What all linguists agree on: Human linguisticality (= the capacity for language) as an attribute of our species

Humans talk and chimpanzees don’t talk. Not even birds talk, even though many bird species can “sing” in some sense. No other species of animals has language in the sense of talking. Even in the absence of complex vocalization abilities, many other species would seem to have the possibility to use their extremities or faces for signing, in the manner of human sign languages. But here again, language is unique to the human species. There may not be much that linguists agree on (though see Hudson 1981 for some hopeful statements), but everyone agrees that language is an attribute of Homo sapiens (and perhaps other hominin species; see, e.g., Dediu & Levinson 2013 on Neanderthal language).

But until recently, there was no clear term for the capacity for language that we have and that is studied in general linguistics, so I have proposed the term linguisticality (Haspelmath 2020) on the analogy of musicality (= the capacity for music) and sociality (= the capacity for social life with conspecifics).

Linguists often use the term “language” in the same sense as “linguisticality”, for example in the expression “evolution of language”, which often means “evolution of linguisticality” (i.e. the prehistoric evolution of a biological attribute of our species). But this term is not very clear, because many linguists use it also for the cultural evolution of languages (= language change, generally in historical times). I have written about this confusion earlier, and at that time, I simply proposed that we should express ourselves more clearly. Now with the new term “linguisticality”, there should be no danger of misunderstanding anymore. The term “linguistic evolution” could perhaps be used as a cover term if one wants to be vague (as with MPI-SHH’s “Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution”, where both perspectives are presumably meant to be included). This also suggests that the “Journal of Language Evolution” should be renamed (Journal of Linguistic Evolution) to make its twofold scope clearer: It covers both the biological evolution of human linguisticality and the cultural evolution of languages.

The misunderstandings are particularly striking in the contentious area of innateness claims for grammatical knowledge. Many linguists reject the idea of a domain-specific grammar module (or grammar blueprint), but they do not reject the existence of human linguisticality.

That the issues are often confused is recognized by many. Chomsky said in 2010: “Confusion about this matter has reached such extreme levels that it is becoming hard even to unravel”, and Levinson & Evans (2010) said:

“it is time to change the terminology and avoid all the theory-laden terms used so far. We would urge our colleagues simply to talk about the human capacity for language (including language-special aspects of cognition, if any) and the ingredients or elements that may contribute to that – the rest carries too much baggage”

So it is time to avoid the term “universal grammar”, which can refer (i) to a hypothesized innate grammar blueprint containing innate features, categories and architectures of the sort that generative linguists spend much of their time debating, or (ii) to the domain-specific part of human linguisticality, or (iii) even to human linguisticality. Thus, this term is extremely vague. For the last use, see a 2019 paper by Chomsky and colleagues, where they say:

“Generative Grammar (GG) is the study of linguistic capacity as a component of human cognition. Its point of departure is Descartes’ observation that “there are no men so dull-witted or stupid […] that they are incapable of arranging various words together and forming an utterance from them in order to make their thoughts under- stood…” The term Universal Grammar (UG) is a label for this striking difference in cognitive capacity between “us and them.” As such, UG is the research topic of GG: what is it, and how did it evolve in our species?” (2019: 230)

If “universal grammar” is understood in this way, then it is uncontroversial (as Chomsky has often noted), and we are all generative grammarians. But of course, this is not how we use the term “generative grammar”, so by giving it a different sense from its usual sense, Chomsky and colleagues contribute to the terminological confusion. Unfortunately, even though Chomsky has deplored confusions, he has contributed to them by using a range of terms inconsistently.

Another confusing term is language faculty, of which there is a “narrow” sense (only “merge”?), and a “broad” sense (apparently = human linguisticality). In the broad sense, it again seems uncontroversial, but since the term has often been used in a narrow Chomskyan sense (for the grammar blueprint, or for the domain-specific aspects of linguisticality), some linguists have rejected the “language faculty” (as I also discuss briefly in Haspelmath 2020).

There is perhaps a certain danger that “linguisticality” might be interpreted in a narrow sense, as if it were a small and tightly connected set of biological traits, perhaps domain-specific. But I mean the term in the same broad sense as the term musicality is used by biomusicologists, e.g. Tecumseh Fitch in his very well-written overview text on principles of biomusicology:

“Human ‘musicality’ refers to the set of capacities and proclivities that allows our species to generate and enjoy music in all of its diverse forms. A core tenet of bio-musicology is that musicality is deeply rooted in human biology, in a form that is typical of our species and broadly shared by members of all human cultures. While music, the product of human musicality, is extremely diverse, musicality itself is a stable aspect of our biology and thus can be productively studied from comparative, neural, developmental and cognitive perspectives.”

