Humans Speak, Dolphins Don’t

Language is uniquely human

I imagine most definitions of “the humanities” include something about the study of human expression and, to a lesser extent, human interaction. Perhaps the most quintessentially human activity that we do is to communicate with others in one or more human languages. Of course, we are not the only species that communicates. Dolphins and whales click and whistle during social activities and while working together to harvest food. Man’s best friend barks, wags its tail, and lowers its head and ears in response to how it feels about other dogs and towards members of other species. Even insects communicate. Honey bees dance in a figure-8 pattern in relation to the angle of the sun in order to communicate to other members of the hive where to find food. In short, communicating with other members of our species isn’t unique to humankind. However, and this is a big “however,” all systems of animal communication pale in comparison to the level of complexity and detail that humans can convey with their languages.

All human languages, even those that outsiders label as “primitive” or as merely a “dialect” can convey all the same nuances and expressions of human life that any other language can. The seemingly “lowliest” language spoken by only a few speakers in a far-flung isolated part of a rainforest somewhere in the world as well as the “highest,” much-studied, seemingly prestigious language spoken by hundreds of millions as a native language and hundreds of millions more as a second language, are on par with each other from a linguistic point of view. While some languages have long and glorious literary traditions worthy of serious study (see many fields in the humanities) and enjoy social and global prestige, other languages employ oral traditions and morally-rich stories, often imbued with sacred language, and are equally worthy of serious study. All languages are the result of humans’ astounding ability to cognitively organize their reality into sound-meaning mappings that enable them to fulfill their need and desire to communicate and socialize with each other. Speakers of any human language can talk about things past, present, and future. Likewise, we can speak of things physically near to us as well as those far from us. Humans can hypothesize about what might happen if a particular condition is met, or if it is not met. Using their languages, humans can construct an individual identity or create a particular persona, including altering their identities to varying degrees depending on their social situation of the moment. Humans can talk about imaginary people and kingdoms far, far away (see any story that begins with “Once upon a time…” or watch the [large-ordinal-number-here] edition of Star Wars). In contrast, can you imagine dolphins, considered as one of the most intelligent animals with highly developed brains, clicking and whistling about last year’s fish haul in the mid-Pacific compared to this year’s, and what future fisheries might hold in the Arctic Ocean given the current rate of climate change? Yeah, me neither. In short, the ability of humans to speak and communicate on an infinite number of topics in an infinite number of ways is unique, and therefore, makes us human.

Linguistic diversity abounds

Pronouncing a word wrong can get you killed. At least, that was the unfortunate case for 42,000 Ephraimites during a war recorded in the Old Testament. After defeating the Ephraimites, the Gileadites set up guard stations at the passages across the River Jordan. In order to detect Ephraimites trying to get back to their own land, the Gileadites asked each passerby to pronounce a word with a sound that didn’t exist in the Ephraimite dialect:

5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.[i]

Fortunately, pronouncing words with a foreign accent usually doesn’t have this dire of a consequence.

While the Ephraimites clearly could have benefitted from being bi-dialectal, everyone knows that learning a new language can be challenging, and even frustrating. However, experiencing new cultures and having contact with other people in their language is a revelatory experience for many, nearly a rebirth of sorts. A Czech proverb holds that “Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem,” which has been variously translated into English as “If you know only one language, you live only once,” and “You live a new life for every language you speak.”[ii] Might Christ have been referring also to languages when he admonished high priests about learning, when they were gathered for a conference in late December 1832 in Kirtland, Ohio?

78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;

79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.[iii]

Linguistic diversity is rife both “at home” and “abroad.” As a linguist who thoroughly enjoys the variability of language, I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store during an academic year while working as a visiting instructor at Auburn University in Alabama. Both my wife, also a linguist, and I grew up in the western United States (I in California, she in Washington), and we revelled in hearing, experiencing, and soaking in first-hand southern American English. To this day, 13 years after the fact, I still keep a digital copy of a voicemail that my wife received from a woman who spoke with what colloquially is referred to as a “southern drawl.” While most native residents of that community shared a southern pronunciation, this particular speaker took it to a whole nother level (yeah, I just split up “another” with “whole” as an intensifier). On a different occasion, as my wife and I were walking into the grocery store, we overheard a woman say to her son: “You gon’ get back in that buggy!” in an effort to convince her son to get back into the shopping cart she was pushing. Let me reassure the reader that, as a linguist, I love and appreciate linguistic diversity and do not point out these linguistic experiences to ridicule those involved. Quite the contrary. Linguistic diversity is good and should be appreciated as part of the variety of life that makes it more beautiful.

