Discussion 2: What is language?

After having read chapters 1, 2, and 14 (pp.7–14 and 62–66) in 5 Minute Linguist, respond to the following prompt.

A common theme in the readings you’ve done so far is the distinction between communication and language. In brief, not all communication is language.

In chapter 1 of 5 Minute Linguist, Robert Rodman writes that “[i]t’s language that distinguishes us from all other creatures” (p.7). He makes the case that “apes and other animals communicate with each other […] but they lack the linguistic flexibility of humans—our amazing ability to express new thoughts, without limits on subject matter” (p.9). For the purposes of this discussion, let’s accept this statement at face value.

In chapter 14 of the same book, Donna Jo Napoli expands on this argument, advancing a few criteria to set apart animal communication systems from human language. She makes it clear that while, yes, bees and parrots and myriad other animals have quite advanced communication systems, meeting some of the criteria, none of them meet all the criteria, and thus none possess language.

I want you to think back, thousands of years, to the early days of modern humans, and the early days of language. What do you think the turning point might have looked like when our ancestors advanced from mere animal communication to what would be considered language by Rodman and Napoli?

Demonstrate a clear understanding of what these scholars argue makes language distinct from other forms of communication, and incorporate the criteria advanced by Donna Jo Napoli.

29 thoughts on “Discussion 2: What is language?”

  1. Language is distinct from all other forms of communication because it is the defining trait of what makes us as humans different in our communication. We are the only species that can talk and display exactly what is meant via our language compared to all other species who communicate without it. Animals themselves use language but not to the extent we as humans do. We have grammar rules, are naturally hardwired to learn language, and can talk about objects that aren’t present. The defining characteristics of what makes human language different from all other forms of communication amongst species is why human language is distinct.

  2. Thinking back to the early days of human civilization, our ancestors advanced from simple communication to language. One possible turning point for this could have been the development of grammar, which are the rules that govern language as we use it. Compared to the fact that animals have no rules for their communication. Another distinction between language and communication was described by Donna Jo Napoli. As stated, in chapter 14 of, 5 Minute Linguist, the five characteristics of language are, displacement, innate, systematic, the ability to speak about abstract notions, and the creation of new expressions. These characteristics separate human language from animal communication. Lastly, humans use language to express their creativity according to these standards. Which is why language is so distinctive and different from alternative forms of communication.

  3. Language is not the same thing as communicating, language is what makes us human. According to Donna Jo Napoli, in order for a communication system to be identified as a language it must contain these five components. The language must be systematic; a set of rules that allow for communication to be effective also known as grammar. It must be is innate and have displacement. Like us humans we are born already exposed to language no one needs to teach it to us, we are also able to talk about people or objects that aren’t immediately present in a conversation. The language must be able to create new expressions and have the ability to talk about abstract notions. Other species are able to communicate with each other through sounds and signals, but their communication system is unable to fulfill the five components that are needed for it to be considered a language. As I think back to the early days of modern humans, our language is constantly evolving over time from only being able to communicating through hand gestures to being able to speak modern day English.

  4. Our ancestors advanced from primal communication to what would now be considered language. This turning point in history must have led to new groundbreaking ways of life. Once the primal humans were able to properly communicate with each other, then development and advancements must have started for the species. I think that the turning point for man was the practice of language, which could have led to agricultural and habit changes among them.

    Although primitive humans may have been able to communicate through facial expressions or hand signals before the development of spoken language, enlightened scholars like Rodman and Napoli argue that language and communication are very different. One reason Napoli gives is that language has grammar rules that must be followed. Without rules, then a language will not be cohesive and understood correctly. Hand gestures, facial expressions, and grunts do not follow any grammar rules and therefore will not count as a language to the scholars. With language, we are able to identify and use nouns, think of abstract ideas [that do not truly exist], and plan cohesive thoughts and ideas with other people. Simple communication without language is unable to have much thought and inquiry within them.

