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The difference between human and other animal

In his book The Language Instinct (1994) Steven Pinker pointed out two fundamental facts about
human language that were used by linguist Noam Chomsky to develop his theory about how
we learn language. The first is that each one of us is capable of producing brand new sentences
never before uttered in the history of the universe. This means that:
A language cannot be a repertoire of responses; the brain must contain a recipe or program that
can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words. That program may be called
a mental grammar (not to be confused with pedagogical or stylistic "grammars," which are just
guides to the etiquette of written prose.)
The second fundamental fact is that children develop these complex grammars rapidly and
without formal instruction and grow up to give consistent interpretations to novel sentence
constructions that they have never before encountered. Therefore, [Chomsky] argued, children
must be innately equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages, a Universal
Grammar, that tells them how to distill the syntactic patters out of speech of their parents.
(Pinker, p. 9)
Children have the ability to produce much greater language output than they receive as input
but it is not done idiosyncratically. The language they produce follows the same generalized
grammatical rules as others. This leads Chomsky to conclude that (quoted in Pinker, p. 10):
The language each person acquires is a rich and complex construction hopelessly
underdetermined by the fragmentary evidence available [to the child]. Nevertheless individuals
in a speech community have developed essentially the same language. This fact can be
explained only on the assumption that these individuals employ highly restrictive principles
that guide the construction of grammar.
The more we understand how human language works, the more we begin to realize how
different human speech is from the communication systems of other animals.
Language is obviously as different from other animals' communication systems as the
elephant's truck is different from other animals' nostrils. Nonhuman communication systems
are based on one of three designs: a finite repertory of calls (one for warnings of predators, one
for claims of territory, and so on), a continuous analog signal that registers the magnitude of
some state (the livelier the dance of the bee, the richer the food source that it is telling its
hivemates about), or a series of random variations on a theme (a birdsong repeated with a new
twist each time: Charlie Parker with feathers). As we have seen, human language has a very
different design. The discrete combinatorial system called "grammar" makes human language
infinite (there is no limit to the number of complex words or sentence in a language), digital

(this infinity is achieved by rearranging discrete elements in particular orders and

combinations, not by varying some signal along a continuum like the mercury in a
thermometer), and compositional (each of the finite combinations has a different meaning
predictable from the meanings of its parts and the rules and principles arranging them). (Pinker,
p. 342)
This difference between human and nonhuman communication is also reflected in the role that
different parts of the brain plays in language as opposed to other forms of vocalization.
Even the seat of human language in the brain is special. The vocal calls of primates are
controlled not by their cerebral cortex but by phylogenetically older neural structures in the
brain stem and limbic systems, structures that are heavily involved in emotion. Human
vocalizations other than language, like sobbing, laughing, moaning, and shouting in pain, are
also controlled subcortically. Subcortical structures even control the swearing that follows the
arrival of a hammer on a thumb, that emerges as an involuntary tic in Tourette's syndrome, and
that can survive as Broca's aphasic's only speech. Genuine language . . . is seated in the cerebral
cortex, primarily in the left perisylvian region. (Pinker, p. 342)
Rather than view the different forms of communication found in animals as a hierarchy, it is
better to view them as adaptations that arose from the necessity to occupy certain evolutionary
niches. Chimpanzees did not develop the language ability because they did not need to. Their
lifestyles did not require the ability. Humans, on the other hand, even in the hunter-gatherer
stage, would have benefited enormously from being able to share kind of detailed information
about plants and animals and the like, and thus there could have been an evolutionary pressure
that drove the development of language.
Human language was related to the evolution of the physical apparatus that enabled complex
sound production along with the associated brain adaptations, though the causal links between
them is not fully understood. Did the brain increase in size to cope with rising language ability
or did the increasing use of language drive brain development? We really don't know yet.
The argument against a linguistic hierarchy in animals can be seen in the fact that different
aspects of language can be found to be best developed in different animals.
The most receptive trainee for an artificial language with a syntax and semantics has been a
parrot; the species with the best claim to recursive structure in its signaling has been the
starling; the best vocal imitators are birds and dolphins; and when it comes to reading human
intentions, chimps are bested by man's best friend, Canis familiaris. (Pinker, PS20)
It seems clear that we are unlikely to ever fully communicate with other species the way we do
with each other. But the inability of other animals to speak the way we do is no more a sign of
their evolutionary backwardness than our nose's lack of versatility compared to the elephant's

trunk, or our inability to use our hands to fly the way bats can, are signs that we are
evolutionarily inferior compared to them
We just occupy different end points on the evolutionary bush.