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The Concepts of Productivity and Displacement as They Are Applied to Human Language

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The world is full of communication. From sparrows chirping and talk radio in the morning to owls hooting and The Tonight Show at night, people and animals are constantly exchanging information through a wide variety of channels

However, there are some key differences between how humans and animals communicate. Specifically, human language is unique on the planet because it has the qualities of generativity, recursion, and displacement.

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Productivity is another key property of human language, it is the notion that the animal kingdom are prone to act in a certain way regarding a particular stimulus, if a stimulus is known then the behaviour can be predicted. Language is not stimulus bound, there is no way to predict what each human will say or think when seeing a particular image or how they will react or feel when reading a story, everyone has their own thoughts and feelings and this is another reason why language is very flexible, it allows for everybody to have their own ideas, there is no set thought process, this idea leads on to productivity, that each person can create new and meaningful utterances that may not have been heard before but can be interpreted effectively by other humans. A very important property in human language is displacement, this is the idea that language allows us to discuss things in the past or future, events that have not yet happened, it allows us to talk about objects that aren’t present and it allows us to conjure up an image of something or someone using descriptive words, this is a very beneficial property of language, it allows us to create fictional stories and talk about things that may not even exist, it allows us to exercise the imagination

Specialisation allows humans to use words to describe a physical action without actually having to do the action, for example if we want someone to leave the room "Get out!" can be shouted without actually having to physically remove the person from the room. Each language has universal traits such as nouns and verbs. A linguist named Joseph Greenberg studied and compared 30 languages from around the world and noted that there are rules in which the way languages are governed. Greenberg states that language universals are of an important value in the study of language.

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In the first, there's a particular buzzing in the here and now. In the second, there may be, but there needn't be--I could say this in reacting to a story about something that happened years ago. In talking about symbolism and words, people often make far too much of arbitrariness--the absence of any relationship between a word's form and its meaning. . . . [W]hen it comes to how language began, displacement is a factor far more important than arbitrariness" (Derek Bickerton, 2009). "There is just one striking exception. A honeybee scout which has discovered a source of nectar returns to its hive and performs a dance, watched by other bees. This bee dance tells the watching bees what direction the nectar lies in, how far away it is, and how much nectar there is. And this is displacement: the dancing bee is passing on information about a site which it visited some time ago and which it now cannot see, and the watching bees respond by flying off to locate the nectar

Startling though it is, the bee dance is, so far at least, absolutely unique in the non-human world: no other creatures, not even apes, can communicate anything of the sort, and even the bee dance is severely limited in its expressive powers: it cannot cope with the slightest novelty (Robert Lawrence Trask and Peter Stockwell, 2007).

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To sum up, the process whereby a language is passed on from one generation to the next is described as cultural transmission. It is clear human beings are born with the biological organs that can help them to produce speech sounds, they still have to acquire a language from the people around them. It is so different from animal as they are born with a set of fixed signals that are produced instinctively. For example, when a bird is isolated for the first two months without hearing other birds, it can still instinctively produce the same songs the other birds of the same species do

But human infants growing up in isolation without any human language input cannot speak a language instinctively.

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Derek Bickerton, Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans. Hill and Wang, 2009

Robert Lawrence Trask and Peter Stockwell, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2007

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