THE PROPERTIES OF LANGUAGE
Humans are the only species capable of communicating. Other creatures apes,
bees, dolphins, zebras are capable of communicating with other members of
their species but the range and complexity of animal communication systems are
staggering. The difference between human and non-human speech can be
defined with the help of the difference between communicative and informative
Communicative versus informative:
In order to describe the properties of human language, we have to distinguish
between the specifically communicative signals and the unintentionally made
informative signals. A person may get information about another person through
unintentionally made signals. For example we may know that
1. A person has cold. (if he sneezes)
2. A person is not at ease. (if he is shifting around in his seat)
3. A person is untidy. (if he has unbrushed hair, rumpled clothing)
Such signals are unintentional communicative signals. But if someone is
intentionally told something using the language, that is informative signals. A
black bird sitting on a bench eating a worm is not taken as sending informative
signals, but if it squeaks loudly when a cat appears, then it is said to be sending
informative signals. When we discuss the properties of human or non-human
speech, we discuss them in terms of their intentionally made communicative
Language whether human or non-human is the most flexible and versatile
system of communication. Natural languages can be taken as codes. Some
properties of these codes are specific to human language only. These properties
should be realized in terms of degrees to which they are present in a system
rather than simply in terms of whether they are present or not. Therefore some
properties are significant and some are insignificant.
Properties of human language:
Significant properties Insignificant properties
Displacement Vocal-auditory channel
Cultural transmission Rapid fade
Difference between significant and non-significant properties:
According to George Yule ‘those properties which are uniquely a part of human
language and unlikely to be found in the communicative system of other
creatures are the significant properties of human language’.
On the other hand those properties which human language share with other non-
human languages are called insignificant or less important properties.
Background for the research in the properties of language:
In 1950's and 1960's Noam Chomsky made a research to illuminate some of the
properties of human mind by using language. Emphasis was made on the
learning of verbal materials-nonsense syllables, randomly constructed lists of
words etc. from the behaviorists point of view the ideal theory was one that
predicted ‘observed behavior’. Chomsky argued that the number of sentences in
any natural language is finite. In 1956 article Chomsky defined a new game for
his theory to predict specific context. The theory was asked to generate all
syntactically correct strings of words i.e. the theory should capture the essential
properties of all language behavior. This lead the psychologists to shift their
attention from the memorization of linguistically related materials to questions
about the kind of capacities that human mind must possess in order to use
language. So the properties of natural language became more and more
important than some specific linguistic utterance.
According to the definition of David Crystal in A dictionary of phonetics and
linguistics arbitrariness is “a suggested defining property of human language
whereby linguistic forms are said to lack any physical correspondence with
the entities in the world to which they refer. The relationship between sound
and meaning is said to be arbitrary or conventional as classical tradition
puts it. By contrast some words in a language may be partly or wholly iconic
i.e. they do reflect properties of the non-linguistic world e.g. onomatopoetic
expressions such as splash, murmur, mumble”.
According to George Yule in the study of language,
“The linguistic forms have no natural or iconic relationship with that
four legged barking object out in the world. Recognizing this general fact
about language leads us to conclude that a property of linguistic signs is
their arbitrary relationship with the object they are used to indicate. The
forms of human language demonstrate a property called arbitrariness: they
do not in any way, ‘fit’ the object they denote”.
So we can conclude that the symbols used in a language are arbitrary i.e. there
is no natural connection between linguistic form and its meanings. Any concept
of grammatical rule can be mapped onto a symbol. There is no direct link
between form and meaning, the signal and the message. Or in Saussure’s view
we can say that there is no connection between the signifier and the signified. It
implies that the signifier is unmotivated in relation to its signified.
Signs and symbols:
For Saussure the traditional use of the word symbol to designate the linguistic
sign is unacceptable. It is the characteristic of symbols that they are never
entirely arbitrary. They show a visage of natural connection between the signifier
Iconic onomatopoeic words:
These are the words in language which echo the sounds of objects or activities.
In English for example the words cuckoo, crash, whirrs are onomatopoeic words.
