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The Features of Human Language


(adapted from Hockett, Charles. 1960. The Origin of Speech; and 1966

The Problem of

Universals in Language and Kenneth Hyde: 1998) Hockett isolated 13 features that characterize human language and which distinguish it from other communication systems. The following diagram graphically represents each of the thirteen features. Each feature is numbered and listed below the diagram, along with a more developed discussion of the feature.

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"The design-features listed below are found in every language on which we have reliable information, and each seems to be lacking in at least one known animal communicative system. They are not all logically independent, and do not necessarily all belong to our defining list for language--a point to be taken up separately..." (Hockett: 1966)

1. Vocal-auditory channel -- This means that the standard human language occurs as a vocal (making sounds with the mouth) type of communication which is perceived by hearing it. There are obvious exceptions: writing and sign language are examples of communication in the manual-visual channel. However, the vast majority of human languages occur in the vocal-auditory channel as their basic mode of expression. Writing is a secondary, and somewhat marginal form of language, while sign languages are in limited use, mostly among deaf people who are limited in their ability to use the auditory part of the vocal-auditory channel.

2. Broadcast transmission and directional reception -- This means that the human language signal is sent out in all directions, while it is perceived in a limited direction. For spoken language, the sound perpetuates as a waveform that expands from the point of origin (the mouth) in all directions. This is why a person can stand in the middle of a room and be heard by everyone (assuming they are speaking loudly enough). However, the listener hears the sound as coming from a particular direction and is notably better at hearing sounds that are coming from in front of the them than from behind them.

3. Rapid fading (transitoriness) -- This means that the human language signal does not persist over time. Speech waveforms fade rapidly and cannot be heard after they fade. This is why it is not possible to simply say "hello" and have someone hear it hours later. Writing and audio-recordings can be used to record human language so that it can be recreated at a later time, either by reading the written form, or by playing the audio-record.

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4. Interchangeability -- This means that the speaker can both receive and broadcast the same signal. This is distinctive from some animal communications such as that of the sticklefish. The sticklefish make auditory signals based on gender (basically, the males say "I'm a boy" and the females say "I'm a girl"). However, male fish cannot say "I'm a girl," although they can perceive it. Thus, sticklefish signals are not interchangeable.

5. Total feedback -- this means that the speaker can hear themself speak and can monitor their language performance as they go. This differs from some other simple communication systems, such as traffic signals. Traffic signs are not normally capable of monitor their own functions (a red light can't tell when the bulb is burned out, i.e.).

6. Specialization -- This means that the organs used for producing speech are specially adapted to that task. The human lips, tongue, throat, etc. have been specialized into speech apparati instead of being merely the eating apparati they are in many other animals. Dogs, for example, are not physically capable of all of the speech sounds that humans produce, because they lack the necessary specialized organs.

7. Semanticity -- This means that specific signals can be matched with specific meanings. This is a fundamental aspect of all communication systems. For example, in French, the word sel means a white, crystalline substance consisting of sodium and chlorine atoms. The same substance is matched with the English word salt. Anyone speaker of these languages will recognize that the signal sel or salt refers to the substance sodium chloride.

8. Arbitrariness -- This means that there is no necessary connection between the form of the signal and the thing being referred to. For example, something as large as a whale can be referred to by a very short word. Similarly, there is no reason that a four-legged domestic canine should be called a dog and not a chien or a perro or an anjing (all words for 'dog' in other languages). Onomatopoeic words such as "meow" or "bark" are often cited as counter-examples, based on the argument that they are pronounced like the sound they refer to. However, the similarity if very loose (a dog that actually said "bark" would be very surprising) and does not always hold up across languages (Spanish dogs, for example, say "guau"). So, even onomatopoeic words are, to some extent, arbitrary.

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9. Discreteness -- This means that the basic units of speech (such as sounds) can be categorized as belonging to distinct categories. There is no gradual, continuous shading from one sound to another in the linguistics system, although there may be a continuum in the real physical world. Thus speakers will perceive a sound as either a [p] or a [b], but not as blend, even if physically it falls somewhere between the two sounds.

