Features That Distinguish Human Language From Animal Communication

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

There are certain fundamental differences between human language and animal communication. Even though parrots and apes can be taught and can pick up a few words here and there, they can’t grasp the nuances of how humans use language. Let’s take a look at how human language and animal communication differ from each other.

Two beautifully colorful Macaw parrots sitting on a branch, facing each other.
Evidence shows that while parrots can be taught a few words and taught how to count a few numbers, it’s essentially a game or a party trick for them, and definitely not a mode of expression. (Image: SantiPhotoSS/Shutterstock)

Charles Hockett was probably one of the most prominent linguists in America, and a while ago he listed 13 features that distinguish human language from animal communication. We will explore a couple of these features.

Learn more about dialects-subspecies of species.

Displacement

Displacement is one thing we, humans, can do with language. One thing we don’t have to think about consciously is talk about something that isn’t there: it might be in the past, it might be in the future, it might be hypothetical. We can say, ‘There is giant squid 50 feet long and once I was walking along the beach and I found one of the carcasses washed up’. You could talk about that had happened 10 years ago.

That could happen to some ape that happens to live near the shore. But the ape couldn’t communicate that to any other ape—no animal could communicate that to another animal, something completely displaced: ‘The other day I saw some queer-colored berries on a bush and I ate them and they weren’t really as bad as you might think.’

No matter how expressive and communicative an orangutan is, that’s just not going to come out. He can only talk about bananas, get out of my way, things that are right there. So that’s kind of different.

Learn more about what is language.

Productivity

Another distinguishing feature is called productivity, which means that you can take the elements of language and combine them in infinite combinations. It’s not just eating a banana, wanting a banana, or where’s the banana. It’s all sorts of things about the banana: ‘The banana tastes good,’ ‘The banana is broken,’ ‘I’m going to break this banana so I can fit it into the cooler,’ etc.

Illustration of the 13 design features of language
Charles Hockett identified 13 features that distinguish human language from animal communication. (Image: Cate1388/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

This productivity is sort of a hallmark of what we’re doing. This is not something that animals are so good at. Also, even the really hotshot chimpanzees rarely initiate conversation. If you’re using language and you have a thought, you say something. You might be the kind of ape that happens to keep things to itself. But there are presumably some of them running their mouths all the time, as they do within their limits—all of that chattering that apes and chimpanzees tend to do.

But, it’s very rare for one of these ‘talking chimpanzees’ to look up and say, ‘You know…’ Maybe there’d be something like, ‘I’d like a banana’, but that’s rare. You’d have to start it out with, ‘Banana, Washoe?’ and then she would tell you if she were here. But, in general, there’s nothing along the lines of, ‘It’s a nice day’.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

There’s all the evidence to suggest that the higher primates do know that it’s a nice day. The bonobos will sit down and put their arms around each other and look at the sunset; that’s how close they are to us. But never has any ape said, ‘You know, it’s nice out’. You have to start it with them. So, basically, it’s a game to them.

Learn more about how language changes-sound change.

Language Is a Game to Them

There are eerie experiments with parrots where you see some of the same combinations of marvel and limitation. For example, Irene Pepperberg is a professor of psychology at Brandeis. She has an African gray parrot named Alex. Since the late 1970s, she’s been training Alex to talk. Parrots are pretty remarkable; you can get that sense of human soul in them, too. They don’t have the opposable thumb, but they definitely seem to have some sort of higher consciousness, in the impressionistic sense.

I spent a weekend with one of those birds once and it’s odd. They have a gamut of emotions, they prefer one person to another for no good reason—they are just like us.

They also ‘talk’ in their way. Irene Pepperberg has gotten amazing results out of little Alex. You can ask him, ‘What object is green and three-cornered?’ and there happens to be one in his play-box. He will tell you whatever Irene Pepperberg happens to have named that object. Alex can count to six and there are indications that the kind of knows what that means. He can ask for food, saying things like, ‘Want a nut!’ and he actually wants a nut, and he gets it. He actually can spell a bit, because Irene Pepperberg has taught him how to break things down into sounds.

He gets impatient, so at one point she was showing him to researchers and asking him questions about naming sounds, but he wanted a nut. Finally, apparently he slit his eyes and said, ‘Want a nut – nn, uh, tuh.’ He knew, that’s pretty good—that’s really a talking bird.

It’s clear that really he thinks that language is a game. Sometimes you’ll say things like, ‘What color is this, Alex?’ and the marvel is that he can do this. But a lot of the time he’ll just start rattling off the colors because he doesn’t really feel like it. It seems that he’s only vaguely aware that there’s some sort of correspondence between naming things like this and the world that we live in and doing something with it. The brain kind of stops there.

Also, as far as answering questions, he can answer them, but only four out of five times right. What about the fifth time? If that were a human being, we would assume there was something seriously wrong. He’s a very well behaved bird, too. It’s just that it seems that what we’ve taught Alex to do is kind of a party trick, it’s a game, not a mode of expression. Irene Pepperberg has done wonderful work with Alex, but it’s very hard to say that Alex is really holding conversations, that he’s experiencing language like us.

What it really all comes down to is that there are no apes that use sign language in the wild, in any way. Presumably, they wouldn’t use any of our signs, but they don’t have any of their own. This is something that if it were natural, presumably they’d do it. Parrots don’t run around talking to each other in the wild. They don’t communicate with each other on any level higher than other birds screaming and yelling and all the things that they do. So, we can get them to do this, but clearly we’re kind of pushing their limits and a lot of them would rather not—that’s not their nature and it clearly is ours.

Common Questions about Differences Between Human Language and Animal Communication

Q: What is Charles Hockett famous?

Charles Hockett was a prominent American linguist, who came up with a list of 13 features that distinguish human language from animal communication, including displacement and productivity.

Q: What is displacement in anthropology?

Displacement is a feature of human language, which enables us to talk about something that isn’t there: it might be in the past, it might be in the future, it might be hypothetical.

Q: What is productivity in language?

Productivity is a distinguishing feature of human language, which enables humans to take the elements of language and combine them in infinite combinations.

Q: What could Alex, the parrot, do?

Alex is an African gray parrot that Irene Pepperberg, a professor of psychology at Brandeis, trained to speak. Alex, the parrot, could count to six and understood what that meant, he could ask for food when he actually wanted food, he could even spell a bit. In many ways, Alex was a real talking bird, but it was clear that to him language was a game and not a means of communication.

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