Peoples and Animals Language

free essayLanguage is the most important means of communication and obtaining knowledge. Besides, it is a social phenomenon and the most important means of developing human relations. With its help, people can understand each other, exchange ideas, acquire knowledge and convey it to their descendants, and organize joint activities in all fields of human practice. Due to the communication of people, language develops and changes along with the society. It is a very important psychological issue, in particular in the field of evolutionary psychology as it has highly developed in the course of time. According to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, people came from animals. Therefore, people’s language has also evolved from animals’ language, what will be discussed within the paper.

From all the countless types of behavior typical for a human being as a representative of the biological species, the ability to talk is one of the most distinguishable features. Homo sapiens can be defined as a ‘talking animal.’ Although communication systems are also widely used by the other species, it seems that human speech is strikingly different while being phylogenetically isolated from behaviors of all the other living beings, which is also demonstrated by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. This paper explores a huge gap that has arisen in the process of evolution between the language abilities inherent in humans and in the other species inhabiting the planet. The paper also highlights how language has changed in the process of evolution in order to make better understanding of human beings, what affected their behavior and lifestyle, and what may happen in the future.

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The Nature of Language

Despite the fact that, nowadays there are more than five thousand living languages as well as an unspecified number of extinct or obsolete languages, there is a certain number of common characteristics inherent in all of them. In contrast to the behaviors that are mainly determined by culture, the complexity of a specific language (in terms of syntax structures and grammatical subtleties) does not depend on the complexity of political or technological advances of the society. Languages of tribes are as difficult as languages of civilizations that have space technologies (Palmer, 2001).

Charles Hockett has defined universal characteristics inherent in human language per se ? the “design features” (Wacewich & Zhywichynsky, 2014). Some animals use communicative systems containing some of these design features. However, there is no animal communication system for which all these features would be characteristic. There are such features as:

  1. the communication mode (vocal and hearing in humans and in many animals);
  2. semantics (signals have meaning);
  3. pragmatic function (when an act of communication serves a certain purpose);
  4. interchangeability (the ability of interlocutors to create as well as to receive messages);
  5. cultural dissemination (special signals are memorized and are not transmitted genetically);
  6. arbitrariness (sound design is not logically related to the meaning);
  7. discreteness (complex messages are built from smaller components);
  8. transferring (the ability to transmit information about the objects remote in time and space);
  9. productivity (the ability to generate an infinite number of new messages that have their own meaning by using a limited number of elements as individual meanings are arbitrary); etc. (Wacewich and Zhywichynsky, 2014).

The first three features are common to all communication systems used by animals without exception. The next four features are present in some systems used by animals. The last two features, apparently, are inherent only in humans (Wacewich & Zhywichynsky, 2014).

Animals’ Communication

Communication systems used by living beings are almost universal. Many plants attract the attention of pollinators (especially insects) via their bright colors and pleasant scents with the aim of further reproduction. When the reproduction process has happened, plants offer colorful edible fruits for animals which spread their seeds (Palmer, 2001).

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When defining an act of communication as the transmission and receipt of information, it can only be applied to the animal kingdom, because plants do not have nervous systems and their communicative perception can at best be called limited. Animals’ communication systems imply modality in all respects. The oldest systems include chemical perception, such as olfaction. It is proved that single-celled organisms, such as bacteria, respond to chemical traces left by the other bacteria of the same species. Olfaction plays a key role in courtship and mating of many species using pheromones. Olfactory signals also play a basic role in the need to mark a territory that the dog owners can easily confirm (Palmer, 2001).

Information about the complex and important types of behavior, such as courtship or reflex to protect the site, is transmitted in various ways. Birds sing in order to mark the boundaries of their territory and attract a mate. They also use visual signals, such as puffing, to transmit the same information. Concerning dogs, visual signals are important for the transmission of information about their different moods. Grunting and growl of dogs and the other mammals almost always signal aggression and warning (Palmer, 2001).