  5. Thinking back to the early days of communication and language, the primal humans used body language and nonverbal communications to be able to convey their thoughts to one another. These communications slowly developed over time into more cohesive and fuller words and phrases to make the language as we now know it. When we describe humans, the only thing that sets us apart the way we communicate from other animals is our language thanks to a system of grammar and the ability to create new expressions and ideas. I think that the turning point of this would be when humans started to set rules for themselves in the way that they talked which helped the language become more organized.

  6. Language is a very interesting phenomenon as how different it is than other forms of communication. It is how language is learned and adaptable based on different situations. “Equally impressive is that they grow up to master different styles of speech: everything from formal, job-interview talk to street slang.” Other animals such as dogs and cats do not have this power when it comes to communication. Animals like those will use body language and do other things to communicate with their owner, but cannot talk, of course. They lack the linguistic form of language. Donna Jo Napoli explains the difference between linguistic language and other forms of communication. Napoli says that “Humans language is also innate. Children are hard wired to acquire language. No one needs to teach them.” (p.62) However, the biggest detail that Napoli states about human language is that we can talk about things that do not exist. Humans can talk about past tense and in the future, and animals cannot do that.

  7. When we look back at the early days of language, things were either expressed through art and gestures. The turning point would have been the ability to realize that early humans were specific and thorough with language. Donna Jo Napoli distinguishes that as “displacement”, where humans would talk about objects that arent present. This would have been a surprising relevation for early humans.

  8. Thinking back thousands of years, to the early days of modern humans, and the early days of language, I think the turning point of communication to language would be when humans figured out that we have more advanced communication skills than animals. I think that once humans figured out that we have grammar and these five distinct characteristics, that is when they started to take advantage of that and eventually turn it into what we call language.
    Rodman and Napoli’s argument of what makes language distinct from other forms of communication is that we can express emotions, express all of human thought and each sentence you create is unique and different from any other sentence you’ve ever heard or spoken. This criteria is advanced by Donna Jo Napoli because she stated the five characteristics of language called grammar.

  9. I think that the turning point would looked like a rather slow advancement in the the way that early humans would have communicated with each other. I say slow because evolution takes a long time. We didn’t just start talking to each other out of nowhere.

    I do think that this turning point would have had a rise in new forms of technology. One of the characteristics mentioned by Napoli is the fact that human language has grammar. We can’t just mix up an assortment of words and call it a sentence. There is an order. I believe this characteristic would have led to a uniform way in which we spoke, which would have led to the creation and expression (another characteristic) of new ideas. Another characteristic such as displacement would have been contribution to how we spoke with each other. Now, we could refer to things not present in our current setting. Again, this contributes to the expression of new ideas. Other animals cannot do this. I think their forms of communication are perfect for the present setting, but not the best for any advancement in their species in the future.

    This turning point, although slow, starts to show the telltale differences between animal communication, and human language. It is complex, which in turn, causes it to make humans themselves into a massively advanced species.

  10. Human civilization has evolved from primal forms of communication to sophisticated language, marked by the development of grammar and distinct characteristics outlined by scholars like Donna Jo Napoli. Language, unlike mere communication, possesses grammar rules, enabling abstract expression and the creation of new expressions. This linguistic capacity has propelled human advancement, facilitating complex interactions and the exploration of abstract concepts. In contrast, animals lack such structured language, relying on non-linguistic forms of communication. Napoli emphasizes language’s innate nature, highlighting humans’ unique ability to discuss abstract notions and conceptualize past and future events, setting language apart from other modes of communication.

  11. Communication and language are two different things. Noticing from the early days of human civilization our ancestors were advanced. by communicating then through language. I believe that a turning point in which our ancestors advanced mere animal communication to what would be considered language is by grammar, culture, and body communication. Using the grammar system helps people communicate with other animals as well. As stated by Donna Jo Napoli, she says five characteristics languages that split up human language from animal communication. The five characteristics that split up language are innate, displacement, systematic, the ability to speak about abstract notions and the creations of new expressions. using these five characteristics, you can observe the way people better understand each other. I also believe that such turning point can benefit people with the use of technology. People use technology to fix their grammar and there are also people who use emojis as signals explain certain things. over time throughout history until now, people find new ways to communicate and understand each other better.

