We all create our own language

Morten H. Christiansen and Nick Chater on what the forgotten story of Laura Bridgman tells us about the astonishing flexibility of human communication.

Imagine that you all of a sudden found yourself in utter darkness. Unable to see, in complete silence unable to hear, with your tongue tied unable to speak, and with your senses of taste and smell gone, too. Your only remaining connection to the world is through your sense of touch…

Devastating as this darkness scenario may seem for someone who has sampled life through combinations of sights, sounds, flavours and odours, you’d still have the ability to use language. Although it would be hard to understand others, you could at least make yourself understood by writing down what you wanted to say. But imagine that this sensory loss happened when you were just two years of age, before you had developed much command of spoken language, let alone spelling. This was the fate of Laura Bridgman.

Laura was born in 1829 on a farming homestead on the outskirts of Hanover, New Hampshire. She was a frail child, small and skinny. When she was two, the Bridgmans contracted scarlet fever and two of her siblings died. Although it was touch and go for Laura for a while, she survived. But the fever took away her sight, her hearing, and most of her senses of taste and smell. Whatever little language she had learned before the fever soon disappeared, too, and she became mute within a year. Her physical recovery took two years and left her thin and delicate-looking – with her sense of touch as her only connection to the world. Still, she was a spirited child, who used an old boot for a doll and a few rudimentary gestures to communicate with her family. 

Charles Dickens would later describe Laura’s world: it was, he wrote, as if she were ‘in a marble cell, impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound; with her poor white hand peeping through a chink in the wall, beckoning to some good man for help, that an Immortal soul might be awakened’. This awakening came when she was seven. Dr Samuel Gridley Howe learned of Laura’s unfortunate story and brought her to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, where he was the director. At that time, deaf–blind individuals were considered to be unreachable imbeciles, destined for a non-communicative existence in silence and darkness. Howe was eager to showcase the power of the human mind by demonstrating that a deaf–blind child could learn language. 

Rather than using some kind of sign language, where every object or situation would get its own sign, Howe decided to teach Laura English words spelled out using raised letters that could be differentiated by touch. To begin, he would label common objects, such as spoon, knife, book and key, with these letters. Laura soon learned to associate each object with its corresponding letter sequence, so that when handed the detached labels she would carefully place them by the right object: SPOON would be placed on the spoon, BOOK on the book, KEY on the key and so on. Next, Howe gave her each raised letter on a separate piece of paper, arranged next to one another to spell the words she knew: S-P-O-O-N, B-O-O-K, K-E-Y. All the letters were then mixed up in a pile, and Laura was prompted to order them into the labels for the objects she knew. It took a while, but she eventually learned to do this too. Eventually, Howe reported that, after several weeks of determinedly imitating her teacher, Laura had an epiphany: ‘The truth began to flash upon her – her intellect began to work – she perceived that here was a way by which she could herself make up a sign of anything that was in her own mind, and show it to another mind.’ 

Once Laura had grasped the idea that things have names and that we can use language to talk about them with each other, she was eager to learn words for everything in her world. Howe then introduced her to finger spelling, where the ‘speaker’ uses the fingers of one hand to form individual letters, and the ‘listener’ places their hand over the speaker’s hand to feel the shape being signalled. Laura quickly mastered finger spelling, liberating her burgeoning language skills from the confines of her desk where the raised letters were kept. She could now ‘finger-talk’ wherever and whenever she wanted – and because her inquisitive mind was insatiable, she was soon pestering everyone with an unending stream of questions. Laura even learned how to write by hand. 

With a certain flair for publicity, Howe described Laura’s ever-growing language abilities in the Perkins School annual reports. Her linguistic awakening captured the public’s imagination, and she soon became a household name in America. Laura’s fame turned international after Charles Dickens met her in 1842 while touring North America and told her story in his travelogue American Notes for General Circulation. She remained one of the most famous women in the world for the rest of the 1840s. People in the thousands would attend Perkins exhibition days, where Laura would demonstrate her language skills, and clamour for her autograph, some of her writing, even strands of her hair. Girls created their own ‘Laura’ dolls by poking the doll’s eyes out and tying a green ribbon across them, just like the real Laura did. 

Today, Laura Bridgman has been all but forgotten. Her accomplishments are now overshadowed by those of Helen Keller, who 50 years later would go through the same journey as Laura and of whom many erroneously think as the first deaf–blind person to learn English. But it was Laura who in the early 1880s taught Anne Sullivan the finger-spelling skills that she would later use to bring Keller into the world of language. 

Fundamental flexibility

What can we learn about language from Laura’s case, as described in this excerpt from our new book, The Language Game: How Improvisations Created Language and Changed the World. First, it shows us just how resilient human language is. Laura is one of a few people, perhaps the only one, who got their entry into language through printed words. Even in Laura’s severely limited sensory world, language found a way through the darkness, enabling her to communicate with others. Human language appears to be unique in such fundamental flexibility. 

Contrast this with the inflexibility of other animal communication systems. There is tremendous variability in the way animals communicate with each other, ranging from the chemical quorum sensing of bacteria and archaea to the famous waggle dance ‘bee language’ and dazzling visual signalling of the common cuttlefish, also known as the ‘chameleon of the sea’, to the virtuosity of songbirds like the common nightingale and the vervet monkeys’ separate alarm calls for leopard, eagle, and snake. These are just a few examples of the spectacular variations in the ways of communicating observed across the animal kingdom. However, if we home in on a single type of organism, then we find that all members of that species communicate in identical ways as specified by their genes. 