Darwin realized that the different face expression of humans have appeared from these earlier signals of aggression or appeasement. Even today, facial expression is the main source of non-verbal communication among people. If a person doubts the veracity of what he/she hears, he/she usually strives to see the face and eyes of the interlocutor in order to confirm the accuracy of information provided to him verbally (Darwin, 1872).

The system of vocally executed communication is the closest to the human speech communicative system. The study of primates, our closest relatives, provides ample information about the model of language evolution in its development. It was revealed that, if the African gray monkey observes a leopard, it makes a special “cry of the leopard,” which serves as a signal for all the other monkeys to run to the trees. However, if it makes “the cry of an eagle,” the reaction will be the opposite: the monkeys will emerge from the crown of the tree and nestle on the ground (Papio, 2011).

Mastering the Language

The ways in which members of a particular culture master its various manifestations can be very diverse. For example, a person may begin to demonstrate interest in a particular area of knowledge or activity at a fairly mature age and become an expert in it only closer to his/her old age. However, the way people master the language is built on a well-defined pattern. To a certain extent, it can be varied in each case, but the sequence of development remains relatively unchanged. This constant sequence of language development largely evidences in favor of language perception as a result of biological evolution (Palmer, 2001).

Developmental Stages

During the first months of life, children communicate via gestures, facial expressions, and so-called pre-linguistic manifestations of speech, which include crying, cooing, and giggling. The age of three to six months is a so-called babbling stage. Babbling consists of involuntary pronouncing of phonemes, which refer to the main sounds that form the basis of a language (Palmer, 2001).

The period of ten to twelve months is decisive for children. At this time, their ability to distinguish between separate phonemes is changing dramatically. At the beginning of this period, children can distinguish between similar phonemes not related to their native language, but by the end of this period, children’s ability to distinguish phonemes is limited only by their own language. To describe this phenomenon, the term “neural Darwinism,” or “neural simplification,” is used. In the human brain, the excess of neurons and neural connections is initially present, but they continue to operate only frequently used connections, which, when not used, simply disintegrate. Thus, due to the reduction in the number of neurons and neural connections, the brain develops by optimally adapting to the environment (“Neural Darwinism,” n. d.).

A one-year-old child says words like “mom” and “dad,” and also demonstrates understanding of other words and simple instructions. The vocabulary of children of 15-18 months ranges from ten to twenty words. At this time, children pronounce a single word when meaning a complete thought (Palmer, 2001). From a half to two years old, children use two-word phrases as well as short and simple words. By the age of two, children use about 300 words and begin to build phrases from three or four components. Children of two and a half years old increase vocabulary the most quickly: on average, they learn 50 new words per week. Suggestions and phrases that are used at this time are no longer a verbatim repetition of adult speech. Creation of completely new proposals is explained by the ability of children to their infinite generation. At the same time, children demonstrate deep understanding of grammar rules (Palmer, 2001).

By three years, their vocabulary reaches thousands of words. The level of grammar approaches the level of adults although there may be occasional reservations. By four years, the language is quite established: children build whole sentences using prepositions, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. By five years, children use three-syllable words and a coherent text. Further language development is rather improvement of received skills rather than acquiring of new ones (Palmer, 2001).

Decisive Periods

Lenneberg suggested that language acquisition occurs before puberty, because it corresponds to lateralization (localization of language functions in the left hemisphere of the brain). By the onset of puberty, the brain lateralization process ends. Consequently, in order to make a person be able to use the language, that person has to live among speakers before puberty (“Language Development,” n. d.).

Johnson and Newport proved that the period of puberty is critical in the process of developing language. They investigated how good the students and teachers of colleges, Chinese and Korean, who arrived in America at a different age, speak English. If the investigated found themselves in an English-speaking environment at the age from three to seven years for the first time, the level of their English would not differ from conventional speakers. If the investigated found themselves in the language environment at the later period, their English would be much worse (Du, 2010).