  12. Thinking back to the early days, our human ancestors used grunting and hooting as a form of communication and eventually, it gradually developed into the language we now use today. Further thoughts about language and communication were stated by Donna Jo Napoli. The five characteristics of language are, displacement, innate, systematic, the ability to speak about abstract notions, and the creation of new expressions. These aspects differentiate human language from animal communication. This is when we realized we have more advanced communication abilities than animals.

  13. The idea behind communication and language that resides within humanity is a concept that I’ve struggled to grasp for a long time. The switch from animal talk to human language likely happened when early people started saying things about stuff that wasn’t there, making up new ideas and sharing them, and passing on their way of speaking to others, this was the start of the concept of grammar. As groups grew bigger, language got fancier, letting folks talk about things they couldn’t see and make up lots of different ways to say things. This big change helped humans work together and stay alive, spreading from person to person over time. Donna Jo Napoli outlines five key traits that distinguish human language from animal communication: innateness, displacement, systematicity, the capacity to discuss abstract ideas, and the creation of new expressions. So, when people started doing these things, it set human language apart from how animals communicate and was a really important step in how humans evolved.

  14. I think the turning point of when our ancestors advanced from mere animal communications to what would be considered language was when they acquired the five characteristics described by Napoli. Eventually, humans would go from simple grunts and gestures to full language including the five characteristics described by Napoli. Such as having grammar in our language (systematic), children speaking naturally (innate), talking about things that aren’t present (displacement), talking about abstract notions, and creating new expressions. These five characteristics are what separates humans from all other beings and are what I think is the turning point for us from using animal communications to what our language is today.

  15. We have seen that language has differed in a wide and significant way since the early days of our ancestors till today . Back then there wasn’t what’s really called language it was in fact animal communication,however they used to communicate by means of signs or gestures. Communication nowadays is way different , Donna Jo Nappoli stated 5 characteristics of language in which they explain the change that happened from years ago till today . The turning point may have been the development of new words, phrases and the formation of sentences which made the communication to what is called language with its main characteristics:systematic, innate , displacement, the creation of new expressions, the ability to speak about abstract notion .Added to that , the use of proper grammar nowadays made communication easier and advanced .

  16. The transition from basic animal communication to what is considered language by researchers like Rodman and Napoli likely occurred gradually over an extended period. The use of grammar helped people communicate with each other and animals. Grammar originated when our ancestors invented new concepts, shared them, and imparted their speech patterns to others. Overtime, this would have led to the emergence of a structured language with elements like grammar, syntax, and semantics, marking a significant step in human cognitive and cultural evolution.

  17. Throughout history, we have seen the turning point of language/communication in many ways. Primal humans have used many different languages throughout a time period whether it was body language or nonverbal language. Going back many years ago, animal communication was a huge factor, even though it was through different signs. According to Rodman and Napoli, grammar has helped several people communicate with animals as well as themselves. Throughout these chapters, we get to explore Naploli’s “five characteristics of language” which include innate, displacement, the ability to speak about abstract notions,systematic and the creation of new expressions. In conclusion, all of these characteristics have been a turning point within the history of language.

  18. What I think the turning point might have looked like when our ancestors advanced from mere animal communication to what would be considered language by Rodman and Napoli is the way humans realized language can expand more and we aren’t the same as animals. Napoli mentions the five characteristics of human languages like being systematic (rules in grammar), being innate (children being born hard-wired to know a language), displacement (talking about objects that aren’t present), having the ability of creating new expressions, and discussing abstract ideas. With all this humans were able to expand their knowledge of language to be passed on and we are still learning everyday.

  19. I believe the turning point to what we would consider langue to be when basic words were formed in reference to certain objects or things. Primal language would be a proper description to something such as that. To make mere grunts or noises to refer to things is something animalistic, but to form words is the basis to a language being created. It is what separates us from mere animals to being people of our own. The intelligence and vocal foreground needed were always there, it just took some time to develop cohesive language and speaking.