So all that is claimed by the term “human linguisticality” is that it is a biological attribute of humans, and that languages were not simply invented at some point during history, in the manner in which we invented stirrups or bicycles. Nobody believes that there is a special biological capacity for bicycle riding among some species (no biological trait of “bicyclicality”, perhaps shared by bears). Bicycle-riding was invented, but talking was not surely not invented in the same way. That we can talk must be the consequence of a complex range of capacities and proclivities that interact to yield linguisticality only in humans – just as musicality is a complex set of capacities and proclivities.

In a Twitter exchange, Adele Goldberg  asked me whether there is also such a thing as “clothing-icality”, analogizing clothing as a property of humans with language:

I’m not really an expert with regard to clothing, but it seems to me that clothing is much more like stirrups and bicycles: Clothes were invented at some point by some human populations, and they became (near-)universal only very recently and through conquest-induced culture contact. Clothes are a specific cultural adaptation with a lot of variation depending on the ecological setting, while language is used very uniformly across all human populations in the same ways. Languages are culturally variable, but the strong tendency to acquire a language at an early age is a biological trait (just like the strong tendency for monogamy in all human populations, or like the strong tendency for humans to live together with other humans in social groups). I don’t find it inappropriate to say that we have a “language instinct”, even though I do not see good evidence for an innate grammar blueprint (and no strong evidence for domain-specificity either). Therefore I do not have a problem with the term biolinguistics, if it is used in the broad sense of Fitch’s biomusicality. (In reality, of course, it has so far mostly been used by a few Chomskyans who adopted a characteristically narrow perspective on human linguisticality.)

Maybe we cannot really improve on Charles Darwin’s characterization of human linguisticality: “Language is an instinct to acquire an art”. Here, the term “language” refers to our linguisticality, and a particular language that we acquire is an “art” (= an aspect of the culture that we acquire).

References

Chomsky, Noam & Gallego, Ángel J. & Ott, Dennis. 2019. Generative Grammar and the Faculty of Language: Insights, questions, and challenges. Catalan Journal of Linguistics 0(0). 229–261. (doi:10.5565/rev/catjl.288)

Dediu, Dan & Levinson, Stephen C. 2013. On the antiquity of language: The reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences. Frontiers in Psychology 4. (doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00397)

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2015. Four principles of bio-musicology. Philosophical Transactions Royal Society B 370(1664). 20140091. (doi:10.1098/rstb.2014.0091)

Haspelmath, Martin. 2020. Human linguisticality and the building blocks of languages. Frontiers in Psychology 10(3056). 1–10. (doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03056)

Hudson, Richard. 1981. Some issues on which linguists can agree. Journal of Linguistics 17(2). 333–343. (doi:10.1017/S0022226700007052)

Levinson, Stephen C. & Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Time for a sea-change in linguistics: Response to comments on ‘The myth of language universals.’ Lingua 120(12). 2733–2758.


3 thoughts on “What all linguists agree on: Human linguisticality (= the capacity for language) as an attribute of our species

  1. Hi Martin – perhaps over time, “linguisticality” will reduce to “linguicality”, if it catches on. I will try out the term “linguisticality”, and see what reviewers think. Thanks for the bringing up this issue.

  2. Linguisticality as the term could work, but it has many syllables and does not “role off the tongue” as nicely as “musicality”. Perhaps the word “Linguacality”. I do agree with the general argument regarding finding a term which clearly indicates “the biological capacity for learning and using the human linguistic system.” From the perspective of neuroscience, the terminology used in linguistics does not easily translate into brain systems terminology. If the focus of linguistic study really is on “linguistic capacity as a component of human cognition”, then it will be crucial to develop a theory that can map between linguistic and neurocognitive models.

    • Hi Valerie (nice to hear from you)! “Linguality” has been suggested to me, but I was more interested in a fully transparent term – and “lingual” is not (in English) associated with “language”. As for neuroscience, yes, of course: Linguists tend to promise a bit too much, because after 1957, many of them have tended to ignore the cultural aspects of languages, thinking that they can say very specific things about human linguisticality on the basis of studying a few languages. That was too optimistic…

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