The hypothesis of a crucial period of language acquisition mainly refers to the process of learning grammatical structures, especially syntax, and to a lesser extent – to the development of vocabulary and pronunciation. Crucial phonology period is the period from six months to a year. The decisive period of syntax covers the fourth year of life, and the development of semantics occurs at the fifteenth and sixteenth years of life (Marschark & Spencer, 2010).

The Evolution of Language

People have been interested in the origin of language for thousands of years. In the middle of the XIX century, Charles Darwin suggested that human linguistic abilities as well as the other features emerged as a result of the long process of natural selection. However, this theory of the evolutionary nature of human language was not recognized by all scientists. Over a hundred years, in the debate about the origins of language, the dominating point of view was that behavior is the result of directed training (Darwin, 1859). In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky proposed a radically different hypothesis, arguing that children’s ability to master deep structures of language (grammar rules) cannot be explained by simple exercises. This theory covered a range of disciplines, including psychology, neurophysiology, anthropology, linguistics, and paleoanthropology. The research results over the next decade leave little doubt that a person’s ability to use language is the result of biological evolution (Bovitch et. al, 2013).

Language Universals

Every human culture that has ever existed has been using a complex language system. For many researchers, the fact that all people use a complex language system is already conclusive evidence that a person initially knows the language. However, Steven Pinker asserts that the use of complex language systems is not universal, because all children are smart and are taught the language (Evans, 2014).

When the runaway slaves of the New World settled on the Caribbean islands, adults had to communicate with representatives of the other African tribes. The result was a hybrid dialect. Children of the former slaves did not accept the hybrid language but created a new one, with a complex grammar system, which did not exist before (Evans, 2014).

The study of the brain provides another proof of universality of the human language. People with damaged Broca’s area (the area of the cortex of the left hemisphere) lose their ability to speak or understand speech. Broca’s area is responsible for safety of not only the motor memory, which enables to pronounce separate sounds that make up words, but also for grammatical content (Palmer, 2001).

Still, the brain is not the only organ in the human body responsible for speech production. Charles Darwin noticed that, each time people swallow food, it must pass through a hole in a trachea with the risk of inhaling into the lungs (Darwin, 1859). The reason for this peculiarity is that humans’ larynx, unlike that of the other mammals, is located much lower than the pharynx. This system appeared with the evolution of the lungs, and its purpose was to protect the pulmonary tract from inhaling into something other than air. Initially, this role was performed by a group of muscles around the glottis: the muscles did not pass in the lungs impurities. In other case, people would have a shrill and voice without singling out the vowels sounds “i,” “u” and “a” (Palmer, 2001).

Ancient Sources

It is believed that the protolanguage from which all modern Indo-European languages emerged, originated in 5-6 thousand years BC (Palmer, 2001). Indo-European languages are related to the other linguistic groups through more ancient protolanguage (Nostratic) that appeared approximately in 13 thousand years BC. Linguists have even hypothesized that all existing languages in the world emerged from the primeval “proto-world” language. When analyzing the speed of language change, successful attempts to find a common protolanguage can be subjected to some doubts (Palmer, 2001).

Another issue is related to the speed with which the language changes, forming new dialects. Thus, in Western Africa, the number of languages per square mile in the densely populated equatorial regions is more than in sparsely populated areas farther to the north. Therefore, it can be concluded that there is a direct link between population levels and the spread of new languages and dialects (Palmer, 2001).

The results of researches of fossils show that people who had the necessary anatomical organs that allowed talking and using language appeared at least 250 thousand years ago and perhaps even 500 thousand years ago (Palmer, 2001). The study of fossil people’s skulls of that time reveals the presence of cerebral asymmetry (left hemisphere bigger than the right) as in the modern humans. Moreover, at that time, the larynx had already been situated low enough allowing to produce sounds similar to those of the elements of the modern speech (Palmer, 2001).

