Hockett’s Design

In a world where scientists are incessantly attempting to examine the
intelligence of life forms other than humans, linguists have presented the idea
that language in itself is reserved strictly for humans. One therefore, must
attempt to solve that dilemma and come to a conclusion regarding the question is
language unique to humans? If language is viewed solely as a system of
communication, then it could be said that many differing species possess the
ability to communicate. Humans also use certain systems other than language to
communicate with others. The questions remains, are the kinds of grammars that
represent linguistic knowledge unique to man. Most humans acquiring language
utilize speech sounds, made up of an utterance act and illocutionary act, to
express meanings, but such sounds are not necessary, which is evident by the
deafs ability to communicate through sign language (Fromkin et al., 1997).

Conversely, when animals produce noises to communicate and vocally imitate human
utterances, it is not the same as having the ability to communicate through
language (Fromkin et al., 1997). Language is a system that relates sounds and
gestures to meanings, something animals do not possess (Fromkin et al., 1997).

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This will further be examined when looking at linguist and anthropologist
Charles Hocketts Design Features and how they define what communication must
entail to qualify distinctly as a language. The first of Hocketts Design
Features is arbitrariness (Hockett, 1958). A word like dog, for example,
does not have a distinct meaning and sound relationship. The word dog is
not synonymous in all languages; while it means the same thing universally, the
word used to depict it differs; hunt in German, perro in Spanish,
and chien in French. The next characteristic is duality, the fact that
words have two levels, one that is meaningless and the other meaningful (Hockett,
1958). When looking the word PIG, the meaningless level is the letters which
make up the word p-i-g; by themselves they have no meaning. Conversely when the
letters p-i-g are grouped together they form the word PIG which is meaningful.

Next, the characteristic is displacement in time and space which means that
language must be able to refer to things in the distance (Hockett, 1958). Next,
language must have structure dependence (Hockett, 1958). This means that the
subject must be distinguishable from the pronoun and vice versa. The sentence
the dog bites the man must differ structurally from the man bites the
dog. The fifth characteristic is creativity which means that a form of
communication must be able to have an infinite sentence (Hockett, 1997). As
Chomsky noted, language in itself must be infinite, and by this it is meant that
the set of sentences are infinite and new sentences are continuously made and
understood (Fromkin et al., 1997). The sixth characteristic is semanticity which
means that the form of communication must have the capacity to refer to events
and objects – this is similar to displacement in time and space (Hockett, 1958).

Next is cultural transmission, the ability to speak the language of the culture
from which you are born (Hockett, 1958). Finally, the last of Hocketts Design
Features is vocal auditory channel which means that in order for communication
to be a language one must use the vocal auditory channel (Hockett, 1958). The
exception to this would be the speech impaired who use sign language which is
still recognised as a language despite its inability to fulfill Hocketts
last feature (Fromkin et al., 1997). Thus, to answer the question is language
unique to humans one must consider all the above mentioned information for
analysis. First, arbitrariness is not unique to the human species since birds
have the ability to have a bird call in the Eastern US which will differ from
one in the Western US (Fromkin et al., 1997). Next, duality is also not unique
to humans since the notes in bird songs are only meaningful when they are put
together and not alone (Fromkin et al., 1997). As for displacement in time and
space, birds are not able to do this while bees, with what is known as the
bee dance, are able to tell others where the honey is amongst other things
(Fromkin et al., 1997). When looking at structure dependence, vocal auditory
channel and cultural transmission, it appears that bird grammars exist, however
unstructured, that birds can learn other bird calls while among other birds, and
that all animals have the ability to use the vocal auditory channel to
communicate therefore none of these characteristics are unique to humans (Fromkin
et al., 1997). Finally it comes down to the question of creativity. Scientists
have looked at this aspect of language to determine whether this is unique to
humans and what they have discovered is that no discovered animal language is
creative (Fromkin et al., 1997). The reason for this is that animals are limited
in the types of messages that they can convey to one another, this includes
chimps, bees and birds. Therefore, is language unique to humans? The answer is
yes. No animal language currently possesses all of the above required Design
Features as stated by Hockett. Of course, with the ever changing world of today,
who knows, maybe one day we will be proved wrong.

Andersen, Julie Tetel. Linguistics in America 1769-1924. New York, New York:
Routledge, 1990. Fromkin, Victoria, et al. An Introduction to Language. Toronto,
Ontario: Harcourt Brace ; Company, 1997. Hockett, Charles F.. A Course in
Modern Linguistics. New York, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958.