Onomatopoeic and exclamatory are part of natural sound theory.
But these onomatopoeic words are rare in majority of languages. Animal
signaling are onomatopoeic because the set of signals used in their
communication is finite. Many of these forms are used in specific situations and
at particular times.
Merits and demerits of arbitrariness:
1) Arbitrariness increases the flexibility and versatility of communication
2) The extension of vocabulary is not constrained by matching by form and
3) For Chomsky, human beings are genetically arbitrary general principles
which determine the general structure of all languages.
1) Arbitrariness puts a considerable burden upon memory in the language
2) Arbitrariness makes the signal more difficult to interpret for one who
does not know the system.
3) In chomskyean hypothesis a good deal of principles including operation
of the structure dependency in UG is also arbitrary.
Absolute and Relative arbitrariness:
Saussure made a distinction between absolute and relative arbitrariness:
“The fundamental principle of the arbitrary nature of the linguistic signs does not
prevent us from distinguishing in any language between what is intrinsically
arbitrary, that is unmotivated, and what is only relatively arbitrary. Not all signs
are absolutely arbitrary. In some cases, there are factors which allow us to
recognize different degrees of arbitrariness, although never to discard the notion
entirely. The signs may be motivated to a certain extent.”
Compound words and derivational forms are relatively arbitrary or partially
motivated. For example, according to Saussure the word nineteen is not
absolutely arbitrary but relatively arbitrary. It is made up by combining two words
i.e. nine and teen to create a new motivated sign. It is similar to the way in which
two words are combined to make phrases. The meaning of the new phrase is
related to the combined meaning of individual words.
Arbitrariness is absolute and motivation is relative.
There are two reasons for this claim.
1) The elements of a motivated signs themselves are arbitrary.
2) The value of the term as a whole is never equal to the sum of the values
of its parts.
For Saussure, relative motivation implies,
The analysis of the term in question and hence a syntagmatic relation,
Appeal to one or more other terms and hence an associative relation.
According to the principle of absolute and relative arbitrariness, the languages of
the world are divided into two types.
Grammatical languages, in which, the absence of motivation falls into
a minimum e.g. proto Indian European and Sanskrit.
Lexico- logical languages, in which, absence of motivation reaches
its maximum e.g. Chinese.
According to the definition of David Crystal in ‘A dictionary of phonetics and
phonology’, “it is a suggested defining property of human language (contrasting
with the properties of other semiotic systems), which sees language a being
structurally organized in terms of two abstract levels. At the first, higher level,
language is analyzed in terms of combinations of (meaningful) units (such as
morphemes, words); at another, lower level, it is seen as a sequence of
segments which lack any meaning in themselves, but which combine to form
units of meaning. These two levels are sometimes referred to as Articulation – a
primary and a secondary articulation respectively.”
George Yule in the study of language defines duality as; language is originated at
two levels or layers simultaneously. This property is called duality.
Duality or double articulation is the organization of language on two levels
The physical level at which we can produce individual sounds like vowel
and consonant sounds. These individual sounds have no intrinsic
A higher level when those sounds are combined in a particular way to
form words. These combined sounds have intrinsic meaning.
So, every language has two levels of structure i.e. distinct sound level and
distinct meaning level. The smaller or lower level elements are meaningless,
whereas the larger higher level units have a distinct identifiable meaning.
Advantage of Duality:
One sound is never equal to one meaning throughout a language. Sounds,
vowels and consonants, are organized in multiple ways to produce infinite
meaning combinations. This duality of the levels is the most economical feature
of human language. With a limited set of distinct sounds a very large number of
sound combinations (words) can be made.
A dog may be able to produce ‘wolf’ sound. But in this sound ‘w’, ‘oo’, ’f
’ elements can not be separated out as distinct level of production. If a dog could
operate with double level, then it would have been able to produce sounds as
‘oowf or ’foow’. So, duality is a feature specific to human language only.
George Yule defines productivity as,
“The language users manipulate their linguistic resources to produce new
expressions and new sentences. This property of human language has been
termed as productivity.
