One of the linguistic stories that’s been doing the news round this week has been about the kuş dili language of Kuşköy in Northern Turkey. It’s one of several documented whistled languages, typically used by peoples living in mountainous or forested terrain to communicate over distances. Such languages aren’t the community’s only language, but are based on their spoken language, like Turkish. Now, the story this week didn’t concern the discovery of this language – researchers have known about it for decades. They were actually some new findings about how speakers’ (or whistlers’) brains are functioning when when they speak (or whistle).
When we hear about such radically different linguistic systems from our own, we’re often amazed, and intrigued. How is it possible? The interesting thing is that we are perhaps really asking: how is it a possible language? Because we have no doubt that it is a language. How do we know this?
Well, there are two ways of viewing language. One is the code-based model, in which language is based on association – between a signal and something in the world, and between a signal and response. The word ‘cat’, for instance, is associated with something in the world, namely all cats. Whistled languages are clearly possible from this perspective, because the whistles encode some meaning; they are associated with a meaning, which is something out there in the world, albeit out there in people’s minds. (And at this point lets not get into the debate as to how complex this system of associations has to be to qualify as ‘language’). Messages are ‘encoded’ by speakers and ‘decoded’ by hearers.
The other view is the ostensive-inferential communication model. Sperber & Wilson, from a cognitive perspective, and Scott-Phillips, from an evolutionary perspective, would argue that this is the key to human communication – and human language. Indeed, it is what makes human language what it is, and so very different from any animal communication system. The idea is this: what enables us to use the conventions of language (the phonemes, morphemes, and syntax of English, or whatever other variety we happen to have learnt), is our amazingly prosocial nature. We are able to use signals intentionally to communicate a message. And not just with the intention that the hearer (or viewer, if we are making a gesture) understands our signal, but rather that they recognise that we intend to make a signal and that we intend for them to recognise our intention (that’s the ostensive-inferential bit).
This means, to take Scott-Phillips’ example, that tilting our coffee cup towards a waitress in a café whilst catching her eye is understood as a request for a top-up; tilting our cup as a result of an animated discussion with our companion, on the other hand, is not taken by the waitress as any sort of communication on our part. When we use language, it’s just the same. Language (words and grammar) lets us get across much more precisely and extensively our meaning, but it is always underdetermined (unlike mathematical languages, for instance) – we can never articulate every single aspect of meaning that we intend to communicate in that context, and frequently we don’t even try, knowing that our interlocutor can ‘fill in the rest’.
So, back to our whistled languages. We recognise them as languages because they do use a complex inventory of sounds and structure to encode a message (the code aspect of language), and because they are used as language (the ostensive-inferential aspect). The whistled messages are intentionally directed to a hearer for them to recognise the whistler’s intention and their intended meaning. (And, incidentally, if you wanted to say that they aren’t languages proper, this still makes them much more like language then other animal communication systems, just as with our gestures).
If you’ve still got a minute, why not watch the video of some kuş dili whistlers here, and appreciate what an ingenious linguistic adaptation it is!
Scott-Phillips, T. (2014). Speaking Our Minds: Why human communication is different, and how language evolved to make it special. Palgrave MacMillan.
Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition.