Is Language Unique to Humans?

Is language unique to humans?

Is language unique to humans?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

While certain aspects of language may be observed in other species, the full complexity and cognitive integration of language appear to be uniquely human. The evolution of language involves a combination of genetic, neurobiological, and cognitive factors that together form the uniquely human capacity for language10. The evidence points to a species-specific trait that has evolved to facilitate complex communication and abstract thought, distinguishing humans from all other animals.


Language is often considered one of the defining characteristics of humans, setting us apart from other species. This article explores the uniqueness of language in humans, drawing on recent research to understand whether language is a uniquely human trait or if aspects of it are shared with other species.

The Human Language Faculty

The human language faculty is a complex cognitive function that is not only unique to our species but also represents the essence of what makes us human5. It encompasses a range of abilities from phonology and morphology to syntax and semantics. The human brain exhibits a readiness for language that is not found in other species, suggesting a species-specific biological property37.

Language Evolution and Brain Correlates

Language has evolved as a cornerstone for human cognition, with a shared computational ability that is specific to humans3. This ability has identifiable correlates in the brain and has remained fixed since the origin of language, approximately 100 thousand years ago3. While some animals, like songbirds, share vocal imitation learning abilities with humans, the underlying neural organization and the complexity of language are uniquely human3.

The Role of Syntax and Recursion

The question of whether aspects of language, such as syntactic recursion, are uniquely human has been debated12. Some researchers suggest that recursion is the only unique aspect of human language, with other elements being either specific to humans but not to language or not specific to humans at all2. However, this hypothesis is challenged by the existence of many non-recursive aspects of grammar and by evidence that suggests the anatomy and neural control of the human vocal tract are inconsistent with the recursion-only claim2.

Language, Thought, and Translation

The relationship between language and thought is also a point of contention. The effability hypothesis posits that the ability to express thoughts through language is a uniquely human trait, challenging the empiricist view that concepts are derived solely from experience4. This hypothesis suggests that natural languages are intertranslatable because our concepts are innate, rather than being shaped entirely by cultural differences4.

Language Disorders and Genetics

Research into language disorders, such as schizophrenia, has provided insights into the uniquely human aspects of language. Studies have shown that certain language devices, which are distinctly human, may be related to the genetics of schizophrenia, indicating a biological basis for these language capacities6.

Communication in Nonhuman Primates

Despite the evidence for human uniqueness in language, some argue that primates and other animals demonstrate communicative abilities that resemble certain aspects of human language8. These include reference, conceptual structure, and hierarchical organization. However, these abilities in animals do not match the complexity and richness of human language8.

The Uniqueness Claim Challenged

The claim that language is uniquely human has been questioned by those who argue that a true impartial comparison between human speech and other animals’ vocalizations has rarely been conducted9. They suggest that without biased comparisons, we might not find evidence for human superiority in language, emphasizing the need for balanced studies to identify truly unique components of human speech and language9.


Is language unique to humans?

Stefan Frank has answered Likely

An expert from Radboud University Nijmegen in Linguistics, Cognitive Science

Many animals have some sort of communication system but none of these come even close to the flexibility and complexity of human language, which has the ability to express an unbounded number of ideas by recombining meaningful units (words) into complex structures (sentences). Although (some) bird and whale songs are also formed by recombining smaller parts, the “meaning” (if any) of a such a song does not follow from any “meaning” of the parts and the way they are combined.

Attempts to teach simplified human language to apes have sometimes been successful, one famous case being the bonobo Kanzi (see Some apes have learned maybe 100s of words and understand simple combinations of these. Still, no ape has developed language in the wild, without human instruction, and the sentence structures they can learn are still very simple compared to what human language are capable of.

It has been argued that Neandertals did possess a full-fledged language (Dediu & Levinson, 2013) and although this it impossible to prove and the evidence it controversial, it would imply that language is not limited to homo sapiens.


Is language unique to humans?

Conrad Quintyn has answered Likely

An expert from Bloomsburg University in Anthropobiology

Is language unique to humans?

A very interesting question. There is much discussion on whether our language ability evolved out of the vocal or gestural communication seen in the animal world, most specifically in other primates, or if our language ability is a reflection of our human uniqueness, which has nothing in common with the vocalizations of nonhuman primates. In many fields, there is always polarization—“I am right and you are wrong” and vice versa. I believe it is a little of both views. Certainly, there are parts of our language that are unique, i.e., phonemes, morphemes, syntax, and grammar. We have arbitrariness (symbolism), displacement (we can talk about objects not present), openness (new meanings can be formed through recombination of vocalizations), learnability (learn other languages), etc. In a sentence, we can communicate so much. In contrast, animal vocalizations are limited. For example, if a chimpanzee sees food and a predator he cannot combine food and predator into one vocalization. 

Furthermore, Noam Chomsky proposes a compelling hypothesis called Universal Grammar. He believes that a recent mutation within our brain led to the development of specific language abilities—unique to the Homo lineage and evolved overtime because it was adaptive. As I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph, it is a compelling hypothesis. For instance, every language has a subject, verb, and object (not necessarily in the same order). We can translate English into French; Russian into Spanish; Spanish into English; French into Swahili, and so on. We could not do this without a genetic ‘deep structure’ (or template) in humans for language. Additionally, a human child at a particular age—anywhere in the world—can learn any language. If one takes this argument alone, yes—humans are unique.

But, long-term nonhuman primate studies have found evidence of cultural behavior, that is, tool use and the transmission of that behavior to the offspring, particularly in the great apes (gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees). Additionally, some great apes are capable of learning a variation of American Sign Language (ASL) and language based on symbols. Since these behaviors, particularly the use of ASL to communicate, threaten human uniquenss, bias may have caused some researchers to dismiss the use of ASL as a reflection of unconscious cues given by the animal trainers.

In terms of tool use, some great apes make and use tools, i.e., rocks to break open nuts; modified sticks to ‘fish’ for termites, or leaves used as “sponge” to soak up water to drink. Tool manipulation correlates to language. At least, the same areas of the brain are used. For instance, some brain behavioral research in the 1990s used positron emission tomography (PET) scanning techniques and discovered an interesting type of brain cell located in the prefrontal cortex of macaques (Old World monkeys). These brain cells are called “mirror neurons.” These neurons became activated when the monkey used precision grip to manipulate or grasp an object. More importantly, these neurons became activated when the money observed someone else doing the same motion—(neurons responding to visual stimuli). The suggestion is that the brain area where the mirror neurons are located in the monkey is a homologue to Broca’s area in humans. Broca’s area controls speech production.

In conclusion, I believe some aspects of language is genetic and some aspects is cultural, symbolic. The basic aspects of our language abilities are probably shared with other animals. Overtime, the complexity of language evolved in Homo sapiens.


Is language unique to humans?

Julian Derry has answered Near Certain

An expert from Edinburgh University in Evolutionary Biology, Ecology, Conservation Science, Computational Mathematics, Biostatistics, Biology, Biochemistry

This is a precis of five short articles that arose directly out of being invited to submit an answer here. Before being able to address the question it is firstly necessary to define, “What is language”. This is a huge question that touches upon everything it is to be human, while also being animal. Language not only forms cohesion within nations, and mediates every society, but it is core to our being. We can only know ourselves by voicing ideas of self and other. I hope you find this useful. Here are the URLs for the series of posts, and the abstract continues below for anyone wanting the summarised version.

AN ASIDE: On Language #1

An exploration of the question,

“What is language?”

The question has an obvious answer (in that there are probably almost as many answers as there are people, and theirs is obvious to each). Try this for size,

The intentional conveyance …

of directed information, …

in the form of audible or visual …

symbols, …

that has a shared semantic …

for producer and receiver.

  • Intentional: what is unintended language? simply creating unintelligible noises to you might have some meaning to someone, even if they were not in your mind as a person with whom you wished to communicate. Clicking your tongue in frustration may have just bought a house in Soweto.
  • Directed: communication is not what it claims if there is no intended audience. Even if I’m writing this to your great, great grandchildren, it is still “for” someone. (Before you call the cops, I don’t know any of your family, now, or in the future. In any case, by 2032, we’ll all have implanted chips, and not just the potato type).
  • Form: the medium (no, not crystal balls) dictates the mechanism. It’s no good trying to talk to a starfish, or email an anaconda. They’re notoriously bad at replying.
  • Symbols: something like a shape that substitutes for something else, often as a shorthand for a bigger meaning, or rendered in such as way that it can be combined to make extended patterns and systems, each with its own combinatory potential. 
  • Shared semantic: the saying “meaning in use” describes the fundamental behind all our semantic interpretation, and the potential for multiple meanings: polysemy

So, each line of that overly structured solution up top, contributes an important aspect of the system. Each on its own is not language, and arguably, the sum of all is neither. It is more. It is far more adaptable in its conveyance, of fact and fiction, reality and the extraordinary, mood and humanity.

AN ASIDE: On Language #2

A continued exploration of the question,

“What is language?”

The previous post looked at how one might define a language, what one comprises, and some quirky properties of English that demonstrate that, in some way, languages reach beyond the grand total of simply combining their constituents. Such phenomena are examples of emergence, encapsulated by the idiom, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts“,

πάντων γὰρ ὅσα πλείω μέρη ἔχει καὶ μὴ ἔστιν οἷον σωρὸς τὸ πᾶν.

Aristotle Metaphysics VIII, 1045a.8–10. (“The totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts” cf. Euclid, Elements, Book I, Common Notion 5: “τὸ ὅλον τοῦ μέρους μεῖζον. [The whole is greater than the part.]

What about interspecies communication? If you’re wondering whether this isn’t just extrapolating the context too far, then what is the difference between the communicative barriers to two humans who are unable to converse outside their mother tongue, to say, a human and a chimp? A human and a crustacean? A human and a plant? A crustacean and a plant? With that last one, the answer presents itself as humans can adapt, by reasoning through a problem, and devising a sequence of hypothesis testing; aka trial and error. What about ants?

If you’ve ever watched an ant trail, workers setting out from the nest, following the chemical path laid down earlier by the foraging party, you’ll probably agree it looks perfectly efficient, a constant contraflow with their sister coworkers returning, laden with juicy leaf. Well, it is fairly clockwork once the route has been established, but those explorers setting out on their search was a little more hit and miss. Trial and error. When they succeed in discovering a location, they then convey that idea symbolically, using a chemical that other ants can understand. But is that language?

When you see the ant trail is being guarded by the big soldier ants, from a few branches above, as lookouts, dispersed at several positions, it is enticing to see it all as a coordinated effort, with the observers keeping a lookout for intruders. Add into the picture that they are carrying those leaf slices back to their nest, not as food for themselves, but to be a substrate for the fungus they grow as an edible crop. Fungus they treat with bacterial fertiliser. 

What if you sample some of the chemical trail, make some in a test-tube, and getting the ants to detect it causes some change in behaviour? Have they understood you? Communication is a reciprocal feedback system.

AN ASIDE: On Language #3

A continued exploration of the question,

“What is language?”

The previous post looked at communication in another animal, and wondered what would be needed to step over the species barrier. Let’s turn to communication breakdowns within our own. The internationally recognised gesticulation for “May I have the bill, please“, is communication, it uses visual cues to communicate to a waiter, an intention to pay. You’re expressing an idea, and someone understands you, because they know what that symbolic movement means. Why is that different to a word, written, or said? 

What about our two humans who cannot converse? They both have languages, it’s just that they’re different to each other’s. 

With trial and error, and persistence, signs can be assigned to some shared meaning. Repetition is important, but eventually, after weeks or months, signs are understood and learned, some quicker than others. 

Aren’t we just associating meaning to meaningless symbols? 

What does this mean: qwerty ?

You say, “It’s that sequence of letters from the upper left corner of Western style keyboard”.

Most mnemonics are created from the pattern of words, usually names of things you need to remember for an exam. From “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain”for rainbows (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), and “Every Alsatian Dog Gets Bones Easily” for guitar tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E),

So, is “pizza” a mnemonic? The word “pizza” stands for something, possibly different, in each of our minds, but because it acts as a mnemonic, official definition, “a system such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations which assists in remembering something”.

That’s how our brains work, a network of association with differing strengths of connectivity built up through repeated referencing, relative to the importance of that stored quantum of information. This is the basis of memory, in that all memories are reconstructed from scratch, through the association of distinct pieces of stored information. But is that the same as language?

Very possibly so, in that there seems to be the algorithmic potential instilled (installed perhaps) within our brains for language processing, from birth. We respond to it, quickly make sense from it, and from our first googles, show signs of attempting to communicate.

Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky have proposed similar inherent properties of the newborn brain, that deals with this capacity. The major difference seems to be that whilst Pinker reached his understanding via a landscape of evolutionary psychology giving rise to clusters of problem solving instincts for resolving grammatical rules, Chomsky’s universal grammar has more of that language structure already hardwired, but both have the potential for development of language in the infant, but also, advanced cognition and communication in the adult.

AN ASIDE: On Language #4

A continued exploration of the question,

“What is language?”

The previous post looked at alternative human communication using symbolic gestures, and wondered whether all language symbols, words included, act as reminders of association. We are born with the ability to remember and retrieve information. Those capacities are then trained and honed over the next twenty or so years, whilst the brain is still developing. Without a doubt, the most important phase occurs within our first six years.

Allowing for individual variation, six years old is when the stage is set, for all that will follow; a point at which all else has run its course, and bottomed out to minimal background processing: vision, hearing, emotional control, and habitual responses, will not expand in capacity beyond between 4-6 years in most people. But, still firing on comparatively full cylinders are, motor control, our physical frame which remains quite plastic in our ability to mould and sculpture it.

This points towards an interesting culmination of optimal timings for the onset of development in our higher cognition. 

Nursery rhymes and their sing song meters, repetitive forms and accessible subjects, are pivotal in our development of language abilities, and where they call for coordinated movement, our motor skills too. Plus there’s the sociality of shared time and laughter, and more poignant moments when a character may be portrayed in lower spirits than is usual. 

Hopefully you’ll start to draw together all these different aspects of the subject, to form an integrated understanding of how our language is amazingly expansive, but when you whittle it down to its bare bones, it’s really just a system of cyphers: symbols of a single letter, some being words per se, or sequences of letters forming a staggering number of potential combinations, each with different meanings, and sequences of words, that form names and phrases and stanzas, and poems and stories, and chapters and books and corpuses, all of which map onto some equivalent scale of understanding that emerges out of the combinations, and that map onto concepts, that have to be interpreted in the context intended.

AN ASIDE: On Language #5

A continued exploration of the question,

“What is language?”

The previous post looked at some cultural aspects of language, the way it can be honed to convey powerful emotions and deep thinking, from one person to another, and how our capacity for that is established within our first six years. This has to be one of the most striking aspects of language, that it requires our early brain development, to give us the capacity beyond our sixth birthday, to form storage so that, by preserving those relative associations from the most fundamental level up, we can learn just a fraction of our language’s potential capacity for expression. When we have grown up, to study difficult concepts, all that is being shared, are symbols, mere gestures to understanding. So, how do we do it? What provides this amazing ability?

When we are six, our posterior parietal cortex that stretches across the top rear half of your scalp, develops in its function, coordinating motor skills and processing numerical data. We are sampling our environments constantly, the major part of this we do unconsciously, updating our inner models of reality with data in support of what know so far, or contradictory data that forces a reappraisal.

The onboard computer for intensive numerical calculations, when doing anything in four-dimensional space (up-down, left-right, forwards-backwards, then-now-next), such as coordinating distance judgement and vision, is one of the grooves created by what looks like folding on the brain’s surface. It’s called the intra-parietal sulcus, and it runs about a finger length, front-to-back, perpendicular to the posterior parietal cortex, about halfway from the top of your ear to your crown.

Wernicke’s area handles understanding language, hence its connection with the area for hearing, and Broca’s area handles making language, i.e., speaking.

When you observe a brain being scanned while the subject is participating in a conversation, other areas are also presenting activity, a lot of distributed, peripheral complementary activity.

The core of the brain is the brain stem, or medulla oblongata, the cerebellum and pons. 

The hippocampus, named for its resemblance to a “horse” + “sea monster” , or seahorse. is positioned in interaction with another important language area, the splenium of the corpus callosum. The corpus sits superior to the medulla, like the cap of a mushroom when transected along the sagittal plane (front-to-back), the splenium is to the rear, and the rostrum the front.

our limbic system, for, memory, spatial awareness, and significantly, self awareness, our emotions and consciousness. It is at the centre of what makes us, a library of memories that stores experiences and connections throughout our lives.

This aspect of our brains is so definitive in our personalities that we consider everything else relative to it, because it is the one thing of which we can be sure. 

The absence of function when an organ is damaged can be very informative to medical science. The pathology of the basal ganglia can reveal confusions between identity and interpretation, or the perception required for self-awareness. Notably, lesions in the limbic system give rise to dysfunction in the basal ganglia. This is expressed through psychoses, typically schizophrenia and organic delusional disorders: the inability to distinguish between fact and fiction.

We accord many species with sentience, but that does not obligate self-awareness. Language may be that barrier. We form ideas by stating them, to ourselves. We have to cast ideas in this way, however abstract they are, to process them and render them useable, whether in our own communication, or taking in information. The suggestion is that while other primates have displayed behaviours that indicate consciousness and self-awareness, it is unlikely to be sophisticated and contextualised without an expressive language by which it can be communicated. So, language is the most obvious difference between us and other species. Or is it?


