How Hockett’s Features of Language Change My Life Forever


Hockett (1960) identifies 13 features that characterize human language and which distinguish it from other communication systems.

1. Vocal-auditory channel

This means that the standard human language occurs as a vocal (making sounds with the mouth) type of communication which is perceived by hearing it. There are obvious exceptions: writing and sign language are examples of communication in the manual-visual channel.

However, the vast majority of human language occurs in the vocal-auditory channel as their basic mode of expression.

Writing is a secondary and somewhat marginal form of language, while sign languages are in limited use, mostly among deaf people who are limited in their ability to use the auditory part of the vocal-auditory channel.

2. Broadcast transmission and directional reception

This means that the human language signal is sent out in all directions, while it is perceived in a limited direction. For spoken language, the second perpetuates as a waveform that expands from the point of origin (the mouth) in all directions.

That is why a person can stand in the middle of a room and be heard by everyone (assuming he is speaking loudly enough).

However, the listener hears the sounds coming from a particular direction and is notably better at hearing sounds that are coming from his front than from behind him.

3. Rapid fading (Transitoriness)

Rapid fading means that the human language signal does not persist over time. Speech waveforms fade rapidly and cannot be heard after they fade.

This is why it is not possible to simply say, “hello” and have someone hear it hours later.  It can be easily used to record human language so that it can be feasible for people either by reading the written form or by playing the audio.

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4. Interchangeability

Here means that human language can both receive and broadcast the same signal. This is distinguishable from animal communications such as that of the sticklefish.

The tickle fish are auditory signals based on gender (basically, the males say, “I am a boy” and females say, “I am a girl”). However, male fish cannot say, “I am a girl,” though it can perceive it. Thus, tickle fish signals are not interchangeable.

5. Total feedback

It means that the speaker can hear himself speak and can monitor his language performance as he goes. This differs from some other simple communication systems, such as traffic signals.

Traffic signs are not normally capable of monitoring their functions (a red light can’t tell when the bulb is burned out)

6. Specialization

This means that the organs used for producing speech are specially adapted to that task. The human lips, tongue, throat, etc have been specialized as speech apparatus instead of being merely the eating apparatus.

They are not physically capable of all of the speech sounds that humans produce because they lack the necessary specialized organs.

7. Semanticity

Semanticity means that specific signals can be matched with specific meanings. This is a fundamental aspect of all communication systems. For example, in French, the word “seal” means a white, crystalline substance consisting of sodium and chlorine atoms.

The same substance is matched with the English word “salt”. Anyone speaker of these languages will recognize that the signal “sel” or “salt” refers to the substance sodium chlorine.

8. Arbitrariness

Arbitrariness means that there is no necessary connection between the form of the signal and the thing being referred to. There is no special thing between what the word referred to because the name given to a particular object is merely arbitrary.

For example, there is no word that the word “owo” in Yoruba referred to since it is called “money” in English.

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However, the similarity is very loose (a dog that said “bark” would be very surprising) and does not always hold up across languages (Spanish dogs, for example, say “guau”. So, even onomatopoeic words are, to some extent, arbitrary.

9. Discreteness

It means that the basic units of speech (such as sounds) can be categorized as belonging to distinct categories.

There is no gradual continuous shading from one sound to another in the linguistics system though there may be a continuum in the real physical world. Thus, speakers will perceive a sound either a [p] or a [b], but not as a blend of the two.

10. Displacement

This means that the speaker can talk about things that are not present, either spatially or temporally. For example, human language allows speakers to talk about the past and the future, as well as the present.

Speakers can also talk about things that are physically distant (such as other countries, the moon, etc.).

They can even refer to things and events that do not exist (they are not present in reality) such as a dragon the Earth having an emperor or the destruction of Tara in “Gone with the Wind”.

11. Productivity

Productivity is also known as creativity. It means that human languages allow speakers to create novel, never-before-heard utterances that others can understand. What that no one has done before.

For example, the sentence, “The little lavender men who live in my socks drawer told me that Elvis will come back from Mars on the 10th to do a benefit concert for unemployed Pekingese dogs” is a novel and never-before-heard sentence (at least, I hope it is), but any fluent speaker of English would be able to understand it (and realize that the speaker was not completely sane, in all probability.)

12. Traditional Transmission

This means that human language is not something inborn. Although humans can acquire language, they must learn or acquire their language from other speakers.

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This is different from many animal communications where the animal is born knowing their entire system, e.g. bees are blowing how to dance and some birds are born knowing their species of bird songs (this is not true of all birds)

13. Duality of patterning

This means that the discrete parts of a language can be recombined in a systematic way to create new forms. This idea is similar to Productivity (see 11).

However, productivity refers to the ability to generate novel meanings, while duality of pattering refers to the ability to recombine small units in different orders.

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