  20. In the early days of language and modern humans, things were different compared to the abundance of languages spoken today. Back in the early days language was much simpler, and our ancestors had spoken with such little communication. Today language has developed into a variety of different languages. In today’s history, we see different languages and dialects that our ancestors have brought to us. The turning point of all this was the different grammar we use and many different cultures. In the text, Donna Jo Napoli explains that The five characteristics of language are displacement, innate, systematic, the ability to speak about abstract notions, and the creation of new expressions. And by humans using these characteristics you can see a development over the thousands of years of languages evolve.

  21. Trying to figure out what happened thousands of years ago and how humans went from animal communication to a structured language is difficult. With little information and a lot of guessing, I would imagine a structured language evolved very slowly with participants building their vocabulary as they go and even slower to define and agree upon what is grammatically correct. I think it probably changed quite a bit when it was being developed.
    Language and communication are connected and thought of as the same things but in reality, they are not. The focal point of language is to share information through signs, symbols and words in a structured order and communications focal point is only the message and how information is delivered. Language is the tool whereas communication is the process. I read a good analogy that helped me separate the two, unfortunately from an unknown source, online and that is language is like a road and communication is the car. The car (communication) can ride down that road (language) or go off to another road (another language). I also think you can ride down that road (language) on a bike (text message), a skateboard (phone call), or roller skates (snail mail). Language uses a complex structure of grammar to produce sentences that convey your exact thoughts while communication is the means this message is delivered.
    When considering Napoli’s criteria for language (Systematic, innate, displacement, abstract notions, and ability to create) I believe the grammatical structure of language lets us express ideas, thoughts and feelings as well as allowing for the recognition of past, present and future separates lesser forms of communication such as simple gestures, morse code or eye contact. They can convey a message but do not have an organized method that allows us to articulate and share our true meaning.

  22. Throughout these readings, there is a significant focus point when it comes to the use of communication among living things (Humans and animals) that are incredibly important in their daily lives. However, it is crucial to understand that “language”, which is something that is often grouped along with communication, greatly differs from one another; especially when it comes to human language. Because of this, the meaning of language is considered to be more “complex” and “structured” in comparison to the communication we often see in animals that ultimately makes human language so distinguishable from the rest.

    Scholars such as Robert Rodman have made claims regarding the complexity of human language and how “flexible” and creative our ability to use it can be. Donna Jo Napoli also adds onto this claim by emphasizing unique aspects found in human language, such as the existence of grammar that often controls the way we talk in order to make sense in ourselves and to others (especially in writing). Another aspect is the use of displacement and existentialism (in our ability to understand these concepts when it comes to time and objects that are present) found in our linguistic abilities that come to us naturally. This creates a sense of innateness when it comes to our ability to adapt to language even as young children despite how systemic it can be.

    Using this, I think there were many changes made to human language from the beginning of history that made it what it is today. Because of this, I think human communication and language wasn’t too far off from that of modern day animals (grunts, gestures, noises, etc). However, as time evolved, so did humans and the way they spoke to each other as they began to use words as a means to connect with each other, along with the creation of literacy that created structure and creativity in the way we use words today.

  23. Language is a form of conduct. That allows humans to be able to formally express themselves between one another. Language gives humans the opportunity to express themselves in ways animals and other creatures can’t. This falls back to what ”Roberrt Rodman point he was trying to make about how language distinguishes us from other creatures. To add on to his point although animals may be able to communicate with each other or even communicate to humans like when a dog barks when he is trying to say he hungry, they still lack the linguistic flexibility of humans. Furthermore, a dog can’t tell you a story about something that he or she experienced in its life, but a human can.

  24. Before spoken languages existed, humans used movements and body language to communicate in the past. These ways of communication developed into the complex languages we speak today over time. Human language is grammatically structured, allowing for the expression of new concepts and ideas, which sets it apart from the communication of other animal species. A major turning point, in my opinion, was when humans started creating rules and guidelines for their speech, which resulted in the creation of more organized languages.This most likely occurred the closer we got to civilization.

