Introduction to special issue

More than a tool for communication

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Science  04 Oct 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6461, pp. 48-49
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz4133

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Simplified forms of language are useful for linguistic study. Two-word phrases can vary the conceptual specificity of nouns and how functional elements of the language fit together. The words in the background (in English and German) are examples that have been used in research.

ILLUSTRATION: EIKO OJALA

How disorienting would it be to travel to a country where you do not know the language and cannot read the street signs because the letters are unfamiliar? You would not even be able to distinguish an exit sign from a stop sign. Language enables the sharing of information, knowledge, and predictions about the world around us. Language also gives us poetry and fiction through which to express feelings and speculate about things or events that are not and may never become real.

Humans and animals communicate through multiple modalities, such as sight, odor, and touch. In this special issue, we focus on the communication of sound—particularly language. What is language? Is human language special, or is it simply at the extreme end of an evolutionary spectrum? How does the brain produce and interpret language? Given the fundamental importance of communication in our society, it is no surprise that such a large part of the brain is engaged in the processing of language. Syntax, grammar, and word selection define common ground and differentiate distinct human languages. How do the young learn to make sense of the cacophony?

Language is central to our existence as humans. With language we entertain, agitate, and encourage each other; we build community. Without language we are each islands unto ourselves. Language turns us into social beings. Some argue that the capacity for language is crucial to the runaway success of our species. Both the human brain and the language it enables help shape the world we inhabit today.

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