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Hockett’s Design Features Essay, Research Paper

In a world where scientists are incessantly attempting to examine the intelligence of life forms other than humans, linguists have presented the idea that language in itself is reserved strictly for humans. One therefore, must attempt to solve that dilemma and come to a conclusion regarding the question is language unique to humans?

If language is viewed solely as a system of communication, then it could be said that many differing species possess the ability to communicate. Humans also use certain systems other than language to communicate with others. The questions remains, are the kinds of grammars that represent linguistic knowledge unique to man.

Most humans acquiring language utilize speech sounds, made up of an utterance act and illocutionary act, to express meanings, but such sounds are not necessary, which is evident by the deaf?s ability to communicate through sign language (Fromkin et al., 1997). Conversely, when animals produce noises to communicate and vocally imitate human utterances, it is not the same as having the ability to communicate through language (Fromkin et al., 1997). Language is a system that relates sounds and gestures to meanings, something animals do not possess (Fromkin et al., 1997). This will further be examined when looking at linguist and anthropologist Charles Hockett?s Design Features and how they define what communication must entail to qualify distinctly as a language.

The first of Hockett?s Design Features is arbitrariness (Hockett, 1958). A word like ?dog?, for example, does not have a distinct meaning and sound relationship. The word ?dog? is not synonymous in all languages; while it means the same thing universally, the word used to depict it differs; ?hunt? in German, ?perro? in Spanish, and ?chien? in French. The next characteristic is duality, the fact that words have two levels, one that is meaningless and the other meaningful (Hockett, 1958). When looking the word PIG, the meaningless level is the letters which make up the word p-i-g; by themselves they have no meaning. Conversely when the letters p-i-g are grouped together they form the word PIG which is meaningful. Next, the characteristic is displacement in time and space which means that language must be able to refer to things in the distance (Hockett, 1958). Next, language must have structure dependence (Hockett, 1958). This means that the subject must be distinguishable from the pronoun and vice versa. The sentence ?the dog bites the man? must differ structurally from ?the man bites the dog?. The fifth characteristic is creativity which means that a form of communication must be able to have an infinite sentence (Hockett, 1997). As Chomsky noted, language in itself must be infinite, and by this it is meant that the set of sentences are infinite and new sentences are continuously made and understood (Fromkin et al., 1997). The sixth characteristic is semanticity which means that the form of communication must have the capacity to refer to events and objects – this is similar to displacement in time and space (Hockett, 1958). Next is cultural transmission, the ability to speak the language of the culture from which you are born (Hockett, 1958). Finally, the last of Hockett?s Design Features is vocal auditory channel which means that in order for communication to be a language one must use the vocal auditory channel (Hockett, 1958). The exception to this would be the speech impaired who use sign language which is still recognised as a language despite it?s inability to fulfill Hockett?s last feature (Fromkin et al., 1997).

Thus, to answer the question ?is language unique to human?s? one must consider all the above mentioned information for analysis. First, arbitrariness is not unique to the human species since birds have the ability to have a bird call in the Eastern US which will differ from one in the Western US (Fromkin et al., 1997). Next, duality is also not unique to humans since the notes in bird songs are only meaningful when they are put together and not alone (Fromkin et al., 1997). As for displacement in time and space, birds are not able to do this while bees, with what is known as the ?bee dance?, are able to tell others where the honey is amongst other things (Fromkin et al., 1997). When looking at structure dependence, vocal auditory channel and cultural transmission, it appears that bird grammars exist, however unstructured, that birds can learn other bird calls while among other birds, and that all animals have the ability to use the vocal auditory channel to communicate therefore none of these characteristics are unique to humans (Fromkin et al., 1997). Finally it comes down to the question of creativity. Scientists have looked at this aspect of language to determine whether this is unique to humans and what they have discovered is that no discovered animal language is creative (Fromkin et al., 1997). The reason for this is that animals are limited in the types of messages that they can convey to one another, this includes chimps, bees and birds. Therefore, is language unique to humans? The answer is yes. No animal language currently possesses all of the above required Design Features as stated by Hockett. Of course, with the ever changing world of today, who knows, maybe one day we will be proved wrong.

Work Cited

Andersen, Julie Tetel. Linguistics in America 1769-1924. New York, New York: Routledge,


Fromkin, Victoria, et al. An Introduction to Language. Toronto, Ontario: Harcourt Brace &

Company, 1997.

Hockett, Charles F.. A Course in Modern Linguistics. New York, New York: The Macmillan

Company, 1958.


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