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"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Col 3:23

The Characteristics of Language

Provided with a definition of language, it should be assigned more precise qualities. First, there is the characteristic of displacement. This is the ability to refer to an object, event, person or concept— to effectively discuss abstract ideas. Displacement “allows the users of language to talk about things and events not present in the immediate environment… [it allows] the human, unlike any other creature, to create fiction and to describe possible future worlds” (Yule, 21).

Second, language holds an arbitrary nature in that its linguistic form has no natural relationship to the items to which it makes reference. In other words, linguistic signs have a subjective relationship and they do not match with the objects they specify. Third, there exists a property in language known as productivity, which means that the possible number of expressions in any human language is infinite.

Fourth, language is passed from generation to generation through a characteristic process called cultural transmission (Yule, 24). Fifth, a distinction in meaning due to differences in sounds is described as discreteness. Each sound within a given language is treated as distinct, and it is possible “to produce a range of sounds in a continuous stream” (Yule, 24). Finally, language exhibits an attribute known as duality, which is related to discreteness.

As individual sounds, none of the discrete forms holds intrinsic meaning, but “when we produce those sounds in a particular combination, as in bin, we have another level producing a meaning which is different from the meaning of the combination nib” (Yule, 25). These are the aspects that George Yule contends for as the “uniquely human characteristics” in his work, The Study of Language (25). Given some of the qualities of authentic language, how does it differ from animal communication? Many of the answers can be derived from Laura Ann Petitto’s work, deliberated at length in Davis’s Mother Tongue.

Petitto began studying the acquisition and use of language by humans in the 1970s; she was the primary teacher of ‘Nim Chimsky,’ the famous chimpanzee subject at Columbia University, for over three years. Petitto and Chimsky communicated via sign language. The object of this comprehensive scientific exploration was to determine whether nonhuman primates could, or do, possess language, and the study was dubbed ‘The Nim Chimsky Project’ (Davis, 269).

Petitto deduced that “‘apes are very complex cognitively and communicatively. They can be referential and intentional, and they can demonstrate a variety of cognitive capacities… [But] no ape or primate project… claims that these apes master all the aspects of human language… there were key aspects of human language that they failed to master’”(Davis, 282).

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