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Dr Doolittle’s language delusion

April 2020 | by Alan Thomas

Language is amazing, an immense blessing. Where would we be without it? We wouldn’t be doing this, would we? For there would be no reading or writing. There would be no books and no ET! Furthermore, language is intimately related to thought, and thus to mind. Thinking requires language, and language in turn enables highly sophisticated communication with others which enriches our own thinking. How could we even think about God without language?

Without language we could never have developed the science and technology which has enabled us to subdue and rule the earth. The enormous complexity of language and its uniqueness to humans have only recently been fully recognised because only recently has language become an object of scientific study.

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Linguistics has not only unfolded the wonders of how language works — including the physical aspects of sound production and recognition by our sensory organs and brain — but this science has provided definitive evidence that language is unique to human beings. Sometimes we still hear talk on nature programmes about the complex communication systems in various creatures, and even that some ape or dolphin has shown ‘language-like’ abilities. This is highly misleading. Yes, honeybees communicate with complex dance routines which are wondrous; yes, songbirds sound out beautiful melodies; yes, dolphins and apes of all sorts use systems of signs and sounds to communicate. But none of these remotely approaches human language. A chimpanzee is as close to humans in using language as it is to birds in its abilities to fly! It can vocalise and jump through the air but the latter is not flying and the former is not speaking language.

It is grossly misleading, delusional even (believing something so clearly untrue), for people to claim that any other creature is close to human language. This doesn’t stop popular culture having animals talk. A current example is the Hollywood film ‘Doolittle’, starring Robert Downey Jr  as the doctor who talks to the animals. Fine — as long as we remember this is fun and entertainment only.

The linguist Stephen Anderson entitled his book Dr Doolittle’s Delusion to make this point memorably. You cannot and no-one ever will be able to talk to the animals for the basic reason that they have no speech and no potential for language at all. Anderson observes: ‘Focusing on what it is about humans that fits them to acquire and use languages tells us much about ourselves as well, because languages in the human sense are systems not known to exist in any other organisms.’

There have been valiant, we might say foolhardy, efforts to teach apes languages, spurred on by the evolutionary conviction that being nearest to us they must have some innate language capacity. All such experiments have miserably failed. Thus, atheist scientist Matt Ridley: ‘… no other primate can learn grammatical language at all — and we are indebted to many diligent, sometimes gullible and certainly wishful trainers of chimpanzees and gorillas for thoroughly exhausting all possibilities to the contrary.’

Of course, for such scientists the conclusion is still that our ability to use language has evolved. It is what evolutionary linguist Steven Pinker calls our ‘language instinct’, a uniquely human attribute which, together with thought, is the evolutionary reason why we are top of the tree.

Since we are creatures, it may be thought that we have finite language resources. Arguably this is not true. Anderson again: ‘Human languages contrast with every other system about which we have any serious knowledge. The range of things that we can express (and that our listeners can understand) in any natural language is unlimited.’ He says we do each have a finite vocabulary store (50,000 words for college level students), but that there are two factors which increase our language capacity to be potentially infinite.

First is that vocabulary can and is frequently morphed to create new words. Anderson gives the example of Puritan and anti-puritan. If you know the meaning of the former, then anyone using the latter newly invented word (a neologism) rightly assumes you know its meaning too. Authors, most famously Shakespeare, are continually creating new words in this way. But we all do so. Until recently, Google was a technical word known only to mathematicians; now it is a frequently used English verb and noun.

The second reason language seems to have infinite potential is syntax. Each language has a complex system of rules using which we combine words into endless combinations to communicate. Grammar and syntax may be dread words, reminding some of us of hard days of learning rules for how languages work. But we all know the rules automatically. We are born as humans with the language instinct.

Both Pinker and Anderson show in their books the abundant evidence that every human is born with innate language capacity. We never need to be taught grammar. We instinctively learn it. Which grammar we learn simply depends on the language we are exposed to as young children. If we are reared by Welsh-speaking parents we learn Welsh, if we are raised by Polish parents, then Polish, and if we have multilingual parents we become multilingual speakers without even trying. Even the deaf develop their own non-speaking sign-language systems. Amazing, isn’t it! Praise God!

And we know why we have this wondrous language facility, don’t we? Because we are made in the image of the God who speaks, who uses language to communicate within the Godhead, and so when creating us to relate to him he made us with this ability. Our language instinct is a direct consequence of our being made in his image. God made us to serve and worship him, and thus gifted us with language so we could do so. Without it there would be no preaching or teaching, no praise or prayer, and thus no worship of God.

Alan Thomas is a professor and consultant in psychiatry and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.