By Harrison Kaye

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece and views expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Beehive or The Beehive’s associated writers.

Language is an extremely complex construct, much more than just a collection of sounds cause by vibrations in the air or even a string of symbols, but rather a product of many years of evolution that has pushed mankind forwards on unprecedented scales.

Language is important to all aspects of humanity and has been since the dawn of man. It is our ability to communicate and be social on unprecedented scales that has shaped the course of human evolution and allowed us to become the super species that we are today. From language we have built our entire civilisation, from the simple teaching how to make tools to science and literature.

A recent experiment at the University of St. Andrews took control groups learning how to make Oldowan flakes, used by humans around 2.5 million years ago, and subjected them to different levels of communication. Some groups were allowed no communication, and were simply shown a finished flake then had to deduce how to make it, some were allowed limited gesture communication and some had a teacher that spoke and taught them how to make the flake. The groups with communication performed much better than those without, especially those with the teacher, leading Thomas Morgan at the University to conclude that for the widespread implementation of this tool to have happened, early humans must’ve had the capacity for teaching. He believes that at first these were gestures but eventually darwinian selection fleshed them out into fully fledged languages. The key advantage that language gives us is that we can learn from others’ experience. We don’t have to figure out how to sharpen a stick ourselves, we don’t even have to watch someone do it in front of us. Instead they can communicate with us. But its not always been that way.

The first signs of oral communication in humans developed over 30,000 years ago in the Cro-Magnon man. The Larynx of the Cro-Magnon, and its descendants ever since, is unusually far down the throat resulting in a far longer vocal tract than other animals. This allowed us to produce a much wider range of noises and tones which was advantageous as it allowed us to produce more combinations of sound, and therefore widen our syntax.

It’s this adaptation of the Larynx that allows us to speak as we do. The vocal cords, two small pieces of tissue, with a small opening stretch across the Larynx are tightened by the Larynx musc accordingly to alter pitch. During exhalation, the airflow in the trachea gives the vocal cords energy to produce sound with the highest pitches being produced as the Larynx tightens.

By that logic, air literally gives us the power to produce sound, and therefore language. However turning our attention to communication in the animal kingdom, and looking out how this differs from the human concept of language reveals some fascinating things. Almost all species on earth can communicate in some way but it is two key aspects of human communication that justifies the use of the term language or ‘Linguistic Communication’ as opposed to animals’ ‘Non-Linguistic Communication’.

The first of these is ‘Double Articulation’. This concerns the fact that the number of sounds in a language isn’t equal to the number of signs. What is meant by ‘signs’ is the combination of form, the sequence of either phonemes (the smallest sound units that can affect meaning) or graphemes (the smallest written units that can affect meaning), and meaning. An example of a sign is the english word school which has the phonetic form /skuːl/ and a meaning of ‘An institution for educating children’[B]. Languages have numerous signs but are built from only a small number of phonemes or graphemes and so this means the smallest meaningful units, known as morphemes (words) are made up of meaningless units that don’t mean anything on their own but can be combined to produce meaning.

This in turn leads to the idea of Syntax, and that humans can convey a seemingly infinite number of ideas with a finite set of building blocks. It would be hugely impractical for us to have a single sign for ‘cat sees mouse’ and another separate sign for ‘mouse sees cat’ as with a finite set of sounds, our signs would have to be extremely long in length and we wouldn’t be able to remember them. Instead we use syntax to combine signs to convey meaning. For example: ‘cat + see + present tense + mouse’. This combination allows our scope of meaning to far exceed the limited number of signs in our language, and instead combine simple meanings to form infinitely complex meaning.
Combining signs is not something that is unique to human language, for example putty-nosed monkeys have a call that means ‘LEOPARD’, a call that means ‘EAGLE’ and a combination of the two calls that means ‘LET’S GO’ however it is our compositional syntax, where the whole meaning is a reflection of the meanings of the parts as opposed to simple combinational syntax where the larger meaning is not a reflection of the meaning of the parts, that makes us unique.

These two fundamental aspects of Human Language, Double Articulation and Compositional Syntax, are what make our language so much more complex and intricate than animal language, and even things such as our body language, to the point where linguists hesitate to call them ‘language’, rather ‘Non-Linguistic Communication’. But this doesn’t provide an answer as to why the non-linguistic communication found in the animal world can’t just simply ‘develop’ into language and more importantly why language can’t be considered air.

I mentioned how our bodies are adapted to produce a wide array of pitches and tones, but there are further adaptations, specifically cognitive adaptions. The areas in the brain thought to be responsible for the production and comprehension of speech are Broca’s area, located in the left inferior frontal gyrus and Wernicke’s area, located in the the left posterior superior temporal gyrus. Humans and non-human primates such as apes posses these areas which control the ability to understand the actions and intentions of others, but in humans it’s evolved the additional function of producing and comprehending speech.
This function can be traced back to our DNA record. In the gene FOXP2, the language gene, Gorillas, Chimps and Rhesus Macaque all have identical sequences in the 715 amino acids long sequence with mice only having one mutation. However humans have a further two mutations meaning in the 150 million years of evolution since the divergence of mouse and chimpanzee, only a single mutation has occurred yet in the comparatively shorter six million years since man diverged form chimpanzee two mutations have occurred. The mutation in the mouse gene is also thought to be functionally unimportant, where as at least one of the two mutations in the human gene is thought to be functionally significant. This evidence shows not only how our capacity for communication came about as a result of natural selection, but how our ability for language relies on more just the ability to utilise the airflow through our Larynx.
In conclusion, our complex construct of Language is more than just sounds travelling through the air, and more than the primitive non-linguistic communication found in animal ‘language’, but a product of an evolutionary advantage that gave, and continue to gives us, the edge over the animal kingdom. Whilst air might give us the literal ‘power’ to produce sounds and language from our vocal cords it is our brains which actually give us the power to form and comprehend language.
To animals, our languages are just air. They’re just sounds like any other. However the cognitive ability that humans possess allows us to comprehend these sounds and form our own complex structures. The importance of being able to learn from others’ experience is key to early human progress right up to the present day. This, plus things from the intricate ways we can compound complicated grammar structures, to the fact that we can even think about and discuss abstract ideas in the way that we do make language something that cannot be underestimated in the slightest.
The question therefore is not whether Language is just air but rather whether language is just thoughts, and a mental idea constructed by our brain and I think that’s a more fitting representation of the basis of human civilisation that’s been pushing us forward ever since the first cavemen began communicating in order to make tools over 30,000 years ago.