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Machines Like Us

The difference between human and other animal communication

Friday, 27 June 2008
by Mano Singham

In his book The Language Instinct, (1994) Steven Pinker pointed out two fundamental facts about human language that were used by linguist Noam Chomsky to develop his theory about how we learn language. The first is that each one of us is capable of producing brand new sentences never before uttered in the history of the universe.

This means that:

[A] language cannot be a repertoire of responses; the brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words. That program may be called a mental grammar (not to be confused with pedagogical or stylistic "grammars," which are just guides to the etiquette of written prose.)

Did the brain increase in size to cope with rising language ability or did the increasing use of language drive brain development?

The second fundamental fact is that children develop these complex grammars rapidly and without formal instruction and grow up to give consistent interpretations to novel sentence constructions that they have never before encountered. Therefore, [Chomsky] argued, children must be innately equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages, a Universal Grammar, that tells them how to distill the syntactic patters out of speech of their parents. (Pinker, p. 9)

Children have the ability to produce much greater language output than they receive as input but it is not done idiosyncratically. The language they produce follows the same generalized grammatical rules as others. This leads Chomsky to conclude that (quoted in Pinker, p. 10):

The language each person acquires is a rich and complex construction hopelessly underdetermined by the fragmentary evidence available [to the child]. Nevertheless individuals in a speech community have developed essentially the same language. This fact can be explained only on the assumption that these individuals employ highly restrictive principles that guide the construction of grammar.

The more we understand how human language works, the more we begin to realize how different human speech is from the communication systems of other animals.

Language is obviously as different from other animals' communication systems as the elephant's truck is different from other animals' nostrils. Nonhuman communication systems are based on one of three designs: a finite repertory of calls (one for warnings of predators, one for claims of territory, and so on), a continuous analog signal that registers the magnitude of some state (the livelier the dance of the bee, the richer the food source that it is telling its hivemates about), or a series of random variations on a theme (a birdsong repeated with a new twist each time: Charlie Parker with feathers). As we have seen, human language has a very different design. The discrete combinatorial system called "grammar" makes human language infinite (there is no limit to the number of complex words or sentence in a language), digital (this infinity is achieved by rearranging discrete elements in particular orders and combinations, not by varying some signal along a continuum like the mercury in a thermometer), and compositional (each of the finite combinations has a different meaning predictable from the meanings of its parts and the rules and principles arranging them). (Pinker, p. 342)