10. Displacement -- This means that the speaker can talk about things which are not present, either spatially or temporally. For example, human language allows speakers to talk about the past and the future, as well as the present. Speakers can also talk about things that are physically distant (such as other countries, the moon, etc.). They can even refer to things and events that do not actually exist (they are not present in reality) such as the Easter Bunny, the Earth having an emperor, or the destruction of Tara in Gone with the Wind.

11. Productivity -- This means that human languages allow speakers to create novel, never-before-heard utterances that others can understand. For example, the sentence "The little lavender men who live in my socks drawer told me that Elvis will come back from Mars on the 10th to do a benefit concert for unemployed Pekingese dogs" is a novel and never-before-heard sentence (at least, I hope it is!), but any fluent speaker of English would be able to understand it (and realize that the speaker was not completely sane, in all probability). In the Cartesian search for the single characteristic that sets man apart from animals, it is often suggested that it is only man who has a mind or spirit. Lacking direct evidence that animals lack a soul, Cartesians latched on to the one obvious external trait that seems to separate men from beasts -- human language. By then treating language as a unique indicator of the presence of soul, reason, or "mind", Cartesians were able to erect a seemingly impenetrable barrier between the physical world of beasts and the spiritual world of man. By linking man directly to God in this way, Descartes provided a solid philosophical foundation for the Catholic church, which was under attack from all sides during the Reformation and Enlightenment. Studies in the past century, stimulated by the work of Charles Darwin, have called into question the Cartesian separation of man from beast. Ethologists have shown that many animals, even insects, have a highly developed social system and sense of reason combined with the capacity for different forms of communication. But can these forms of communication be considered language?

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Charles Hockett helped clarify our discussions of the unique properties of human language by listing thirteen design features that describe essential characteristics of human language. Many of these design features represent characteristics of human language that fail to separate it out from animal communication. For example, the design feature which involves use of the "vocal-auditory channel" does not distinguish human language from the bird call. Birds also possess "total feedback" and some song birds have "traditional transmission" in the form of local dialects. However, to the delight of the Cartesians, there is at least one design feature, displacement, which seems to serve as a clear separator between animal communication and human language. ("Human Language and Animal Communication" pg. 6,7 )

Displacement is the ability to refer objects, places, and events that are "not here" and "not now". Because human language is capable of displacement, man is able to transmit thoughts about things that cannot be directly perceived. It is true that bees can refer to the presence of pollen at a distance and sometimes even around barriers such as mountains. However, the dance of the honey bee tells the onlooker bees exactly how to travel to reach the pollen source. We can call this procedural displacement, but not referential displacement. Human language uses referential displacement. First, we are able to refer to objects that are not physically present. We can talk about "the camp stove" even when that camp stove is in a camp that is on the other side of the hill. Second, we can locate objects in positions that we cannot see. We can talk about "the pot on top of the camp stove" which then locates the pot by referring to a position that is determined with reference to an object that we cannot see. Third, we can refer to events that are not currently happening. So we can say that "The water in the pot on top of the camp stove boiled over" and just be referring to something we saw several hours ago. Or we can refer to events that might happen in some possible world of the future when we say "The water in the pot on top of the camp stove might boil over, if we turn up the gas too high." The honeybee, however, cannot speak about where the best source of pollen was a week ago or where it might be tomorrow. There is virtually no limit to the freedom we can give to our imagination. Once we allow ourselves to refer to make-believe objects in make-believe locations in makebelieve worlds, the sky is the limit. We can talk about the marriage of coyote girl and the moon or the combined forces of He-Man and the Care Bears in an attempt to save the world. We can make up great and heroic stories about the adventures of the Starship Enterprise and its interactions with Klingon warriors. Going still further, we can get into stream of consciousness in movies like "Total Recall" or novels such as "Ulysses" and produce strange references so bizarre that even the smartest English professors can no longer figure out what is going on. Yes, human language may be the distinguishing feature of the human mind and we owe it all to , you guessed it, displacement.

