“The past, the present, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.”
Are human beings unique? Is there something special about us that makes us different from animals? Of course, every species of animal has special or unique features. Humans make music, and birds sing. Humans create art, and spiders spin webs. Humans use tools, and so can crows. But after a while, it becomes more and more difficult to make these comparisons.
For example, only a human can walk into a bar and tell a joke. The “walks into a bar” joke is a common English joke form, and we may or may not find the above joke funny. But this joke itself holds the secrets of human uniqueness. First, syntactical language is unique to humans. We use syntax to order words and phrases into simple and complex sentences, and syntax helps us say “who does what to whom.” Thus, we can understand that “The dog bit the man” is different from “The man bit the dog.” Some animals seem to use rudimentary syntax in their communication systems. But humans use a complexity of syntax that far surpasses that of any animal.
Moreover, this human joke speaks of the past, present, and future. Animals, when they communicate, tend to only communicate minimally about the present, the here, and the now. But humans can time travel with language. We call this “displacement,” one of Charles Hockett’s (1960) so-called “design features” of language. Displacement is the ability to communicate about the past, future, hypothetical, and unreal. Bees can tell other bees the location of nectar that is removed from “the here,” and language-trained Bonobo chimpanzees can communicate about “unpresent” places, but humans are the great “displacers.” Unlike animals, we “displace” with language, speaking of the past, future, hypothetical, and unreal.
Human authors have created with morphemes and syntax the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Science fiction writers have made with words and grammar the future worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars. And Lewis Carroll (1992) gave us the literary nonsense of Alice in Wonderland:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
These phrases are nonsensical, but not grammatically so. We can still see the design feature of complex grammar, with nonsense adjectives, verbs, and nouns. But the point is this. Humans use design features of language that do not exist (or only minimally exist) in animal communication.
What is more, we use a grammatical structure that produces the discrete combinatorial system of language. The only other discrete combinatorial system in the natural world is DNA. What does a discrete combinatorial linguistic system give us? It gives us the ability to use a finite number of discrete elements (a limited number of words and grammatical rules) to produce an infinite number of combinations. Of course, if you try, you’ll run out of time, but theoretically, you could pass the “novel combination” baton to another person to get closer to infinity.
However, this is more than ability to chatter and babel all day long. It gives us the power store knowledge in minds, books, and other forms of media. With language we can transfer this this knowledge from brain to brain, from book to brain, and from other media into other minds. And we can use this information in our heads to create tools, music, art, drama, machines, and all kinds of cultural artifacts.
In this way, linguistic design features do indeed make humans unique. We use the design feature of displacement to talk about ideas that are unpresent and abstract. We use the design feature of complex syntax or “creativity” to produce a continuous stream of novel and meaningful utterances. And we use the design feature of linguistically-based “cultural transmission” to understand, enjoy, and create all the ancient and modern artifacts of culture.