Charles F. Hockett

Charles F. Hockett bigraphy, stories - Linguists

Charles F. Hockett : biography

January 17, 1916 – November 3, 2000

Charles Francis Hockett (January 17, 1916 – November 3, 2000) was an American linguist who developed many influential ideas in American structuralist linguistics. He represents the post-Bloomfieldian phase of structuralism often referred to as "distributionalism" or "taxonomic structuralism". His academic career spanned over half a century at Cornell and Rice universities.

Key contributions

Comparative method of linguistics

One of Hockett’s most important contributions was his development of the design-feature approach to comparative linguistics where he attempted to distinguish the similarities and differences among animal communication systems and human language.

Hockett initially developed seven features which were published in the 1959 paper “Animal ‘Languages’ and Human Language.” However, after many revisions, he settled on 13 design-features which can be found in the Scientific American article “The Origin of Speech.”

Hockett argued that while every communication system has some of the 13 design features, only human, spoken language has all 13 features. In turn, this differentiates human spoken language from animal communication and other human communication systems such as written language.

Hockett’s 13 design features of language

  1. Vocal-Auditory Channel: Much of human language is performed using the vocal tract and auditory channel. Hockett viewed this as an advantage for human primates because it allowed for the ability to participate in other activities while simultaneously communicating through spoken language.
  2. Broadcast transmission and directional reception: All human language can be heard if it is within range of another person’s auditory channel. Additionally, a listener has the ability to determine the source of a sound by binaural direction finding.
  3. Rapid Fading (transitoriness): Wave forms of human language dissipate over time and do not persist. A hearer can only receive specific auditory information at the time it is spoken.
  4. Interchangeability: A person has the ability to both speak and hear the same signal. Anything that a person is able to hear, they have the ability to reproduce through spoken language.
  5. Total Feedback: A speaker has the ability to hear themselves speak. Through this, they are able to monitor their speech production and internalize what they are producing through language.
  6. Specialization: Human language sounds are specialized for communication. When dogs pant it is to cool themselves off, when humans speak it is to transmit information.
  7. Semanticity: This refers to the idea that specific signals can be matched with a specific meaning.
  8. Arbitrariness: There is no limitation to what can be communicated about and there is no specific or necessary connection between the sounds used and the message being sent.
  9. Discreteness: Phonemes can be placed in distinct categories which differentiate them from one another, such as the distinct sound of /p/ versus /b/.
  10. Displacement: The ability to refer to things in space and time and communicate about things that are currently not present.
  11. Productivity: The ability to create new and unique meanings of utterances from previously existing utterances and sounds.
  12. Traditional Transmission: The idea that human language is not completely innate and acquisition depends in part on the learning of a language.
  13. Duality of patterning: Meaningless phonic segments (phonemes) are combined to make meaningful words, which in turn are combined again to make sentences.

While Hockett believed that all communication systems, animal and human alike, share many of these features, only human language contains all of the 13 design features. Additionally, traditional transmission, and duality of patterning are key to human language.

Hockett’s design features and their implications for human language

  1. Hockett suggests that the importance of a vocal-auditory channel lies in the fact that the animal can communicate while also performing other tasks, such as eating, or using tools.
  2. Broadcast Transmission and Directional Reception: An auditory|audible human language signal is sent out in all directions, but is perceived in a limited direction. For example, humans are more proficient in determining the location of a sound source when the sound is projecting directly in front of them as opposed to a sound source projected directly behind them.
  3. Rapid Fading of a signal in human communication differs from such things as animal tracks and written language because an utterance does not continue to exist after it has been broadcast. With this in mind, it is important to note that Hockett viewed spoken language as the primary concern for investigation. Written language was seen as being secondary due to its recent evolution in culture.
  4. Interchangeability represents a human’s ability to act out or reproduce any linguistic message that they are able to comprehend. This differs from many animal communication systems, particularly in regards to mating. For example, humans have the ability to say and do anything that they feel may benefit them in attracting a mate. Sticklebacks on the other hand have different male and female courtship motions; a male cannot replicate a female’s motions and vice versa.
  5. Total Feedback is important in differentiating a human’s ability to internalize their own productions of speech and behavior. This design-feature incorporates the idea that humans have insight into their actions.
  6. Specialization is apparent in the anatomy of human speech organs and our ability to exhibit some control over these organs. For example, a key assumption in the evolution of language is that the descent of the larynx has allowed humans to produce speech sounds. Additionally, in terms of control, humans are generally able to control the movements of their tongue and mouth. Dogs however, do not have control over these organs. When dogs pant they are communicating a signal, but the panting is an uncontrollable response reflex of being hot .
  7. Semanticity: A specific signal can be matched with a specific meaning within a particular language system. For example, all people that understand English have the ability to make a connection between a specific word and what that word represents or refers to. (Hockett notes that gibbons also show semanticity in their signals, however their calls are far more broad than human language.)
  8. Arbitrariness within human language suggests that there is no direct connection between the type of signal (word) and what is being referenced. For example, an animal as large as a cow can be referred to by a very short word .
  9. Discreteness: Each basic unit of speech can be categorized and is distinct from other categories. In human language there are only a small set of sound ranges that are used and the differences between these bits of sound are absolute. In contrast, the waggle dance of honeybees is continuous.
  10. Displacement refers to the human language system’s ability to communicate about things that are not present spatially, temporally, or realistically. For example, humans have the ability to communicate about unicorns and outer space.
  11. Productivity: human language is open and productive in the sense that humans have the ability to say things that have never before been spoken or heard. In contrast, apes such as the gibbon have a closed communication system because all of their vocal sounds are part of a finite repertoire of familiar calls.
  12. Traditional Transmission:: suggests that while certain aspects of language may be innate, humans acquire words and their native language from other speakers. This is different from many animal communication systems because most animals are born with the innate knowledge and skills necessary for survival. (Example: Honeybees have an inborn ability to perform and understand the waggle dance).
  13. Duality of patterning: Humans have the ability to recombine a finite set of phonemes to create an infinite number of words, which in turn can be combined to make an unlimited number of different sentences.