Does language make us human?

I’m currently taking 2 anthropology courses at a local community college (Mission College), and one aspect of cultural anthropology is language.

In the wild, animals can communicate with different sounds and movement. Honeybees even have a way to convey where the best flowers and pollen are. Dogs can learn their names, and so can some cats. I think my cats know their names (Couscous and Bo), but they like to annoy me so they pretend not to. They certainly listen and come when I tap on the food can.

What would a human life be like if we were limited to such basic communication? What if all of our correspondence was so simple that we could only express a few emotions and a few basic wants and needs (food, water, shelter)? This is probably how our language started out thousands (millions?) of years ago.

Today there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 different languages spoken in the world. There are many more that are now extinct. Every single language (ever!) has been based on a limited number of sounds that all humans are capable of making. Now, an interesting thing to note is that after a certain age (usually around 2 years), it’s harder for the brain to develop synapses that will recognize certain sounds. In other words, if you aren’t exposed to certain sounds regularly by the time you’re 2 years old, you might lose the ability (or just make it really really hard to learn) to make certain sounds or even distinguish between certain sounds (example – for native Japanese speakers, the distinction between <l> and <r> is really hard).

So linguistics is a subfield of anthropology. It’s a way of studying cultures and exploring how culture is learned and taught. Without language, we would have trouble communicating our culture and passing us on – this is part of what makes us human. Language, culture, communication… I find it fascinating to study what really sets humans apart from the animals that share most of our DNA.

I wrote a post here about how cooking has influenced humans & how it has helped to define and impact our evolution. If you liked this post you’d probably enjoy that, too!

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  1. Will #

    Why are you in a community college with the language and thoughts that you are using…. You should be in university mate

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