The “Wonder” of Language

  • Adolf Heschl


With this citation, we have reached the position where we should subject the apparently most important reason for accepting the status of man being something special to closer scrutiny. It should be emphasized once more that by special position we do not mean a unique character like our upright gait or our mole-like (Fam. Talpidae) nakedness since, as already mentioned, every species has its own special position. If this were not so, there would be no sense in talking about species. What is meant here is the much more basic question of whether we as humans have the right to boast of being a genuine exception to the known mechanisms of biological evolution. Even the trained physiologist Jared Diamond, from whose book The Third Chimpanzee (1992)—meant is our own species because of its close genetic relationship with the chimpanzee and the bonobo (Diamond suggests to include the last two species into the genus Homo, resulting in the new species Homo troglodytes and Homo paniscus; for the detailed comparative genetics of the group, see Kaessmann,Wiebe, and Pääbo 1999)—the citation above was taken, finally capitulated to the mysterious wonder of human language. Exactly“like some other scientists who have speculated about this question” (p. 54), the all-too plausible answer to the con-troversial condition of Homo sapiens occurs to him. It has to be “the anatomical basis for spoken complex language” (p.54), what else, that has made us into the unique creatures which we undoubtedly are. If this were not so, it would not be understandable how we could differentiate ourselves as sufficiently as we would wish from our nearest relatives who, when viewed genetically, are so close to us. Only a 1.6% difference in the gene sequences between us and the two species of chimpanzee (King and Wilson 1975; for a review, see Gibbons 1998) cannot possibly be the essence of the matter, there must be something more significant that not just separates such a unique species as Homo sapiens from the rest of the large family of primates but also from all the other living species. Diamond himself seemed not so fond of this all-too popular interpretation because a few lines later he had doubts about whether the aptitude for real language made such a very great difference between man and his nearest relatives as was generally believed:

However, virtually every claim of any animal behavior suggestive of elements of human language is greeted with skepticism by many scientists, convinced of the linguistic gulf separating us from animals. Such skeptics consider it simpler to assume that humans are unique, and that the burden of proof should be borne by anyone who thinks otherwise. Any claim of languagelike elements for animals is considered a more complicated hypothesis, to be dismissed as unnecessary in the absence of positive proof. Yet the alternative hypotheses by which the skeptics instead attempt to explain animal behaviors sometimes strike me as more complicated that the simple and often plausible explanation that humans are not unique (Jared Diamond 1992, p.146/147).


Specific Language Impairment Verbal Communication Human Language Universal Grammar Propriate Ritualization 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adolf Heschl
    • 1
  1. 1.Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition ResearchAltenbergAustria

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