So this property of a language system enables its users to understand and
produce utterances which they have never heard before.
Productive capability of children:
Children are especially active in forming and producing utterances which they
have never heard before. Since they are passing through language acquisition
stage, their output is always far greater than their input.
Productive capability of Adults:
When a new situation arises or a new object has to be described, even adults
manipulate their language resources to produce new utterances. They can
produce infinitive number of utterances with the help of finite speech sounds.
Productivity verses imitation and memorization:
Some linguists claim that language is a behavior learnt by imitation. But the
productive property of language refutes this theory. How can a child produce an
utterance with the help of imitation which he has never heard before? We can
say that language is not learned solely by imitation and memorization.
a) Non human signaling appears to have little flexibility. Cicades have four
signals; vervet mokies have about thirty six vocal calls.
b) Moreover it is not possible for animals to produce new signals for
communicating novel experiences. A worker bee normally able to
communicate the source of nectar, will fail to do so if the location is new.
Animal signals have features called fixed reference. Each signal is fixed in
relation to a particular object or occasion.
Language works on sound system and one sound can change the meaning of
the entire word. Let’s see that the sound of /p/ and the sound of /b/ my have not a
big distinct difference when pronounce separately but when the same one is
inserted in the wood, it changes the meaning entirely e.g. pack and back there is
not a big difference in pronunciation but the meanings are entirely change. This
property is called discreteness. Each sound in the language is treated as
discrete. It is possible to produce a range of sounds in a continuous stream
which are generally like the p and b sounds. These physical different sounds
could conceive of as the spoken counterpart of a written set e.g.
continuous stream is only interpreted as being either a p sound or a b sound in
the language. We have a very discrete view about the sounds of our language
and wherever a pronunciation falls within the physical possible range of sounds
and it is interpreted as a linguistically specific and meaningful distinct sound.
5) Cultural Transmission:
We do not inherit language genetically but we acquire it in a culture, from other
speakers of the same language. For example a baby born in Pakistan and
brought up in United States will have physical features like us but he will
inevitably speak English.
George Yule, in his the study of language, defines cultural transmission as,
“Process whereby language is passed from one
Generation to the next….”
It is argued that human beings are born with an innate disposition to acquire
language and society or culture has very little to do with it. It may be true that
humans have innate disposition to acquire language but they are not born with
the ability to produce utterances of a specific language. A child is not born with
an innate quality to learn English or Urdu. It is the society or culture wherefrom
he acquires it.
Specific to human communication:
In animal communication the signals used are intrinsic and are not learned.
Some birds however combine intrinsic with learning (exposure) to produce calls.
But if these birds do not hear other birds for the first seven weeks of their life,
they will instinctively produce some calls or songs although they will be abnormal
in some way.
On the other hand if a human infant is kept in isolation, he will produce no
instinctive language. It proves that cultural transmission of a specific language is
crucial to human acquisition only.
According to the definition of David Crystal in A dictionary of phonetics and
linguistics displacement is
“A suggested defining property of human language, whereby language
can be used to refer to contexts removed from the immediate situation of the
speaker. Animal calls seem generally tied to specific situations and have
nothing comparable to displaced situation.”
According to George Yule in the study of language humans in their language,
“….refers to past and future time and to other locations. This property of
human language is called displacement.”
Displacement facilitates the user of a language to talk about things and events
not present in the immediate environment.
Factors involved in displacement:
The factors involved in displacement property are more than just the
communication of a single location.
1. We can talk about things and places whose existence can not be
even sure of.
2. We can talk about mythical creatures, demons, fairies, angels, Santa
3. It allows us to create fiction and to describe possible future world.
Specific to human language only:
Animal communication is almost exclusively designed for this moment, here and
now. It can not be used to relate events which are far removed in time and place.
Bees’ communication does seem to have this property to some extent. For
example, a worker bee performs a certain dance to communicate to the other
bees the location of the nectar it has seen. The consideration involved is that of
degree. Bees’ communication has displacement to an extremely limited form.