Human language is not like that at all – rather, diversity abounds. Unique to language, our main communicative signal can take several different forms, whether it be vocal as in spoken language, gestural as in sign language, or tactile as when Laura ‘read’ finger spelling. And within the spoken languages, people variously use clicks, tones, and even whistles to signal differences in meaning. Humans seem capable of almost limitless inventiveness in finding ways to communicate, whatever the obstacles, while communication in other animals is rigid and unchanging. 

As field linguists have documented ever more of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages, they have found no hidden patterns, but ever more profligate variety. For example, it was once widely assumed that all languages have nouns (dog) and verbs (runs), as in English; but Strait Salish, a First Nation language in Canada, appears to have no noun-verb distinction. Moreover, while most languages combine consonants and vowels to form words, Nuxalk (another Canadian First Nation language) has many words that consist entirely of consonants (such as sts’q, meaning animal fat). And whereas we need 13 words in English to say ‘he had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer’, you can get by with a single (admittedly morphologically complex) word in Yupik, spoken in western Alaska and north-eastern Siberia: tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq. 

Intriguing diversity shows up even in ordinary European languages, like Danish. This Scandinavian language has long had a reputation for being hard to understand for foreigners. The German author, Kurt Tucholsky, even quipped that ‘The Danish language is not suitable for speaking … everything sounds like a single word’. But what has surprised language scientists is that even Danish children have problems learning their native tongue. Danish has a very opaque sound structure due to a large inventory of vowels combined with a tendency by Danes to omit consonants. This seems to make it a difficult language to learn, not just for foreigners but also for Danish children. Compared to Norwegian children, learning a very similar language, Danish kids know on average 30 per cent fewer words at 15 months and take nearly two years longer to learn the past tense. Of course, Danes eventually learn their native language successfully. But the ambiguous nature of Danish speech patterns appears to cause adult Danes to rely more heavily on context to figure out what is being said, when compared with Norwegians.

The astonishing variety of human languages contradicts the hypothesised existence of an innate ‘universal grammar’, supposedly hardwired into our brains and restricting children’s language acquisition to a limited number of common patterns. It was first championed by one of the founders of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, and subsequently popularised by the Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker’s concept of a ‘language instinct’. Ironically, even though they argued that this presumed innate facility for language is uniquely human, it provides a better explanation for how genetic blueprints straitjacket the development and functioning of many animal communication systems. But it’s incompatible with the breadth and depth of diversity among the world’s languages – it is the sheer variety of linguistic communication, not its supposedly universal patterns, that is uniquely human. 

Language in the moment

Linguistic diversity, however, doesn’t stop with individual languages but extends within each language as well. Each of us has our own idiosyncratic mix of favoured words and grammatical patterns; and none of us can quite agree on the meanings of even the most basic words, like space, time, the good, or causality, as millennia of philosophy attest. And more fundamentally, psycholinguists have measured substantial variations in linguistic abilities across individuals. For example, a substantial fraction of adult native English speakers consistently fails to understand simple passive sentences such as The boy was photographed by the girl, misinterpreting it as if it was the boy who took the picture. 

Such individual differences make sense if language is a skill – like music, art, or computer programming – where we expect to find that each person performs in their own unique way, and that some people are far more adept than others. But it contradicts the universal grammar account, according to which the innate principles of language would be the same for everyone. The development of the ‘language organ’ is presumed to be no more variable than the growth of a bodily organ, such as the heart or the liver. 

Language depends on us improvising, in the moment, to find new ways of expressing ourselves well enough to get the point across. And each of us do this in our own way – even Laura, who would often coin her own words, such as generalising the word ‘alone’ to ‘al-two’ when she wanted to bring a friend after being told to come alone. Through learning, we all become like experienced jazz musicians, great at improvising while staying in tune with one another, though few of us become improvisational geniuses, like Miles Davis or John Coltrane. So, there is a very real sense in which we all speak different but mutually intelligible languages, that each die with us, as Laura Bridgman’s did when she passed away in 1889.

-Dr Christiansen is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, USA, and professor in the cognitive science of language at Aarhus University in Denmark. 

- Dr Chater is a professor of behavioral science at Warwick Business School in England. 

This article is adapted from their book, The Language Game: How Improvisation Created Language and Changed the World, published in the US by Basic Books on 22 February and in the UK by Bantam Press on 14 April.

Key Sources

Evans, N., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 32(5), 429–448.

Kidd, E., Donnelly, S. & Christiansen, M.H. (2018). Individual differences in language acquisition and processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(2), 154-169. 

Menand, L. (2001). Laura’s world: what a deaf–blind girl taught the nineteenth century, New Yorker, June. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/07/02/lauras-world. 

Trecca, F., Tylén, K., Højen, A., & Christiansen, M.H. (2021). Danish as a window onto language processing and learning. Language Learning, 71(3), 799–833.

Wheeler, B., Searcy, W.A., Christiansen, M.H. et al. (2011). Communication. In R. Menzel & J. Fischer (Eds.), Animal thinking: Contemporary issues in comparative cognition. Strüngmann Forum Reports (pp. 187-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber