To really understand what are the characteristics of human language, we compare it with animal communication and then understand the similarities and differences between the two. Following are the characteristics of human language-
1. Arbitrariness- We see that in case of animals there seems to be an obvious relation between the signal and the massage the animals wishes to convey. For instance, an animal who wishes to warn its opponent will simulate an attacking attitude. A cat will arch its back, spit and then appears to be ready to pounce. Contrastingly, if we analyze human language, we can notice that except in the case of onomatopoeic words or expressions, there seems to be no logical relationship between the signal and the message. So, we can say that the symbols used by humans are arbitrary. Let me give you an example of the word ‘water’. There is no relationship between the word ‘water’ and the thing it symbolizes. If there had been any relationship why would the same thing be called as ‘pani’ in hindi or ‘mooya’ in Arabic? This definitely shows that the symbols which we use are arbitrary.
2. The need for learning- We know that ‘learning’ in animal communication is very little. Their language is genetically inbuilt. Birds who are reared in isolation, sing songs which are recognizable just like any bird reared with flock of birds. So, we do agree that animals are born with this language. If a human child is brought up in isolation, he/she does not acquire language. We humans require a long exposure to language in order to acquire it. But one must remember that human language is not just totally conditioned by the environment. Humans are born with an inmate language acquisition device. Nevertheless, environment plays an important role in this inmate ability. So we can say that humans and animals both do have this genetical acquisition device, but in humans this potentiality can only be activated with exposure to language which requires learning.
3. Creativity- It is obvious that animals have fixed numbers of messages which they use in clearly definable circumstances. For instance, a male grasshopper can give only six messages. Studies have shown that birds and bees are unable to say anything new. On the other hand, humans can talk about anything or everything they like. They can understand and produce utterances which they have never heard or even produced before. So, this clearly shows that creativity is one of the important characteristic of human language.
4. Double articulation- Animals have a finite set of basic sounds for communication. Cows for example, have less than ten and foxes over thirty. So, we can say that the number of basic sounds vary in different species. On the other hand, human language works very differently. Every language has a set of 30-40 basic sounds called as phonemes. These phonemes become meaningful when they are combined with each other according to the rules of a language. So, we can conclude that human language consists of two layers- a layer of individual sounds which combines with each other to form a second layer of bigger units like words. This is called double articulation, which is unique to humans.
Other characteristics are structure dependence, displacement, patterning, complete feedback, turn taking etc. The capacity to express ourselves in speech is the most unique characteristic feature which differentiates humans from other species.
One of the most amazing aspects of human cognitive abilities is the capacity to understand, learn, and produce language. Language can be defined as a systematic way to convey meaning using symbols and sounds. Communication and language are integral to the study of human psychology. Although there are more than 3,000 languages, spoken and signed, in the world today, all human languages share the same basic characteristics, which will be examined in this chapter. You'll also see whether language is a uniquely human characteristic.
In order to scientifically approach the study of language, you must dispense with some false but widely held linguistic beliefs. First, many people believe that there are languages with no grammar. All human languages have a grammar. Second, many people believe that some languages or dialects are inferior to others. This is often a point of contention with people who worry about “substandard” dialects of their language. In fact, every person speaks a dialect. “Standard” usage is usually determined by the class of speakers with the most social power. There is nothing inherently superior about one dialect versus another. This also holds for different languages. There is simply no such thing as a primitive language. All languages are complex and creative systems used with full efficiency among their speakers.
American Sign Language meets all of the criteria for a language, including generativity and syntax. Researchers have used brain-imaging scans to demonstrate that the same areas of the brain that are activated in people who hear spoken language are also activated in deaf individuals when they use sign language.
While some words correspond to the sounds that they represent, such as buzz, hiss, and bang in the English language, the connection between the symbol and the meaning is most often completely arbitrary. Language is incredibly flexible for this reason, allowing new words to be created as well as permitting the meaning of existing words to evolve or even change entirely over time. All languages undergo change. For instance, if you read Shakespeare, you will see the drastic changes in the English language that have taken place in just a few centuries.
Each language also has its own rules of syntax and grammar. These rules determine how and when certain words should be combined and in what order they should be presented in order to communicate meaning. In addition to these basic rules, however, it is important to realize that language is infinitely generative, allowing speakers to combine words to produce an endless array of sentences, phrases, and paragraphs. For example, consider the book Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. While the book does not contain any words that are new to the language, Austen presents these words in a way that is entirely unique and conveys an entirely distinctive story.