Linguists mention some characteristics that are unique to language. These are the ones that distinguish language from other sounds/noises made by animals. Animal’s ways of communication are not regarded as language because they lack these qualities.
Among them are:-
Language has two levels. The level of sound and that of meaning. For example the sounds /t/ and /i/ may give eat and teas depend on the way they are arranged.
Therefore duality is the property of language by which language allows simultaneous existence of meaning and sound.
Human language is productive because it is possible to combine their structure (words, phrases) to produce new utterances never been heard before but which are understood by the speaker and hearer without difficulty. Eg black + board = blackboard (a new word)
Animal communication is not productive because the sounds produced are always the same and in the same way.
A language of a particular society is special in that society’s environment and situations.
It reflects the physical realities of the environment that surrounds it.
Hence a language of society living in a certain environment tends to have more words for things found there than in a language found in another environment. E.g. one language could have many words for say “rice” than the other language depending on the environment.
Animal communication does have special sounds according to the different environment.
Human language allows communicators to exchange positions. At one time the communicator is a speaker and a listener at another. For instance when one person is talking, the other is listening. He/she becomes a speaker and the person who was previously a speaker becomes the listener. This is not obvious in animal communication.
Human language can talk about itself. For example we are now using language to talk about language. Animals cannot cry about their cries. Therefore this property differentiates human language from animal communication.
The sounds in human language are meaningful distinctly. For example the words “bad” and “bud” differ from each other only because they differ in vowel sound.
Therefore in human language, there is possibility for one to identify individual sounds like /v/, /a/, /j/, /i/ and /p/.
It is the discrete sounds of human language that helps us to distinguish between “pig” and “big”, “pack” and “bag”
Human language is not genetically transmitted from one person to another but through cultural activities. This through acquiring or learning it depending on environment to which one is exposed.
Animal communications are natural and not cultural.
Human language is arbitrary because:
- There is no natural or direct relationship between the symbols (words) and the referents (concepts or objects meant)
- There is no any deliberate choosing of the sounds of words to be used in the language
- This leads to languages having different words
- Animal language lacks this property
Human language is capable of talking about present, past and future aspects and other arbitrary concepts.