What is human language?

Language is a highly elaborated signaling system. We call the aspects that are peculiar to it the design features of language. Some of these we find only with the language of human beings, others we have in common with animals. Another aspect of human language is that we express thoughts with words. A principle feature of human language is the duality of patterning. It enables us to use our language in a very economic way for a virtually infinite production of linguistic units. How does this principle work?
All human languages have a small, limited set of speech sounds. The limitation derives from the restricted capacity of our vocal apparatus.

The speech sounds are referred to as consonants and vowels.
Linguistically speaking, the distinctive speech sounds are called phonemes, which are explained in more detail in the chapter on phonology. You cannot use isolated phonemes for communication, because phonemes are by themselves meaningless. But we can assemble and reassemble phonemes into larger linguistic units. These are commonly called “words”. Although our capacity to produce new phonemes is limited, we frequently coin new words. Hence, our capacity to produce vocabulary is unlimited.


In contrast to other animals, humans have a sense of the past and the future. A gorilla, for example, cannot tell his fellows about his parents, his adventures in the jungle, or his experience of the past. The use of language to talk about things other than “the here and now”, is a characteristic of humans. Displacement is thus our ability to convey a meaning that transcends the immediately perceptible sphere of space and time.
Although some animals seem to possess abilities appropriating those of displacement, they lack the freedom to apply this to new contexts. The dance of the honey-bee, for instance, indicates the locations of rich deposits of food to other bees. This ability of the bee corresponds to displacement in human language, except for a lack of variation. The bee frequently repeats the same patterns in its dance, whereas humans are able to invent ever new contexts.


The ability to say things that have never been said before, including the possibility to express invented things or lies, is also a peculiar feature of human language.

Stimulus-freedom is another aspect that distinguishes human language from animal communication. The honey-bee must perform its dance, the woodchuck must cry out in order to warn his fellows when it beholds an eagle.

Humans have the ability to say anything they like in any context. This ability is only restricted in certain ceremonial contexts such as church services, etc., where a fixed form is expected to be followed. The possibility to violate this fixed linguistic behavior is then the source of jokes, such as a bride’s “no”.


Why is a table called “table”? Obviously, the thing never told us its name. And tables do not make a noise similar to the word. The same applies to most of the words of our language.
Hence, words and their meaning have no a priori connection. We cannot tell from the sound structure which meaning is behind it. Language is not motivated, as we can also put it.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule: language can be iconic, which means that there is a direct correlation between form and meaning. The length of a phrase, for example, could represent a length of time the phrase refers to, like in “a long, long time ago”. Here, the extension serves to visually represent the semantic emphasis. Iconicity in language can be found frequently. We will see this in more detail in the chapter on semiotics. Another example for nonarbitrariness are onomatopoeia. These are words that seem to resemble sounds. There are many examples for onomatopoetic words, like splash or bang. Some names for animals are also onomatopoetic, for example, “cuckoo”. Still, since animals such as the bird are named differently in different languages, there can be no ultimate motivation for the name.

The human vocal tract

An elaborated language requires a highly sophisticated speech organ that will enable the speaker to produce the many differentiated sounds. Only humans are endowed with a speech organ of this complexity.