Language and Communication: Arbitrariness and Meaning

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What is the main purpose of patterning in English language?

To restrict which items can occur together and their order

How does structure-dependency affect language operations?

It requires understanding of the internal structure of a sentence

What is the relationship between words in a language pattern?

Every word is influenced by all other words in the pattern

Study Notes

Human Language vs Animal Communication

  • Human language has no inherent connection between the signal (word) and the meaning, whereas animals have a recognizable link between the two.
  • Arbitrariness is a feature of human language, meaning that the word 'lion' has no inherent connection to the meaning of a lion, except for onomatopoeic words.

The Need for Learning

  • Humans require a long learning process to acquire language, which is culturally transmitted, whereas animals are born with the ability to communicate without learning.
  • A human raised in isolation will not acquire language, as shown by rare cases.


  • Human language has a dual organization, with a layer of sound (physical) and a layer of units (meaning).
  • Animals have a stock of basic sounds that vary according to species, e.g. cows have under 10, chickens have 20, and dolphins have between 20 and 30.

Design Features of Human Language

  • Human language is conditioned by the environment, with an innate predisposition in newborns that is activated by careful learning.
  • The use of sound signals is not unique to humans, as many animals use sound signals to communicate, but humans may have acquired language at a later stage in their evolution.
  • Arbitrariness, the need for learning, and duality are design features of human language that are distinct from animal communication systems.

Explore the concept of arbitrariness in human language, where there is no inherent connection between words and their meanings, except for onomatopoeic words. Dive into the question of whether arbitrariness is a deliberate design feature of human language.

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