following on from studies using parrots in order to teach chimps to use speech in a similar way to humans. This however didn’t work due to the fact that chimps don’t have a vocal tract specialised to speech unlike humans. This supports Hockett’s (1960) feature of specialisation that he said was necessary in order for a particular species to use language.

Perhaps the best known attempt to teach chimps to use language is that by Terrace (1987) who appeared to train Nim Chimspky to create short sentences that followed on from a predictable word-order. Yet again this is not empirical evidence of productivity in chimps as he may have learnt to produce these sequences as a complete sentence by imitating his trainer (Harley, 2001).

Bonobos are arguably the most similar primate to humans in terms of their ability and so Savage-Rumbaugh et al (2005, cited in Maestriperi, 2005) trained Kanzi to learn language. Kanzi did not undergo intensive training that is normally used with similar animal studies, instead she learned in a more natural way as she saw her mother undergo similar training (this was unsuccessful however). She was not taught to produce language verbally but to press buttons on a key pad specially designed for her. These buttons showed symbols which represented different words (Maestriperi, 2005). Kanzi demonstrated a good understanding of these symbols and the words it produced, but does this demonstrate productivity? Again many researchers argue it isn’t as there is no sign that Kanzi fully understands the words she is producing. Kanzi may also be simply be pressing the correct symbols due to intensive training and positive reinforcement (Whitney, 1998).

Kalat (2008) pointed out the need for psycholinguists and linguists to create an explicit definition of what language is in order for us to fully assess whether parrots or chimpanzees are capable of language. Without this we are unable to fully evaluate the extent to which Hockett (1960) definition of language successfully does so. There is much evidence from various studies involving humans and animals suggesting that many of the features that Hockett (1960) believed to be specific to humans are just that. However, studies involving training animals to use language have attempted to prove that these features are not specific to humans as animals are capable of language (Savage-Rumbaugh et al, 2005; Terrace (1987); Kellogg and Kellogg, 1933, cited in Parker & Gibson, 1994) These studies are not however without criticism themselves as many believe the training they undergo to teach them a basic ability to use language but not an understanding of it. In particular they are criticised for not showing animals ability to use productivity, something which is arguably the most important feature that Hockett (1960) described in making language possible in humans and not in animals.


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