Our own languages are formed from symbols that carry semantic associations stored in our memory and retrieved by the hippocampus. Complexity emerges out of their combination. Complex behaviours can be seen in other animals, apparently coordinated or accompanied by language, but it is currently not possible to confirm that those languages contain symbolic logic, or whether the complexity is through semantic integration. In the light of this, from our own models of grammatical reconstruction, and manifestation of ideas by expressing them linguistically, it is questionable whether languages in other animals, involve the conveyance of information in the same way as our communication. Instead, algorithmic processing would suggest little interpretive analysis in context. Without context, languages lose meaning, and without meaning there can be no dialogue. Ergo, the languages that other species have, are more a collection of imperatives, that are generic in relation to context, such as, “Danger!”, “No!”, “Okay”, “Welcome”. As these do not obligate responses, the form of communication that other animals have, uses language, but isn’t a responsive medium that can accommodate conversation. The analogy with humans would be street signs: communication of a statement, but not able to entertain a response.


Is language unique to humans?

Johann-Mattis List has answered Uncertain

An expert from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Linguistics

The general doctrine in our field says that languages is unique to humans and that other forms of communication in animals lack certain major characteristics that can only be found in speech. However, when looking at some recent publications where people carried out a closer comparison at recent studies in linguistics and population genetics, the picture becomes a bit more blurry than expected.

In genetics, for example, it was long believed that the specific history of the FOXP2 gene was crucial for the evolution of the human language faculty. A recent study by Atkinson et al. (2018), however, seems to contradict this assumption, since it finds that — in large genomic datasets — no evidence for positive selection of this gene could be found. This is also reflected in the fact that most cases of language disorder cannot be directly attributed to monogenic mutations (Mountford and Newbury 2017).

In linguistics, there is a growing number of scholars opposing to the simplifying assumption of Chomsky syntacticians that the MERGE procedure, by which elements of speech are recursively combined, is the key difference in the brain capacities between animals and humans. As emphasized by Townsend et al. (2018), instead of searching for one sole reason why language is so efficient as a means of communication, we need to carry out much more thorough investigations of compositionality and other aspects of syntax as we know it in animal and human communication.

This does not mean that scholars generally deny that language is unique to humans. However, in my opinion, it shows that the question of whether language is unique to humans or not is generally ill-defined, since it gives the impression that there must be a sharp distinction between “language” and all other means of communication. This however, is far more difficult to prove than people usually assume. We can say, of course, that there is a huge gap in expressiveness between language and the communication systems of bees or apes. However, as long as we lack evidence for an abrupt emergence of the language faculty in the evolution of human language, we cannot exclude a slow transition, which would — in turn — allow — at least theoretically — for a gradual transition by which language emerged. If this turns out to be true (but our research is far away from being able to do so), this would also mean that there is no sharp boundary between language and other forms of communication, since when dealing with a gradual transition, drawing a boundary between different stages of language would in principle be arbitrary.

For these reasons, I would argue that the question of whether language is unique to humans is problematic and misleading and that we cannot provide a satisfying answer for the time being. There are huge differences between animal communication and language, yes, but it is not clear whether these are qualitative or simply quantitative.


Atkinson et al. (2018): No evidence for recent selection at FOXP2 among diverse human populations. Cell.

Townsend et al. (2018): Compositionality in animals and humans. PLOS Biology.

Mountford and Newbury (2017): The genomic landscape of language: Insights into evolution. Journal of Language Evolution.


Is language unique to humans?

Bart de Boer has answered Near Certain

An expert from Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Linguistics, Artificial Intelligence

It is almost certain that no other (living) species has a communication system that is as complex and flexible as human language. However, this does not mean that properties and precursors of language cannot be found in other species: the ability to combine sounds into new utterances is found in song birds, the ability to combine utterances into meaningful other utterances is found in some primates, the ability to learn large vocabularies has been demonstrated in parrots, dogs and primates and some great apes -orangutans, gorilla’s- appear to have a rudimentary ability to imitate sounds. Dolphins and whales also have many of these abilities, but we know very little about how they use this exactly in the wild.

Therefore: language as it is is probably unique to humans, but it certainly is not a mysteriously isolated behavior as some linguists would have it: there are clear evolutionary links between language and other species’ behaviors.

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