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What are the properties of language?


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There are six properties of language, which are arbitrariness, cultural transmission, discreteness, displacement, duality, and productivity.

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Humans are able to communicate with each other in ways that are unique to our species because of the properties of human language. Regardless of how different human language may sound across various cultures, all share six qualities:

  1. Cultural transmission: Infants are born without an ability to use the language of their societies. By observing and listening carefully for the first few years, those children learn the unique usages of the language of their culture. This is why it is crucial to talk often to even the youngest children and to engage them as much as possible in conversation.
  2. Arbitrariness: Why is a kiss called a kiss in English? There is nothing that connects this group of letters and sounds to the thing we recognize as an act of affection. In Swedish, this same combination of letters can mean urine. Human language is formed around arbitrary combinations of sounds to create meaning.
  3. Displacement: Human language isn't simply limited to describing what is tangible in the present. It can be used to describe or imagine things by people who are not in that immediate situation. This allows for humans to discuss history and to imagine a future.
  4. Productivity: Humans can use combinations of sounds to create an infinite number of new words, expressions, and sentences. As their worlds and experiences shift, humans can adapt and create new ways to use language to communicate those changes.
  5. Discreteness: All of the sounds we use in language are distinct, and those sounds create meaning. In the word pig, there are three distinct sounds, and each one is needed to fully convey the meaning of the pink farmyard animal. The way language combines distinct sounds in ways to create meaning is a human feature of language usage.
  6. Duality: Language is organized at two levels simultaneously. There are particular sounds of a language which users understand, such as the sounds for w, i, n, and d. This is the phonological function of language. At the same time, the way those letters are arranged creates meaning. If we arranged the letters wdni, there is no meaning. Yet if we rearrange them to create wind, the syntax is clear (and actually differs depending on the way the i is pronounced). Both the sounds of the symbols and the way they are arranged create the organization that brings meaning to language.
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While most species on Earth are able to communicate with each other, humans are the only ones that show the following properties of language.

  1. Arbitrariness: The sounds, words, letters, and symbols we use are arbitrary and have no relationship with the objects that they are used to reference. An example of this would be how the same combination of sounds or the same word can mean different things in different languages.
  2. Cultural Transmission: Language is not inherited genetically; language is acquired through culture and can only be learned when in (or studying) a culture of other speakers of that language.
  3. Discreteness: The sounds in a language are noticeably and purposefully discrete, and their meanings are distinct from each other.
  4. Displacement: The speakers of a language are able to communicate about topics outside of the present environment. For example, humans are able to talk about someone not in the room, an event from the past, or even made-up scenarios and the future.
  5. Duality: Sounds and meanings are discrete and separate from each other. For example, the sounds that come from the letters p, a, and l can compose the words pal or lap. But even though those words are composed of the same letters and sounds, their meaning is different.
  6. Productivity: The number of sounds, words, sentences, phrases, and so on and their combinations are infinite in a language.
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In form and function, language varies widely across space and throughout time. That being said, six key properties of language have been described by linguists. These six features are arbitrariness, cultural transmission, discreteness, displacement, duality, and productivity.

Arbitrariness of language is the fact that the symbols we use to communicate meaning to not have any natural form or meaning in and of themselves. For example, all of the words you are reading right now do not have a natural essence to them, but we have assigned these words to their particular meanings. The word table is not a table itself; rather, it is a word we have agreed means or signals for the idea of a table. Onomatopoeia differ somewhat in their arbitrariness, because these are words which replicate the sounds they describe. The word "plop" is intended to replicate the sound plop.

Language is both acquired by and continues the process of cultural transmission. Humans are not born with an innate understanding of communication in the way that birds or lions are. We must learn, along with other elements of culture, how to communicate with others using language.

Discreteness in language describes the fact that human language is composed of sets of distinct sounds. One sound on its own may convey one meaning, multiple sounds combined in a particular order convey a different meaning. Even repeated sounds have a particular meaning! 

Displacement of language refers to the ability of human language to communicate throughout time and across space. In animals, language is primarily an exchange between stimulus and response — the meaning conveyed by animal language only works in context. When a dog barks, it is in response to whatever prompted the barking, and that bark can't really be used to express its meaning before or after the event. In human language, however, we are able to talk about things that happened a long time ago or have not yet happened. We might even read books produced hundreds of years ago and be able to make sense of them.

Duality describes the human ability to produce language in multiple forms. We can both write the word table and say it out loud, with both evoking the same idea of a table. 

Productivity is a feature of human language which enables us to combine symbols (words, sounds, phrases) in new ways to express particular ideas. In my studies of the evolution of language, I heard an example that I think really expresses the nature of productivity. The form of language for our closest evolutionary cousin, the chimpanzee, is very fixed. Only one meaning can be conveyed at a time and it is in response to stimuli. If a chimpanzee were to come across a very tasty-looking bunch of bananas that were unfortunately on fire, instinct would determine how the chimp would call to its troop. The chimpanzee would either have to produce the call which implies food is available for eating, or the call to warn others of danger. The chimp might be able to create the "food" call immediately before or after the "danger" call, but they cannot combine them to express the idea that food is on fire. If we, as humans, came across the same flaming bunch of bananas, we would be using productive language in telling our friends that there are some flaming but otherwise tasty-looking bananas nearby.

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