Characteristics of human language

So I thought for this post I’d go over a more general topic, and that is some characteristics of all human languages. And I emphasize human because we know that other animals communicate, but their methods of communication differ from human language in certain key ways.

Some of these are going to seem like no brainers, but often in classes you’ll find that you need strong definitions to build off of. Even if it seems incredibly obvious and intuitive to you, sometimes defining something like “language” can evolve into deep arguments. 

There is also quite some debate about this specific topic and it will be immediately obvious where those would be. This is just a collection of a bunch of different characteristics I have read about being described.

Most of these come from a guy called Charles Hockett, who was also a big player in the linguistics world. So the first and most obvious one is that language is used to communicate. This is just a ground rule that everyone already knew going into this. Here are some useful definitions.

Language is used to communicate!


Some useful definitions

  • a sign is a discrete unit of meaning
  • a convention is a set of agreed upon norms
  • a conventional sign is one that all members of a language community agree to use with a certain meaning
  • the study of signs is semiotics

Next would be that signs are arbitrary.

“Language has an arbitrary sound-meaning relation.”

This is called the principle of arbitrariness, or sometimes Saussurean arbitrariness.

This guy, Ferdinand de Saussure, came up with this: a sign is a combination of a signifier (the sound part) and the signified (concept). And he observes that in most languages, the sign is arbitrary and there’s no natural reason why a sound is linked to a concept. 

And then you could say: language is hierarchically organized.

This trait is a little weirdly worded. Basically, all languages use a system to combine units, like sounds, to form larger units, like words.

They arrange those words in a particular order and substitute some units for others. This definition is left intentionally broad because there are a diverse set of orders and ways to arrange arrange units.

The above picture shows how two phrases, a noun phrase and a verb phrase, combine to form a sentence. And, the next rule is going to seem like a no brainer as well: language is produced and perceived!

This one is a no brainer when you say it. We use our lungs and voice box, and all the other mechanisms we mentioned when we discussed phonetics. But even in sign language, we use the hands, the face and the torso as producers of the language. This bit will be important in a second. 

Transitoriness, refers to the idea of temporary quality of language. Language sounds exist for only a brief period of time, after which they are no longer perceived. Sound waves quickly disappear once a speaker stops speaking. This is also true of signs. In contrast, other forms of communication such as writing and Inka khipus (knot-tying) are more permanent

Language is unique to humans

Now we get to the interesting stuff!

So it turns out that language is unique to humans. Many researchers argue that animal communication lacks a key aspect of human language, that is, the creation of new patterns of signs under varied circumstances. (In contrast, for example, humans routinely produce entirely new combinations of words.)

Language is also interactive, and it changes constantly, albeit slowly. We’ll talk more about how languages change and meld over time in later posts. But this is all not to discredit some animals, some of whom have incredibly methods of communication


Ants make use of the chemical-olfactory channel of communication. Ants produce chemicals called pheromones, which are released through body glands and received by the tips of the antenna. Ants can produce up to twenty different pheromone scents, each a unique signal used to communicate things such as the location of food and danger, or even the need to defend or relocate the colony. When an ant is killed, it releases a pheromone that alerts others of potential danger. Pheromones also help ants distinguish family members from strangers. The queen ant has special pheromones which she uses to signal her status, orchestrate work, and let the colony know when they need to raise princesses or drones.


Honeybee communication is distinct from other forms of animal communication. Rather than vocal-auditory, bees use the space-movement channel to communicate. Honeybees use dances to communicate—the round dance, the waggle dance, as well as the transitional dance. Depending on the species, the round dance is used to communicate that food is 20–30 meters from the hive, the waggle dance is used for food that is 40–90 meters from the hive, and the transitional dance is used for the distances in between. To do the waggle dance, a bee moves in a zig-zag line and then does a loop back to the beginning of the line, forming a figure-eight. The direction of the line points to the food. The speed of the dance indicates the distance to the food. In this way, bee dancing is also continuous, rather than discrete. Their communication is also not arbitrary. They move in a direction and pattern that physically points out where food is located.






2 responses to “Characteristics of human language”

  1. Elizabeth S Avatar

    Language and linguistics are so interesting. The more I learn about it all the more I love it. Gotta love the waggle dance!

    1. ensemblelearner Avatar

      lol bees be having their own body language I guess

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