5. Human language

Language is one of human’s most important and unique defining characteristics, as no other creature in the world is able to use it (Hedeager, 2003). Language requires both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication in order for all parties to understand one another. Verbal communication involves forming words and putting them together to form sentences while non-verbal forms of communication include gestures, such as yawning to indicate fatigue, or pointing to bring attention to an object of interest (Buck & VanLear, 2002). The closest thing to a language would be the communication between animals as their own form of communication includes sounds or gestures which are also present in human language, such as the songs of songbirds. However, the sounds they make do not form cohesive words or sentences and hence cannot be considered language.

Although humans have language, it is not an innate ability. Animals will still behave and communicate the way others from their species do, even if they grew up in isolation. however, the same cannot be said for humans. If humans grow up in isolation, their form of communication would be similar to that of animals – gestures and noises. Since performing experiments which isolate children is unethical, there is not much research in that area. However, there have been documented cases of feral children in the past which help to shed some light on the consequences if such a thing were to happen. For instance, Marina Chapman, more widely known as “The Girl With No Name”, is someone who claimed to have grown up in the wilderness with monkeys and no human contact or communication for five years (Chapman et al., 2012). And when she was found in a Colombian jungle by hunters, she had lost her language completely (Hattenstone, 2013). Another more well-documented example would be Genie, a girl who experienced extreme social isolation and abuse from her father at a young age. According to Dr. James Kent (1972) who observed her, she appeared to have no language, making no sounds apart from whimpering and some gestures to express certain emotions. Scientists observed that she had little control over her laryngeal mechanisms and language comprehension tests also showed that she had almost no comprehension of grammatical structure (Fromkin et al., 1974). The feral children’s inability to produce language after being isolated prove that while language is something unique to humans, it is not innate.

As has been mentioned throughout this wiki chapter, language is considered by many to be a unique characteristic to humans and has the specific trait of hierarchical syntax and structure. With hierarchical syntax, the sentence “Kelly, who was out for brunch with Tim, was late to the meeting.” (Alex, 2018) tells readers that Kelly was the one who was late to the meeting, not Tim. Syntax is concerned with the way smaller words and phrases which can be organised as a unit, form sentences of varying structures (Vajda, 2003). In an article written by Alex (2018), she explains that hierarchical syntax is present when these units are organized in a hierarchical structure and embedded inside one another to form larger constituents. And it is this syntax which allows readers to correctly interpret that Kelly was the one late to the meeting, even though Tim is closer to the verb “late” in the sentence (Alex, 2018).

Alex (2018) explains one popular theory this in her article: language evolution happens in stages; the first of which is proto-language, a system of communication more complex than ape communication but lacking elements of modern language. This theory proposes that language developed as a result of evolutionary adaptation. But as for the proto-language itself and what it was like, Alex (2018) says that researchers are more split. Some argue that our ancestors sang before they spoke, while others claim that the proto-language used was dominated by pantomimed gestures – a society built on charades, which is similar to the way apes communicate today. This idea of language as an evolutionary adaptation is further explained in wiki chapter 2 and wiki chapter 15.