  25. Years ago, our ancestors communicated by many methods, but none of them is considered as language by the criteria of today. I think one of the turning points was the ability for humans to talk about things that are not present. Another turning point mentioned by Donna Jo Napoli is grammar. Humans have defined a set of rules that are needed for us to speak. These rules helped us to have a common way of communicating, advancing humans’ ability to describe and speak about the future, past, present, and many other things in different ways.

  26. The transition from animal communication to human language likely involved the development of linguistic flexibility, allowing for the expression of new thoughts without limits on subject matter. This transition would have included the inclusion of displacement, productivity, and duality of patterning, as outlined by Donna Jo Napoli. Our ancestors likely began combining sounds and gestures in many ways to convey abstract concepts and discuss events in space and time, marking the start of true language and setting humans apart from other creatures.

  27. According to the readings, humans are the only creatures on the planet with the power of speech and that is what makes us human. Referring to Donna Jo Napoli, in order for a communication system to be identified as a language, it must contain five components. Communication must be systematic and one of the five components is grammar. Animals don’t use grammar when they communicate and that is why it is not classified as language. Language must include a set of rules and that is what makes language distinctive from other forms of communication. Looking back at our ancestors, when they advanced from mere animal communication, I feel that it went from alot of hand gestures to a better spoken vocabulary which is what makes language different from communication. We started following a set of rules to speak language and not just communicate. Other species are able to communicate with each other through hand gestures, sounds or signals but however it is not classified as a language because they do not contain the five components that are needed in order for it to be classified as language. Our communication evolved from hand gestures/sounds to be able to speak, use rules to develop new expressions and sentences everyday.

  28. Way back when, people didn’t talk fancy like we do now. They just had basic ways of saying stuff. But over time, things got more complicated. There was eventually this evolution in people and they were called linguists, and they study how language works. They’ve figured out that language has rules, like grammar, which let us say all sorts of things. It’s not just about saying ‘Hi’ or ‘Bye.’ We can talk about big ideas and such and be able give descriptions.
    our ability to talk has helped us humans a lot. We can make friends, understand complicated things, and even imagine stuff from the past or future. Animals don’t have this fancy language system. They just make noises to get their point across. It’s been studied and proofed and taught which is a very progressive move on mankind, it’s hard to imagine a time where there was not a common way to communicate, and everyone around the entire world now has a way to communicate and there are peoples alike who use those languages, we can be studied and taught and there are advanced languages such as Arabic where there are a thousand ways to say one sentence but as English is so limited compared to Arabic, the language or dialect is simplified to adapt to this simplified language. As our brains evolved, so did our capacity for language. Suddenly, we weren’t just grunting and pointing at stuff. We could weave intricate sentences, talk about yesterday’s lunch or tomorrow’s dreams, and connect with people across oceans and centuries. Donna Jo Napoli was linguist and all-around language enthusiast, emphasizes “recursion” when it comes to how our language evolved. It’s like the Russian dolls that have dolls inside the bigger dolls—embedding structures within structures. A sentence inside another sentence, sometimes metaphoric, but can also verbalize two events in one sentence.

  29. Thinking back thousands of years ago to early days of modern humans and language. Many humans used facial gestures, hand gestures and did not communicate verbally however they (neanderthals, homosapiens and cavemen) made animal-like noises to express themselves considering their environment was strictly wildlife and animal noises is all they heard and knew of. We also know that another form of communication was art such as cave paintings, which expressed individuals thoughts and articulated what day to day life was like. Such as hunting, gathering and traveling. The turning point may have looked like the evolution of homosapiens to humans which means a drastic change in the brain and anatomy evolved into a higher complexity which eventually led humans to verbally communicate and to being able to form real words and sentences coherently. Humans developed language overtime using grammar and speech. When language is used in our homes and we hear it daily we are naturally hard-wired to learn it without the help of anyone. Rodman and Napoli firmly believe that real language is composed of more than just words and that it is a living expression made with emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Each sentence we make holds a unique essence, an individual part of our communication. Napoli shows her perspective by breaking down language into 5 key components, which we know as grammar. Making our words illuminate the richness of humanity and our personal experiences.

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