Non-humanness of Human Language

Posted on: 16/12/2009

The aspects of human language that make it uniquely human remain an open question, but the short answer is that there isn’t as much that’s unique as had once been thought. That is, it seems that much of the foundation for our language perception and speech abilities was laid down long before the evolution of hominids, and is shared by even distantly-related species. And, a surprising lot about language that seems uniquely human seems to be learned rather than innate.

The trend seems to be toward a chipping away at specifics that have previously been thought to make human language a singular attribute of our species, or at least as singular as many would fancy it to be. It seems likely that there’s no one aspect of our language and perception capabilities that can explain how we alone have the ability to give abstract meaning to sound or to convey completely new ideas between ourselves in the open-ended ways that we do.

Language is another complex trait that can’t be explained by reducing it to its many parts — the use of prefixes, suffixes, the effect of a single gene, our sound discrimination abilities, and so on. Instead, it’s an emergent property that flows from what our brain allows us to make of the world, combined with our biological ability to make and detect sound (although, that’s clearly secondary and not essential, as the complexity of sign language used around the world demonstrates), and built on a foundation that has been evolving for millions of years. Hundreds or thousands of genes are required for this, as the plethora of mutations in genes that affect cognitive abilities including language clearly show.

This makes sense. Every trait evolves from precursors. Every step of the way we humans are shown not to be unique but to be more a part of the Nature that produced us — even if, albeit, every species is, almost by definition, unique. It is hubris to think otherwise, be it with respect to language or even consciousness. That doesn’t take away in any sense from the interesting question of what humans are and how we got that way — and why we are as much different from other species as we are.

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