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Monday, February 7, 2011

Looking ourselves in the mirror: how unique is human language?

In our quest to define our own identity as humans, we have continued to stubbornly highlight those features that enable us to stand out from the rest of species; however, that is not an easy task to accomplish. If we just consider that technology is the characteristic quality of human beings, we are inadvertently excluding the native indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest due to the abysmal gap between them and the technologically developed nations. Even though the exclusion would satisfy those corporations which are mainly responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon, our curiosity should lead us to find better ways to answer what makes us humans. Obviously, we all would agree that language is a key characteristic, but is it a distinctive human feature?

The scientific community has been traditionally divided over the origins of language and the mechanisms that govern language learning. Some experts analyze them a natural consequence of biological evolution - i.e. humans are biologically built to acquire and understand natural language - whereas others claim that language evolves after being passed on from generation to generation and, therefore, there is no such thing as human language faculty codified in our genes. In spite of this and many other discrepancies, some linguistics experts reached a consensus on the universal properties of language by describing the common features that apply to all languages in the world, which provided some useful hints about the nature of human language and helped clarify some misconceptions.

It used to be a common belief that human language was unique in building an extraordinarily amount of sentences by combining words, as it was stated by the linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt between the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, it was recently found out that some primates also combine vocal sounds and other elements in order to produce wide-range vocalizations in the forest. Therefore, the definition of language had to be refined and changed its focus to the theoretical ability to build indefinitely long sentences by combining words. Whereas the combination of words is a qualitative feature, recursion is a quantitative feature since our brain cannot process or produce endless sentences. In other words, theoretical linguists would state that a formula one racing car, with a high speed of 250 miles per hour, and a cheap automobile, which cannot attain such speed, are two completely different vehicles. The gap between a species with a simple communication method and another one with a complex communication system, the gap between a child who communicates only with isolated words and another one who can clearly articulate complex sentences, is the distance dictated by sentence transitions.

Although human language is special, the communication needs of the sender and receiver are not an exclusive property of human beings. This means that, theoretically, other species which are subordinated to these particular needs, and with a large enough vocabulary, could have access to a complex communication system such as human language. If so, which ones might be the species who can cross the threshold of language?

Due to our logical ingenuity, we humans would like to find similar complex language patterns in primates. Maybe as a consequence of our excessive anthropocentrism, we want our brothers and sisters to have feet and hands like us instead of dolphin fins. In other words, we expect to find language in those species which are closer to us genetically speaking. However, the experience with primates has been quite disappointing, whereas dolphins seem to be the privileged species instead, with their high encephalization coefficient, developed cognitive faculties – such as the ability to recognize themselves in the mirror – and a rich and diverse repertoire of vocalizations including identifying whistles for each individual. When we say that other species have no “language faculty” as we humans understand it, we must admit our inability to decode the mysterious communication systems of whales and dolphins. Unlike most primates, several cetacean species produce long vocalizations containing apparently indecipherable messages that we are unable to decode.

When we highlight the singularity of human language, we are actually stating our ignorance, since it is our ignorance which makes us believe that we are unique. Like the dolphins, we can recognize ourselves in the mirror, but it seems that we have been looking ourselves in the mirror for too long and, just like Narcissus, we have fallen in love with our own reflection. Moreover, if we keep abusing and damaging our environment, human language will end up being unique without having any chance to answer the question: is language really exclusive to human? Perhaps we should be more skeptical about it.

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