What is Unique About Language

Many animals can communicate, but only man has the gift of language. An ant can signal to other ants that there is food up ahead, but that is it. It can't describe the 'road' conditions ahead, alternate paths to take or how long it will take to get there. There are no questions answer and no detailed description. It is simply the passing on of simple information; nothing more and nothing less.

But man is different, man doesn't just communicate he describes, inquires and explains. Language, in short, is a tool of a totally different nature than mere communication and understanding that tool and how it works means understanding one of the great wonders of the natural world.

To get a sense of this wondrous tool let's ask a simple question. You have a thought, idea or emotion that you would like to share with someone else. What does it take for this simple acting of sharing to take place?

If it was a book that you wanted to share we could easily answer the question. Simply pick up the book and hand it to your friend. But the brain doesn't have any hands. It's locked away in your head, totally separated from the outside world. What's more, how do you pick up a thought? What, in deed, is a thought? It hardly seems like the same type of object as a book or an apple.

The answer to this question is language. Somehow or other your thoughts, ideas and emotions are translated into language. This language of our thoughts makes its first appearance in our brains in the form of electrical and chemical codes. And with this code we can do remarkable things.

We can translate this code into other codes that we know as spoken language, written language or even visual language (such as sign language). And with these physical linguistic representation of our thoughts and ideas we can now transfer those thoughts and ideas to someone else.

Of course, this is easier said than done. To speak language we need to be able to form the right sounds in the right order at the right speed and the right time. It requires sophisticated coordination of our breath, vocal chords, lips, and tongue. To communicate via written language requires the ability to handle and manipulate a pen or pencil with skill and precision. The same type of skill and coordination are required for sign language.

And these skills cannot be taken for granted. Our bodies have to be built to perform these sophisticated acts and a brain that can coordinate the actions. But with these skills and abilities in place we at least have a means by which we can send our message on its way (through the air, via paper over the internet, etc.).

But this is only half of the story.

A message sent is worthless if it is not received. As such, man also needs the biological machinery to receive, interpret and understand verbal, written or visual language. That doesn't merely require eyes and ears, but a brain that can understand the words, sentences and ideas that are conveyed vis-à-vis the sounds or letters being spoken or written.

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