Human Language Forms: Speech, Writing & Gestures

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll look at three means of human communication: speech, writing, and gesture. Of particular interest will be how each form relates to language itself and the required features for communication to count as a language.

Language Talk

Let's talk about language. You have to have language in order to talk about language, yet talking is only one form of language expression. Think about the different ways you communicate with others around you. Did you think of speech, writing, and gesture? You probably have used all three of those today, but are they unique to humans and do all three count as language?

President George W. Bush using speech and gesture.

To answer these questions, we'll first have to briefly explain language and how it is unique to humans. Sure, if you have a dog you might argue you communicate all the time, but is it language? No, but animals can still communicate. They do so with calls, body language, scents and more. These are simple expressions and convey an immediate meaning. Language, however, is far more complex.

There are two features that make language unique. The first is double articulation, which is the way we use a set of meaningless sounds to form meaningful signs when we combine them. The second is syntax, or the way those signs are arranged to create expressions of complex meaning.

Each language has its own rules for syntax that help people know what they are trying to express. Words cannot be randomly arranged and hold the same meaning. For example, ''the dog jumped over the log'' means something very different than ''the log jumped over the dog.'' Animals just don't communicate with the same complex rules of how to arrange their expressions. Then again, they don't usually have miscommunication issues either.


The first form of linguistic communication we'll address is speech, generally accepted to be the basis of all language. Humans used the spoken word to express their complex thoughts long before they developed writing systems. Support for this comes from the fact that many languages still exist today without a system of writing, yet no writing system exists without a connection to a spoken language.

President Obama was famous for his skill with public speaking.

Speech likely developed alongside physiological changes in the human body, which made speech possible. Changes in the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips all made our range of sounds more diverse. Changes in the brain, as well as the increased size of the brain, allowed us to think symbolically, a vital component of language.

If you think about it, the sounds for ''apple'' have very little to do with the features of an apple we can experience with our senses. Instead, the word is an abstract symbol for the object, action, or concept it represents.

Animal communication does not involve symbolic thought. Many sounds they make are only emotional in nature, expressing alarm, happiness, and threats.


Writing is another form of human language expression. Where speech involves symbolic thinking, writing involves these thought processes to an even higher degree. The word ''apple'' may not have much to do with what our senses experience with an apple, but neither does the written word ''apple'' resemble a real apple. Further, as spoken words only have to relate to the object of reference, written words have to relate to both the object of reference and the corresponding sounds we use to vocalize the word.

Each letter creates a visual representation of a sound, something we hear but don't see, so we interpret these visual symbols to form the sound that symbolically represents a real object. In some written languages, the visual symbol represents both a sound and an object. In Mayan writing, a picture of a jaguar can mean an actual jaguar or a particular sound. The reader has to figure out which one it is supposed to be. Sometimes, this double meaning is intentionally used to make jokes.

The Aztec language uses symbols for both complete and sounds.


Gestures are physical motions used to communicate. To make this even more complicated, some gestures are language and others are not. Some gestures are used by animals, while others belong to the complex world of human communication.

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