Homo sapiens describes a species capable of thought, while homo loquens is used to describe a species capable of speech. Only humans are capable of communication through speech. Calls made by animals represent a very limited form of speech. Animals are also capable of making facial expressions, hand movements, and have a sense of touch, just as we humans do. However, we differ from other animals because of language. The basis of the chimpanzee society is grooming, cleaning each other. Human society is based in speech. The development of vocal communication in human beings has been very rapid, dating as far back as five to eight million years ago.
Language is primarily vocal, although it is also written. Even today, many people are illiterate. Speech is often closely related to other non-verbal behavior. While speaking, body language plays an important role as well. Non-verbal communications, gestures, have a language of their own. Gestures that may be acceptable in some cultures may be offensive in others.
Tone of voice is also important. Most of us can relate to the anecdote of the mother calling her child. When the mother first calls for the child, her voice is normal. Yet as the child continues to play, the mother’s tone of voice will change, typically pronouncing every syllable of the child’s name.
Language has two different layers. Smaller units, letters, are themselves meaningless. Letters can be combined to form something meaningful, a word. For example, the letters s, t, o, and p form the word stop. This system is unique to human languages.
A feature of the English language is stress. By shifting stress, “wind” easily becomes “wind”.
Another feature is called redundancy, and an advantage of it is that speech is seldom misheard.
Language is not in our genes. A person who grows up speaking Spanish probably learned Spanish as a child. If a baby born in Peru were to be adopted and moved to Thailand, the baby would grow up speaking Thai. According to Noam Chomsky, the “God Father of Linguistics”, some of our language skills are genetically inherited.
Language first appeared in modern man 100,000 years ago and it is thought to have spread worldwide.
Linguists focus on the structure of current languages, and they focus less on how languages came into existence. However, linguistic evolution: “it is a good way to appreciate what has made our species so remarkable”.