To what extent we can say animals have language

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To what extent we can say animals have language?

Many pet owners probably like to think that they talk with their pets and these if not response, at least understand. But whether this is really true and pets and generally animals are capable of understanding language and furthermore, whether they are capable of meaningfully communicating between themselves remains without a clear answer. The question whether humans are or are not the only species capable of language can be answered only after deeper analysis, which can be carried out by taking into account and comparing main characteristics of language.

To begin with, it might be helpful to form a definition of a language. There was a number of attempts to define language but the one that is the closest to the full definition of language is that of Charles Hockett. Over ten years Hockett was trying to define language by determining the main properties of human language. The longest list consist of 16 design features or essential characteristics (Aitchinson, 1989)

The discussion below will examine some of these in greater detail in order to find out to what degree it is possible to say that animals have the ability of language.

First of all, there is the use of vocal-auditory channel, which is one of the most obvious features of language and simply means that communication is generated by vocal organs and hearing mechanism receives it. This design feature is not unique to humans and it is relatively widespread in the world of animals. But also, since the linguistic communication can be transmitted via writing or sign language it is not a defining feature of human language.

Another feature is arbitrariness, which suggests that the concept and the meaning are not connected; hence the symbols used in language are neutral. For example there is no natural connection between word “rabbit” and the fury animal it symbolizes. This is generally a rule although there are some exceptions – onomatopoeic words such as “crunch” or “bang” but there are only a few in each language.

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The fact that there is an arbitrary relationship between linguistic signs and object they represent can be considered a defining feature of language and therefore we can examine in more detail whether arbitrariness is also present in communication system of animals. The first impression might be that there is a strong link between the message conveyed and the signal used to convey it (Yule, 1985). However, this is not supported when taking into consideration an experiment carried out on chimpanzee Sarah. Sarah was rewarded an apple if she managed to select the right plastic shape. Apple was represented by blue ...

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