Kay, Cartmill, and Below found that the passing through the skull a bone canal that comprises the hypoglossal nerve is twice bigger in humans than in chimpanzees. The large size of this nerve in humans is important for the precise tongue movements needed in the articulate speech. In the Australopithecus skulls, the hypoglossal nerve canals are small, as in modern apes, suggesting similar limitation of the set of sounds. In the skulls of ancient Homo sapiens (400 thousand years ago), the hypoglossal nerve canals were sufficiently large, like the canals of the modern humans (Corballis, n. d.).


Robin Dunbar found that there is a direct relation between the size of the social group consisting of representatives of a certain species and the size of the cerebral cortex of individual members of this species. In the process of evolution, the human cortex increased in size and now holds 80% of the total volume of the brain (Charvet and Finlay, 2012). Dunbar argued that the cortex size increases with the increase of a social group, because the main function of the cortex is to process social information. He also suggested that language originated as a way to establish relationships between the members of increasing communities. One of the evidences is that the content of the majority of casual conversations are not the questions of technique but what can be called a gossip (Charvet and Finlay, 2012).

Groups of Concepts

For the modern people, the information that can be expressed by means of language is only a small, selected part of the information that is processed subjectively, the so-called “language of thought.” Philosophers and psychologists have long wondered to what extent language influences the thought-perception of the reality. There has been much debate about the quality, quantity or simply the existence of the language of thought in animals, which do not use the language. Studies of animals that were taught language confirmed that they use many conceptual schemes similar to people however in a more limited scale (Evans, 2014).

Studies of language associated with comparing different cultures identify the set of simple concepts inherent in the representatives of this species from birth. Such concepts are the building material from which more complex conceptual structures can grow. To make more complex concepts, such as the theory of thinking, to appear, people should use language for a long time. Concerning animals, the theory of thinking is observed in a rudimentary form only in chimpanzees (Palmer, 2001).

In all nations, there are similar systems of representations regarding animals and plants. This phenomenon is termed “folk biology,” and it has much in common with the modern biology. People tend to assume that the belonging to animals’ category is absolute, whereas the categories of items are divided into subclasses based on their main properties (Palmer, 2001).

Caramazza argued that people’s conceptual knowledge is sorted by broad areas of knowledge representing the evolutionary adaptation (Caramazza, 2000). As a result of the natural selection process, a special neural organization, which allows quickly perceiving and accurately classifying certain stimuli, was formed. The development of the ability to quickly recognize and respond to certain stimuli increased chances of survival and producing descendants. This hypothesis is supported by studies of patients with nervous system injuries that suffer from deficiencies of specific qualities. For example, some patients selectively lose the ability to recognize animal classes, while the other patients recognize classes of animals well, but their ability to recognize the other categories, such as fruits, vegetables, body parts, and tools, have significantly degraded (Caramazza, 2000).

Conclusion

In conclusion, although communication systems are different by nature, the human speech is unique in allowing to include objects remote in space and time in the act of communication. Besides, it provides the possibility of forming a virtually unlimited number of new meaningful messages. The attempts to teach animals language show that many animal species with the highly developed nervous system are peculiar to symbolic thinking. However, the direct language skills, including thinking skills implemented in the complex use of language are only peculiar to humans.

Language development involves children according to the same principle. Certain time periods correspond to the development of various aspects of language: phonetics (1 year), syntax (4 years), and semantics (16 years).

Language abilities are innate and inherent to a man by nature, because any human community that has ever existed has been using a complex language system. When uniting people of different cultures and making them communicate in simple hybrid dialects, their children will spontaneously invent a language with a complex grammatical structure. All people have roughly the same brain structures responsible for language function, including those who use sign language, such as ASL.

The study of fossils shows that brain asymmetry is associated with linguistic abilities that emerged from 500 thousand to 250 thousand years ago. Perhaps, the language originally emerged as a mechanism for establishing connections and relationships in the communities. Language abilities express multiple adaptive functions, and although the language skills originally existed in a rudimentary form, the natural selection process has contributed to the fact that they have developed to a sufficiently high level. Language enables the mankind to develop culturally.