I have a grasp of what defines human language. I was looking for a treatment of the differences between that (language proper) and animal communication. Or, the best, most complete, most exact definition offered by and accepted by linguists, philologists, and language lovers.

The best I've found so far is by someone who actually "worked with" animals to determine their linguistic ability (inseparable from mental ability): “The Trouble with Ape-Language Studies”, by H. S. Terrace, in Psychology Today, November 1979. (He also wrote How Nim Chimpsky Changed My Mind, which I have not read.) I also found an informal discussion of the subject at http://www.hard-light.net/forums/index.php?topic=33598.80, which held a few noteworthy observations.

Some of the argument rests on the definition of "language." Loosely stated, language is communication. In that sense, the sun "speaks" to the earth. But there must be a technical definition also, for linguists’ sake, or else a different set of words such as "langue" and "parole". But that gets even more complicated. Linguists have offered definitions of human language. I can’t figure out why there is still uncertainty over the distinction between human language and animal communication.

So I look at it "backwards." Instead of trying to figure what people mean by "language," I’ll ask what is it that humans do when they "communicate" with one another. Then, do those activities or relationships appear also among animals when they communicate with each other? (They don't.)

"Unless one knows what one is looking for, there is nothing to find, and such knowing is not a result of objective observation." Ian Robinson.

Normal human communication consists of a set of sounds which speakers produce linearly to form syllables and morphemes (a sound signifying something meaningful) which combine to form words. Words represent concrete subjects and abstract concepts, activities, and relationships. These words are placed in various order, according to the language spoken, to form sentences.

Humans create sentences, including new ones they have never heard, to describe people, places, and things, to report on and evaluate past actions, to plan for the future, to convey thoughts, hopes, desires, to inform others of the status of relationships, to address problems and consider solutions. Humans also put words together in ways that are artistic -- intelligible songs and emotionally moving poetry. Humans also use language to make up stories and to stage plays. Humans use language to deal with cause-effect relationships. These are not what humans do independently of language; these are why language exists and how language is used.

Obviously, no animals creatively, intuitively, voluntarily combine sounds in new ways to create new words, such as “eclipse” or “onomatopoeia” or “infinity”. I know this the same way that I know there is no word in any human language for “the core of Betelgeuse”. We don’t need such a word, and the animals don’t need such words. The difference is, we can create such a word if (when) we wish. If communication is restricted to personal emotional and physical states, that communication is less than even a “primitive” language, it is no language at all. It is merely instinctive grunting (or clicking in the case of dolphins).

Nor do animals combine words to create sentences that convey new information, such as “I’ve never climbed a mountain before. Do you want to climb a mountain with me?” or, “There’s some food on your lip. Want me to lick it off for you?”

If animals had language it has been argued that it would be “primitive.” That is an overstatement. No animal can produce the rich (yes, I said rich, knowing whereof I speak) set of sounds that the human vocal organs can and do produce. If we count animals’ grunts, groans, whistles, and clicks, the humans are still ahead, because we have all those mumbles, moans, breaks and stops also, plus speech sounds in addition, which are multipled by categories of voiceless, voiced, breathy, creak, nasal, tone, length, palatalization, labialization, and others, and we combine them in new ways and with new meanings.

The wikipedia article is a sin of sloppiness and confusion (June 2007). Sorry. The writers are addressing “communication,” not true language. Their self-contradictions increase the confusion. A redeeming statement therein is “Linguists do not consider these to be language; they may better be described as animal communication, because they are fundamentally different in their underlying principles from true language, which has only been found in humans.”

I am disappointed to read in Wikipedia’s weak article that “In several publicised instances, non-human animals have been taught to understand certain features of human language. For example, chimpanzees and gorillas have been taught hand signs based on American Sign Language; however, they have never been successfully taught its grammar.” In other words, that can't 'sign' a single sentence! That is because they lack language ability, do not know what true language is, have nothing significant to say, and can only mimic, which is what they have been trained to do.

One would be hard pressed to categorize “hand signs” as a “feature of human language.” Sign language is a product of human ingenuity and creativity, a paralanguage to substitute for real language, but it is not an inherent "feature" of language proper. Genuine features of language include phonology, morphology, semantics, and syntax. Animal communication lacks these features.

(With thanks to Drs. Ohala and Ohala)