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12. Traditional Transmission -- This means that human language is not something inborn. Although humans are probably born with an ability to do language, they must learn, or acquire, their native language from other speakers. This is different from many animal communication systems where the animal is born knowing their entire system, e.g. bees are born knowing how to dance and some birds are born knowing their species of bird-songs (this is not true of all birds).

13. Duality of patterning -- This means that the discrete parts of a language can be recombined in a systematic way to create new forms. This idea is similar to Productivity (Feature 11). However, Productivity refers to the ability to generate novel meanings, while Duality of patterning refers to the ability to recombine small units in different orders. Hockett thinks this is the crucial feature. Duality of patterning involves the ability of humans to combine patterns on two different levels. On the first level, they put together different sounds or phonemes in a specified order to make a single identifiable unit known as a word or morpheme. If one does not maintain the correct order of sounds in a word, the meaning may be completely different as is the case with the words cat, tack, and act. . On the second level, the words are combined into sentences. If we did not have duality of patterning, the number of expressions we could produce would be quite limited. Each word would have to be a single sound unit. We might be able to produce perhaps 100 such units, but then the capacity of our vocal apparatus to create new items would be used up. Duality allows us to continue to create new words as needed. Because we can produce so many words, duality provides a springboard for the other design feature of productivity and displacement.

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Homework
Your homework is in two parts, A & B. You must attempt both. PART A: Read: Hockett, C. (1968) The Origin of Speech IN. Scientific American, 203:88-96. Either by accessing this page http://www.columbia.edu/itc/psychology/rmk/Readings/Hockett.pdf which is the best way. You can save a copy onto a pen-drive or c:drive ( if you are at home). OR you can make a very poor photocopy from my very poor photocopy in the office in the Victoria Building. EXTRA BROWNIE POINTS (optional) Read: Primate Calls, Human Language, and Nonverbal Communication [and Comments and Reply] Robbins Burling; et al. IN Current Anthropology, Vol. 34, No. 1. (Feb., 1993), pp. 25-53. Go to the University library page Go to Electronic Resources, The Library online Type in your e-proxy or Athens username/password (found in your university e-mail in box, if this is a problem contact the library) Click on core journal Choose J-STORE

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Cut and paste the title Primate Calls, Human Language, and Nonverbal Communication [and Comments and Reply] Download as High Quality PDF onto your pen-drives or c:drive (if from home).

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Part B Analysis and Academic Writing exercise: 1. Define and/or describe each of Hockett's 13 design features and for each design feature, give an example of:2. one language or communication system that does exhibit the feature 3. one language or communication system that does not exhibit the feature Extra (optional) The values of some the 13 design features are dependent (linked) to others for either practical or logical reasons. For each design feature, list all other features whose values depend on the value of the first feature. Explain why you think the design features are linked.

When you have completed this e-mail the answers to me at meclinton@btinternet.com by Monday night 10p.m. I will reply by Tuesday. Keep a copy on your pen-drive and computer.

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Design Feature Definition/ Description System with feature System without feature

Vocal/auditory Tactile/visual Chemical-olfactory

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Broadcast/Reception

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Rapidly Fading

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Go Higher Arts Introduction to Language


Design Feature Definition/ Description System with feature System without feature

Interchangeability

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Total Feedback

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Specialization

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Go Higher Arts Introduction to Language


Design Feature Definition/ Description System with feature System without feature

Semanticity

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Arbitrariness

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Discreetness

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Go Higher Arts Introduction to Language


Design Feature Definition/ Description System with feature System without feature

Displacement

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Productivity

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Traditional Transmission

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Go Higher Arts Introduction to Language


Design Feature Definition/ Description System with feature System without feature

Duality of Patterning

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