While I believe that linguistic diversity is wonderful and makes communication interesting and even fun, I am aware, of course, of the social prestige that is attached to particular languages and varieties of language. We humans, as cognitive organizers of our experiences, sometimes, perhaps even often, label people, customs, foods, and music that are different from our own experiences and preferences as less-than, or even wrong. Unfortunately, different languages and varieties of language (for example, southern American English, Cockney English in Great Britain, African-American [Vernacular] English) are caught up in the unjust, harsh judgments and portrayals. This negativity is likely caused by a lack of experience with and appreciation for people different from oneself.

Notwithstanding any social stigma, from a linguistic point of view, all languages are beautiful and display systematicity that may be missed by the uninitiated. For example, in African-American (Vernacular) English, the apparently erroneous use of be in some sentences is a sensible way to mark a habitual or recurrent event as opposed to a one-time occurrence,  something that American English lacks at the verbal level:

Like if she be talking to somebody else, and always butting in.[iv]

And the loss of English’s weird third person singular present tense -s (e.g., he lives) is an improvement, from a linguistic perspective, because it makes that verbal paradigm more systematic, as that -s isn’t used with other subjects (e.g., I *lives, you *lives, we *lives, etc.). Also, is there really a need for a semantically empty verb (e.g., he‘s gone) when the message is still clear without it:

But we don’t know where he live at now, ’cause he gone.[v]

Linguistic production varies, and should vary, depending on the situations in which communication takes place. While the same word or pronunciation of a word may be considered incorrect in one situation, it may be the best option in another context. When president-elect Barack Obama placed an order in a Washington, DC restaurant and paid the African-American cashier $20, the cashier asked if he needed change. Obama’s reply, “Nah, we straight,” evidences his dexterity with language, given the situation he found himself in.[vi] Obama naturally and fluidly identified himself as an in-group member, and therefore a fellow member, of the speech community to which the cashier belonged. To take another example, while I agree with all teachers of proper (or “proper”) English that ain’t should not be used in academic papers, I don’t feel any angst when country music stars use ain’t to connect with their audiences through the use of colloquial speech in their songs.

Aside from situational variability, languages vary over time. Speakers of modern-day English may not understand every word in the plays of William Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible, but they likely still understand the message. Getting right the use of thee instead of thou, or thine instead of thy, can take mental effort. While language change is generally a gradual process, some language change is quicker and apparent within a single lifetime. Enter the many evolving slang words, especially those that mean what I will call coolgroovy (think hippies), bad (think Michael Jackson), rad (think 1980s skateboarders/surfers), phatsic(k), dopelit, and many others that this author is not aware of (and haven’t yet been entered in Urban Dictionary). Change of verbal forms takes more time, but is still visible within a lifetime. When the fast-food chain McDonald’s launched a new ad campaign in 2003 with the slogan I’m lovin’ it, it caught my attention. At the time, the use of the -ing form with verbs that indicate a state of being (instead of an action) was uncommon, and thus it caught listeners’ attention. These days, it’s no longer surprising to hear phrases like: she’s needing…they’re wanting to…you’re having to…. Language change is real and (usually) makes our languages better.

Becoming more human

Languages are living organisms that change in response to the needs of their speakers. Put another way, speakers innovate with their languages in order to better relate and describe their environments, and to better interact with others. I believe the human ability for language is God-given, and therefore, all languages have value and are worth studying. Speaking and understanding other languages, aside from our first language, probably makes us more empathic and more human, because after all, those people over there who speak that language or that other variety of my language are humans too. I wonder if Christ speaks all languages in order to connect with their speakers. I like to assume He does.

This post was written by Earl Kjar Brown, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

[i] King James Version of the Bible, Book of Judges, chapter 12.


[iii] Doctrine and Covenants, Section 88 (emphasis added).

[iv] From Corpus of Regional African American Language (CORAAL), female speaker DCA_se1_ag1_f_04. Kendall, Tyler, Jason McLarty, and Charlie Farrington. 2020. ORAAL: Online Resources for African American Language. Eugene, Oregon: The Online Resources for African American Language Project.

[v] CORAAL, male speaker DCA_se1_ag1_m_04.

[vi] Genetti, Carol (ed.). 2019. How Languages Work: An Introduction to Language and Linguistics. 2nd edn. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 265.

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