1.Design Features

1.1 About human language

Language is a system of communication uniquely associated with humans and distinguished by its capacity to express complex ideas. Notably, studies analysing the various features of human language have informed our understanding of language as a distinctly human trait. Specifically, language is thought to possess a highly structured system of encoding and representing concepts through either speech sounds or manual gestures, depending on whether they are spoken or signed.

Likewise, studies which have attempted to methodically dissect this system of human communication into various parts, or components, have informed our understanding of the reasons for the immense expressive power of language.

We’ll start off with a featural analysis of what defines a language, followed by an evaluation of these features with a specific focus on how human language can be compared to animal communication.
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1.2 Hockett’s design features

In 1960, the linguistic anthropologist Charles Francis Hockett conducted a pioneering featural study of language. In the study, he listed 13 design features that he deemed to be universal across the world’s languages. More importantly, these features distinguished human language from animal communication. While the first 9 features could also match primate communications, the last 4 were solely reserved for human language. Later on, Hockett added another 3 features that he saw as unique to human language. Thus, it can be said that human language share a general set of features that help set it apart from communication among animals.

1.2.1 Vocal-Auditory Channel

With the exception of signed languages, natural language is vocally transmitted by speakers as speech sounds and auditorily received by listeners as speech waves. Although writing and sign language both utilize the manual-visual channel, the expression of human language primarily occurs in the vocal-auditory channel.

1.2.2 Broadcast Transmission and Directional Reception

Language signals (i.e. speech sounds) are emitted as waveforms, which are projected in all directions (‘broadcasted into auditory space’), but are perceived by receiving listeners as emanating from a particular direction and point of origin (the vocalising speaker).

1.2.3 Transitoriness

Language signals are considered temporal as sound waves rapidly fade after they are uttered; this characteristic is also known as rapid fading. In other words, this temporal nature of language signals requires humans to receive and interpret speech sounds at their time of utterance, since they are not subsequently recoverable.

1.2.4 Interchangeability

Humans can transmit and receive identical linguistic signals, and so are able to reproduce any linguistic message they understand. This allows for the interlocutory roles of ‘speaker’ and ‘listener’ to alternate between the conversation’s participants via turn taking within the context of linguistic communication.

1.2.5 Total Feedback

Humans have an ability to perceive the linguistic signals they transmit i.e. they have understanding of what they are communicating to others. This allows them to continuously monitor their actions and output to ensure they are relaying what they are trying to express.

1.2.6 Specialization

Language signals are emitted for the sole purpose of communication, and not any other biological functions such as eating. In other words, language signals are intentional, and not just a side effect of another behaviour.

Contrasting example: Biological functions which may have a communicative side effect: such as a panting dog which hangs out its tongue to cool off (biological), may simultaneously indicate to its owner that it is feeling hot or thirsty (communicative).

1.2.7 Semanticity

Specific language signals represent specific meanings; the associations are ‘relatively fixed’. An example is how a single object is represented by different language signals i.e. words in different languages. In French, the word selrepresents a white, crystalline substance consisting of sodium and chlorine atoms. Yet in English, this same substance is represented by the word salt.

Likewise, the crying of babies may, depending on circumstance, convey to its parent that it requires milk, rest or a change of clothes.

1.2.8 Arbitrariness

There is no intrinsic or logical connection between the form of specific language signals and the nature of the specific meanings they represent. Instead, the signal and the meaning are linked by either convention or instinct.

Contrasting example: Conveyance of aggression in crabs – strongly threatened crabs express their potential intention to fight by raising their front claw, which is partially iconic given that crabs use their craw pincers to attack prey and defend against predators.

1.2.9 Discreteness

Language signals are composed of basic units and are perceived as distinct and individuated. These units may be further classified into distinct categories. These basic units can be put in varying order to represent different meanings. The change in meaning is abrupt, and rarely continuous.

1.2.10 Displacement

Displacement also includes prevarication, which is the ability to lie or produce utterances which do not correspond with reality. Language signals may be used to convey ideas about things not physically or temporally present at the time of the communicative event such as a topic that is linked to the past or future.

1.2.11 Productivity

Productivity is also called openness or creativity.  It entails reflexiveness, the ability of language to be used to talk about language. Humans can use language to understand and produce an indefinite number of novel utterances.

1.2.12 Cultural Transmission

Although humans are born with the innate ability to learn language, they learn (a) particular linguistic system(s) as their native language(s) from elders in their community. In other words, language is socially transmitted from one generation to the next, and a child reared in isolation does not acquire language.

1.2.13 Duality of Patterning

The discrete speech sounds of a language combine to form discrete morphological units, which do not have meaning in itself. These morphemes have to be further combine to form meaningful words and sentences.
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1.3 Evaluation of Hockett’s design features

While Hockett’s list of design features may appear comprehensive, it contains three key limitations.

Firstly, Hockett’s list is drawn up from the narrow perspective of spoken language. However, human language can be expressed in both the audio-vocal (spoken) and visuo-manual (sign) modes: sign languages are equally complex and fully grammatical linguistic systems (Stokoe, 2005). As Corballis (2009, p. 22) notes, there is:

growing evidence that the signed languages of the deaf have all of the grammatical and semantic sophistication of spoken languages, as exemplified by the fact that university-level instruction at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, is conducted entirely in American Sign Language (ASL).

Therefore, his first two features, the vocal-auditory channel and broadcast transmission and directional reception, are only relevant to the auditory nature of spoken language, and cannot be strictly considered necessary to human language.

Secondly, Hockett’s list is a plain compilation of all discernible features of human language; it does not indicate which features are critical to the linguistic system of communication.  For example, the sixth and seventh features of specialization and semanticity are likely to beproperties of all natural systems that have developed for communication, rather than human language per se.

Thirdly, Hockett’s list includes many features that relate to the physical characteristics and production of linguistic signs (either via speech or gestures), rather than language as a communicative tool per se. For example, the third and fifth features of transitoriness and total feedback appear to be more relevant to the physical, rather than semiotic, properties of the speech sounds and gestures used in spoken and sign languages. In other words, the fact that sound waves and physical gestures are spatially transmitted makes them necessarily transitory (feature 3) and perceptible to the producer at the same time (feature 5). Also, the fourth feature of interchangeability similarly appears more relevant to the physical ability of language users to imitate or reproduce the speech sounds or gestural signs used in spoken and sign languages, rather than their cognitive ability to use these signs communicatively.

This therefore leaves only six main features: arbitrariness, discreteness, displacement, productivity, cultural transmission and duality of patterning. However, in order to understand how these features are crucial to human language as a system of communication, a componential analysis – the focus of our next section – is in order.
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