Saturday, June 5, 2010


by Richard Crews
Language is humanity's highest intellectual achievement.

Although there are about 7,000 different languages in the world, they have a number of things in common.

Most use the vocal cords and the anatomical structures of the pharynx and mouth to make sounds.
Except, for example, the whistled languages (of which there are about 200) such as Silbo on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands; Kuşköy in Turkey; Aas in the French Pyrenees; Mazatec and Chinantec of Oaxaca, Mexico; Pirahã in South America; and Chepang of Nepal.
And except, of course, for sign language of the deaf which uses no sounds at all.

Most have four basic classes of words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Except that several languages lack an open adverb class. Others, such as Lao, spoken in Laos, have no adjectives at all. A few languages, such as Straits Salish, spoken by indigenous people from north-western regions of North America, do not even have distinct nouns or verbs. Instead they have a single class of words to encompass events, entities, and qualities.

Very importantly, to reflect complex human thought processes most languages allow recursion--"John's friend" can be extended to "John's friend's cat" and then, in turn, to "John's friend's cat's paw," etc. or "John thinks that Mary thinks that..." etc.
Except, for example, that Amazonian Pirahã does not have this recursive quality.

Most languages have plural markers, that is, ways of handling a singular word to indicate that there are more than one of the thing or action referenced.
Except, for example, that the Kiowa people of North America use a plural marker that means "of unexpected number." Attached to "leg," the marker means "one or more than two"; attached to "stone," it means "just two."

Most languages have ideophones by which diverse feelings about an event are closely attached to the event word. Sometimes the feelings attached by way of ideophones can be complex and subtle, for example, the word "rawa-dawa" from the Mundari language of the Indian subcontinent means "the sensation of suddenly realizing you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it."
An interesting example of a language that lacks ideophones is English.

But varied as they may be, languages are at least uniquely human. Only Homo sapiens have developed and use languages.
Except that many species--from bees and bats to porpoises and elephants--are known to have complex socializing, warning, hunting, and foraging communications.
And several species--from parrots to great apes--have learned to correctly interpret and use hundreds of words from human languages. Several gorillas, with arduous training and given special computer keyboard equipment (since they lack the anatomical sound-making mechanisms) have learned hundreds of words, and learned to combine them in grammatical constructions that go beyond their learning experiences. One gorilla mother even taught her son this human-generated sign language.