7) Language universals:
A linguistic universal is a statement true for all natural languages. For example all
languages nouns and verbs and all spoken languages have consonants and
vowels. Joseph Greenberg, the pioneer of this field derived a set of basic
universals from a set of some thirty languages. These basic universals mostly
deal with syntax.
Absolute and Implicational universals:
Absolute universals apply to every known language. For example all languages
Implicational universals applies to languages which have a particular feature that
is always accompanied by another feature such as if a language has trial
grammatical number, it also has a dual grammatical number. Whereas non-
implicational universals just state the existence of one particular feature.
In contrast to absolute universals are tendencies. Tendencies are the statements
which may not be true for all languages but nevertheless are far too common to
be the result of chance.
But strictly speaking, a tendency is not a universal but exceptions to most
statements called universals can be found.
Unidirectional and bidirectional universals:
A unidirectional universal is one in which the implication works only in one way.
For example, languages which place relative clauses before the noun they
modify again and usually have SOV order, so prenominal relative clauses imply
SOV. But on the worldwide level, SOV languages show little preference for
prenominal relative clauses and thus SOV implies little about the order of relative
clauses. And as this implication works only in one way, it is unidirectional
universal. In a bidirectional universal implication works in both ways; for example
languages with preposition usually have SOV order and likewise SOV languages
usually have prepositions. This implication works in both ways so it is
All languages must define the structural relationship between its symbols
through a system of grammar. Language is distinguished from other forms of
communication by these rules of grammar. It is with the help of grammar that we
manipulate a finite set of symbols to create an infinite number of utterances.
Grammar combines smaller elements into larger elements. Some technical terms
are used to illustrate the rules of grammar.
Major properties mentioned above are the core features of human language.
They are unlikely to be found in the communication system of other creatures.
Human languages have many other properties but these are not uniquely human
characteristics. These properties are as follow:
1) Vocal auditory channel:
Human linguistic communication is typically generated via the vocal organs and
perceived via the ears. However,
a) Linguistic communication can also be transmitted without sounds through
writing or sign languages of the deaf. This property is not a defining feature of
b) Many species use the vocal auditory channel as well e.g. dolphins.
Reciprocity property states that any speaker or sender of a linguistic signal can
also be a listener or a receiver.
This property states that linguistic signals are not used to serve any other
purpose e.g. breathing or feeling.
4) Non- directionality:
This property states that the linguistic signals can not be restricted to any specific
person or direction. Anyone within hearing range can pick up these signals. It is
the property of spoken language only.
5) Rapid fades:
This property states that the linguistic forms disappear quickly as soon as they
are produced. This property is also specific for spoken language only.
1) Yule George, the study of language, Cambridge university press, 1996.
2) Crystal David, A dictionary of phonetics and linguistics.
3) Saussure, course of general linguistics. Beijing: Foreign Language
Teaching and research press,2001.
Table of contents:
The properties of language
Sr .no Topic Page. no
1. Introduction 1
2. Communicative verses informative 1
3. Human language 1
4. Properties of human language a) significant properties b) 1
5. Difference between significant and insignificant 2
6. Background for the research in the properties of 2
7. Arbitrariness 2
8. Signs and symbols 3
9. Iconic onomatopoeic words 3
10. Merits and demerits of arbitrariness 3
11. Absolute and relative arbitrariness 3
12. Arbitrariness is absolute and motivation is relative 4
13. Duality 4
14. Advantage of duality 5
15. Animal communication 5
16. Productivity 5
17. Productivity verses imitation and memorization 5
18. Non human signaling 6
19. Discreteness 6
20. Cultural transmission 6
21. Innate predisposition 6
22. Specific to human communication 7
23. Displacement a) definition b) advantage c) factors 7
involved in displacement
24. Specific to human language only 7
25. Language universals 8
26. Absolute and implicational universals 8
27. Unidirectional and bidirectional universals 8
28. Grammar 8
29. Insignificant properties 8
30. Vocal auditory channel 9
31. Reciprocity 9
32. Specialization 9
33. Non- directionality 9
34. Rapid fades 9
35. Bibliography 10