The Science of Language

While it may seem simple for humans to communicate our ideas through language, the science behind our linguistic capabilities is much more complex.

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By Nelli Rojas-Cessa

Language is one of numerous ways that humans communicate with one another. It is behind the delights of song and poetry and the dismay of being yelled at by our parents. There is no exact timeline for when human communication evolved beyond whoops and grunts and into distinct words, and scientists are still unsure as to why we consider language so unique to humans. When we think about language, we often imagine words that we speak and read. However, language is not limited to what is spoken and heard.

Pinpointing the exact origin of human language is difficult. In a gross simplification of the science, much of its origin can be attributed to one key gene: the FOXP2 gene. This gene codes for a protein known as a transcription factor, meaning that the FOXP2 protein regulates the expression of other genes yet unknown. However, researchers believe this gene is present in both modern humans and apes, save for a slight mutation between the two species. Researchers believe this alteration is responsible for the evolution of our linguistic capabilities. Mutations in this gene are associated with speech and language deficits, further strengthening the correlation between FOXP2 and language. FOXP2 is expressed in the basal ganglia, groups of neurons that are largely responsible for motor control and development. The basal ganglia are also responsible for sequence processing and is possibly connected to syntax errors in speech and language.

The complexities of language are also explored in linguistics. Spoken language is broken down into two major structural components: phonemes and morphemes. Phonemes are the smallest sound units. For example, the word “cat” has three phonemes: “c,” “a,” and “t.” The word “chat” also has three similar phonemes: “ch,” “a,” and “t.” Morphemes are the second smallest components of a language, either distinct words like “you” and “I” or parts of words, like the “pre” in “prefix.” From all of these small units arises a world of syntax, the structure of a language, and semantics, the meaning of a language.

Theories of language development and acquisition rise from the great linguistic soup of phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. One of the best-known, and most controversial, theories about linguistics is Noam Chomsky’s idea of a universal Language Acquisition Device (LAD), an innate capacity for learning language, which he developed in the 1960s. Not only does the LAD propose a neurological basis for language acquisition, but it also proposes that all languages share a similar structure and syntax pattern. A universal device indicates that absolutely everyone is capable of learning and understanding language.

Some psychologists also believe in a concept known as linguistic determinism, which was developed by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf postulated that language determines the way we think. For example, speakers of languages such as Arabic and Farsi, which have many more words than English, may be able to recognize and describe their internal and external worlds in greater detail than English speakers due to the capabilities of the language they grew up speaking. Like Chomsky’s theories, Whorf’s ideas about linguistic determinism are criticized by psychologists and linguists alike. Empirical evidence fails to support the idea that language directly influences cognitive processes; however, the notion that language affects thought, known as linguistic relativity, has generally been accepted.

With the genetic, neurological, and psychological complexities of linguistics, the purpose of language still remains clear: understanding. As our linguistic capabilities evolve, so must our understanding of each other and the world around us. Our world has changed rapidly within the past few years, with words such as “quarantine” and “climate crisis” appearing more often in our everyday vocabularies than ever before. It will not be long before new concepts emerge with fresh words to match, while other words become obsolete. In line with Whorf’s and Sapir’s ideas of linguistic relativity, our perception of the world is reflected in our language and the understanding that arises from it.

Perhaps that is the greatest beauty of linguistics. Regardless of where it comes from and where it will go, we assign meaning and understanding to every aspect of communication. Our pursuit of understanding can take the form of creating new words and slang to describe new situations. Or it can appear as learning languages we are completely unfamiliar with—both spoken and signed—to assist ourselves and the people around us.

It can also appear as finding answers to the numerous questions that arise from the study of linguistics. What is the difference between being speech impaired and being language-impaired? How do we develop technology to aid nonverbal communication between individuals? While physical analysis of languages, such as the study of the FOXP2 gene and the basal ganglia, allows us to understand the causes of linguistic diversity, understanding the psychological implications of language through theories, such as Chomksy’s and Whorf’s, allow us to fully appreciate them. It aids in the creation of assistive technology for individuals with language impairments. Through this, the goal of extending the communication of thought and understanding to everyone becomes more feasible. Regardless of how communication takes place, be it through a digital interface, spoken word, or gestures, opportunities to communicate should be made available to everyone.