Does language make humans different from other animals? [short version]

Up for consideration this time is the extent to which language makes the human species distinct from other species of animal.  It is worth noting that animal communication is most frequently referred to as such: communication. Most research has used the terms animal communication and human language, which suggests from the outset of researching this question a previously established difference between species’ modes of communicative interaction. But are our forms of communication actually all that different from those of other animals? The main difference seems to be regarding the use in language of speech and ‘conventional symbols,’ which surely, albeit perhaps under different guises, is necessary for the exchanges in any communication.

Aitchison (1983) specified that four [of ten] criteria were particular to the human species: displacement, semanticity, structure dependence and creativity. These four criteria, in summary, indicate that humans are capable of talking about things, people and instances, true or false, outside of the here-and-now spatial and temporal environment by using a formalized, abstract set of words, symbols and intonations each of which can have many different meanings when used within different contexts and between different individuals.

As our closest relations, a lot of research into animal language has been using apes. One of the more noted of these studies was conducted by Savage-Rumbaugh who taught a Bonobo chimpanzee, ‘Kanzi’, to use a form of sign language.

The aspect that is arguably the defining feature of human communication is the quality of its semanticity/meaning, but perhaps it is the plethora of social contexts within which we use language that truly distinguishes human and animal communication,  for example, ‘what shall I wear to my interview?’ This sentence alone contains sociological features that would not occur in animal worlds i.e. clothing and employment.

So human language’s complexity does seem to be the distinguishing factor between human and non-human animals. However it is worth bearing mind that the precursor to this distinguisher was and is in fact perhaps routed not in the cognitive capacities of our species, but in the anatomical speech restrictions, as selected [or not] for through the course of evolution, of other species and therefore it is not just language, per se, that is the crux of this distinction. If amount of communication material available to different species were measured against their communicative levels and all results standardized, perhaps the actual distinction between human and non-human animals would be less apparently extreme.

The full version of this post can be found here.

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