Meows and words

By Diana Paz Garcia

This week we had two interpreters come to our class and talk about their experience. It got me thinking about language. Language and speaking are one of the things that we take for granted every day. I am used to switching on a daily basis between English, Spanish and French, yet I found it surprising when I hear a language that I am foreign too. As the presenters related their experience a cat meowed at us. I made me ask myself if the ability of language is exclusive to humans? What then characterizes the human language? Why are the natural codes of signals used by animals not able to claim the status of languages?

            Some philosophers such as Descartes, argue that that the word is suitable only to the man alone; the only man has the property of being an animal capable of inventing signs; man, is a “thinking thing”, he is driven by the need to express his thoughts (Descartes, 1646). It is thought and the reason that radically distinguishes man from animal. If animals do not talk, it’s precisely because they do not think.

            However, if thinking is a prerequisite for being able to speak, it implies that the thought must have happened in a language. Under this perspective, to think is to hold a speech, even if it is not actually uttered, so that thought is inseparable from the language that expresses it. In that case, a thought that is not composed of words is not a thought, since thinking is linked to language (Hegel, 1817). Thus, language is a faculty exclusive to Men. Language begins, in fact, where there is not expression but discourse, which animals seem incapable of doing. But what makes the human language unique?

            The human language is a very complex system of signs both in terms of the nature of the signs that compose it and their rules of combination, as well as the functions it performs. On the one hand, human language, unlike animal communication, is infinitely mobile. On the other hand, the linguistic sign is inherently arbitrary. Finally, human language is a system of signs that is doubly articulated (Bergson, 1907).

             Bergson’s analysis on the mobility of the sign is taken up by linguistics through the notion of double articulation. Linguistic signs are an essential characteristic of what Martinet calls the double articulation: whereas each barking of the dog or each bird song is presented as a kind of melody that must be perceived and memorized globally, the words are on the contrary articulated. From a small number of basic sounds or phonemes (vowels, consonants, diphthongs), all meaningless, one can form by the assembly as many words as one needs.

Therefore, is language man’s exclusive? Yes, if language is understood as a double-articulated system of signs. It is mobility, with its adaptive capacity, that is the essential aspect of the “intelligent sign” of human language, as opposed to the fixed nature of the animal “instinctive sign”. Human codes are characterized by their delicacy, complexity and a high degree of arbitrariness. Man, has the ability to compose linguistic signs according to various arrangements that allow him to deal with any discourse situation.

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