History Of A Uniquely Human Attribute English Language Essay

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The origin of language is a widely investigated area of research; different linguistic experts have different discoveries on the beginning, formation and development of language. However, there is minimal agreement between these researchers. In the last few decades, a growing number of professional linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and psychologists have endeavoured to explore the language in depth. Some have agreed that language is so complex that it cannot simply appear in its present form from nothing, so it must have developed from earlier pre-linguistic systems among our primate ancestors. Others believe that language is a unique attribute thus it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans, and must therefore have appeared fairly suddenly during the course of human evolution. There is a third view which sees language principally as an innate ability and is genetically learned by social interaction (Ulbaek, Ib (1998) pg. 30-43).

When defining "language", we mean a source of expression, communication or exchange of thoughts/feelings by various modes including, voice sound, speech, gesture, signals and writing. In other words language is a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules of combination to communicate meaning with each other. Human and non-human species have the ability to communicate and express themselves; however, there is strong disagreement between the linguistics and anthropologists that; it is the "Language" which human and non-human primates share for communication.

The old and extensive opinion is that the term linguistic communication is only limited to humans and is considered to be a unique human ability for communication. Some experts argue that animals also have a language but Linguists and Semioticians do not consider this to be a "language" in true sense, rather it is "animal communication" on the basis of non-symbolic sign systems. (Cobley, P. 2010).

Some researchers claim that non-human species also have a language and they do understand, express and think like human. Linguistic skills of non-human are not a new phenomenon. It has deep roots in history such as, when controlled testing of the possible shared linguistic abilities of non-human primates and humans which was noted in 1984, when two psychologists tried to teach Vikki, a young chimpanzee to say words. Although Vikki learned few words and so did followers named as Sarah, Washoe and Nim, best-known for the language-learning chimps but the experiment failed as the chimpanzee's vocal folds are fatty, and less muscular than the folds of human and the neurological pathways between brain and vocal folds are less developed than in humans. Although Kanzi was exceptionally better example but his trainer calmly pointed out that the evidence that the chimps were using their signs as symbols was thin. Consequently vehement criticisms from the first two camps destroyed the linguists' interest and public support in teaching language to chimps.

Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the first and only scientist to conduct language research with bonobos. She is well known for her investigation on the linguistic and cognitive abilities of bonobos, using lexigrams and keyboards. She believes that Language, as an instrument of rational symbolic thought has been the key player of that argument. By 1990 boundary between man and animal was still being policed, though a few apes were fixedly gazing into park with very deliberate expressions on their clearly humanlike faces (Kanzi Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, pg 20-21).

She insists her experiments on chimps using words in novel contexts show that they are not just responding to sounds in a knee-jerk manner. Apes can use symbols in a way that reflect human nature although the symbols were not in the form of spoken words, of course, but were gestures from ASL, shapes, colours and lexigrams on a computer keyboard. (Kanzi, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, pg 6).

She claims that Kanzi (the first ape to learn language in the same manner as children) used vocal inflections, hand gestures, facial expressions and other contextual clues to express himself, but once he mastered the vocabulary, the bonobo could properly respond to 70 percent of unfamiliar sentences spoken by a trainer whose face was concealed. She asserts in her book Kanzi that understanding of languages was a matter of comprehending the intended meaning behind the sounds and Kanzi was doing it (Kanzi Sue Savage-Rumbaugh pg 136).

Kanzi's ability to comprehend spoken English is part of the explanation of the larger phenomenon, namely, his humanlike acquisition of language capacity. Comprehension aided the emergence of the productive skill in Kanzi, as it does in humans, central to which is the understanding that words and lexigrams are referential and can be used as a mode of symbolic communication. This discovery clearly would force us to rethink the ideas even further about language and about human uniqueness. "If an ape can begin to comprehend spoken English without being so trained, and was able to do more than emit differential motor responses on cue, it would appear that the ape possessed speech and language abilities similar to our own". Even if the ape as unable to speak, an ability to comprehend language would be the cognitive equivalent of having acquired language" (Kanzi pg 150)

However, the findings of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh are criticised by the linguistics, such as Pinker, who believes that human language is different from that of non-human and the distinguishing factor is grammar, also being digital and compositional makes it infinite. However, non human communication structure is limited only to finite repertory of calls, analogue signal and a series of random variations on a theme like bird singing. (Pinker page 334 & 335). He further criticise the ape research projects that many scientist have been obsessed seeing these projects as healthy deflation of our species, arrogant chauvinism.

In a recent, widely expected book, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyyan have used the ape language experiments as part of a call for us to reassess our place in nature. However he thinks that apes did not learn ASL, they just follow the instructions taught by their trainers or caretakers. (Pinker page 336)

Pinker is not alone in this contention, other linguists support his theory of the higher primates being close genetic relatives of humans; it is natural to expect their vocal communication to resemble that of humans. Perhaps surprisingly, communication among the higher primates does not show much indication of discrete vocal signs that could be interpreted as resembling human words, rather the communication system of these animals are made up of graded vocal signs. Non-human primates primarily communicate by symptomatic system but not all rely strictly on symptomatic signals (Dobrovolsky, 1997).

In short, non-human species are unsuited for human speech, and concentrating effort on teaching it to articulate words was distracting from more provocative question: to what extent is the chimp mentally capable of linguistic behaviour? (O'Grady, Dobrovolsky & Katamba, 1997, pg. 648). Knowing symbols is not learning language. Linguists asserted that the apes were merely mimicking their caretakers and that they display no language like capacity at all. (Kanzi, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, pg 6)


Language is a way of expression by human and non-human species. It has different components including, sound, symbols, grammar, words and sentences. Humans are the only species that are privileged to communicate in language. Although non-human species have ability to communicate and use expressions but it does not fall in the ambit of language. Language is not comprehension of gestures and symbols; it is the performance and the ability to use grammar to generate ever more complex sentences. Viki's utterance of three words cup, papa & mama and Kanzi using keyboard as a mean of communication cannot enable a non-human being capable of learning language.

Human language is also unique in its complex structure which serves a much wider range of functions than any other known communication system.