Charles F. Hockett

Charles F. Hockett
Charles Francis Hockett
Born January 17, 1916(1916-01-17)
Columbus, Ohio, United States
Died November 3, 2000(2000-11-03) (aged 84)
Houston, Texas, United States
Nationality American
Institutions Cornell University, Rice University
Alma mater Ohio State University, Yale University
Known for contributions to structural linguistics and linguistic anthropology
Influences Leonard Bloomfield

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.


Professional and academic career


At the age of 16, Hockett enrolled at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio where he received a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in ancient history. While enrolled at Ohio State, Hockett became interested in the work of Leonard Bloomfield, a leading figure in the field of structural linguistics. Hockett continued his education at Yale University where he studied anthropology and linguistics and received his PhD in anthropology in 1939. While studying at Yale, Hockett studied with several other influential linguists such as Edward Sapir, George P. Murdock, and Benjamin Whorf. Hockett's dissertation was based on his fieldwork in Potawatomi; his paper on Potawatomi syntax was published in Language in 1939. In 1948 his dissertation was published as a series in the International Journal of American Linguistics. Following fieldwork in Kickapoo and Michoacán, Mexico, Hockett did two years of postdoctoral study with Leonard Bloomfield in Chicago and Michigan.


Hockett began his teaching career in 1946 as an assistant professor of linguistics in the Division of Modern Languages at Cornell University where he was responsible for directing the Chinese language program. In 1957, Hockett became a member of Cornell's anthropology department and continued to teach anthropology and linguistics until he retired to emeritus status in 1982. In 1986, he took up an adjunct post at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he remained active until his death in 2000.


Charles Hockett held membership among many academic institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He served as president of both the Linguistic Society of America and the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States.

In addition to making many contributions to the field of structural linguistics, Hockett also considered such things as Whorfian Theory, jokes, the nature of writing systems, slips of the tongue, and animal communication and their relativeness to speech.

Outside the realm of linguistics and anthropology, Hockett practiced musical performance and composition. Hockett composed a full-length opera called The Love of Doña Rosita which was based on a play by Federico García Lorca and premiered at Ithaca College by the Ithaca Opera.

Hockett and his wife Shirley were vital leaders in the development of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra in Ithaca, New York. In appreciation of the Hocketts' hard work and dedication to the Ithaca community, Ithaca College established the Charles F. Hockett Music Scholarship, the Shirley and Chas Hockett Chamber Music Concert Series, and the Hockett Family Recital Hall.

View on linguistics

In his "Note on Structure" he argues that linguistics can be seen as a game and as a science. A linguist as player has a freedom for experimentation on all the utterances of a language, but no criterion to compare his analysis with other linguists. Late in his career, he was known for his stinging criticism of Chomskyan linguistics.

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 [1].
  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 [2].
  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.

Design feature representation in other communication systems


Foraging honeybees communicate with other members of their hive when they have discovered a relevant source of pollen, nectar, or water. In an effort to convey information about the location and distance of such resources, honeybees participate in a particular figure-eight dance known as the waggle dance.

In Charles Hockett's "The Origin of Speech," Hockett determined that the honeybee communication system of the waggle dance holds the following design features:

  1. Broadcast Transmission and Directional Reception – Through the use of this dance, honeybees are able to send out a signal that informs other members of the hive as to what direction the source of food, or water can be located.
  2. Semanticity – Evidence that the specific signals of a communication system can be matched with specific meanings is apparent because other members of the hive are able to locate the food source after a performance of the waggle dance.
  3. Displacement – Demonstrated in the foraging honeybees' ability to communicate about a resource that is not currently present within the hive.
  4. Productivitywaggle dances change based on the direction, amount, and type of resource.

Gibbons are small apes in the family Hylobatidae. While gibbons share the same kingdom, phylum, class, and order of humans and are relatively close to man, Hockett distinguishes between the Gibbon communication system and human language by noting that gibbons are devoid of the last four design features.

Gibbons possess the first nine design features, but do not possess the last four (displacement, productivity, traditional transmission, and duality of patterning).

  1. Displacement, according to Hockett, appears to be lacking in the vocal signaling of apes.
  2. Productivity does not exist among Gibbons because if any vocal sound is produced, it is one of a finite set of repetitive and familiar calls.
  3. Hockett supports the idea that humans learn language extra genetically through the process of traditional transmission. Hockett distinguishes Gibbons from humans by stating that despite any similarities in communication among a species of apes, one cannot attribute these similarities to acquisition through the teaching and learning (traditional transmission) of signals; the only explanation must be a genetic basis.
  4. Finally, duality of patterning explains a human's ability to create multiple meanings from somewhat meaningless sounds. For example, the sounds /t/, /a/, /c/ can be used to create the words "cat", "tack", and "act". Hockett states that no other Hominoid communication system besides human language maintains this ability.

Later additions to the features

In a report published in 1968 with anthropologist and scientist Stuart A. Altmann, Hockett derived three more Design Features, bringing the total to 16. The additional three are:

  1. Prevarication – a speaker can say falsehoods, lies, and meaningless statements.
  2. Reflexiveness – Language can be used communicate about the very system it is; i.e. language can discuss language
  3. Learnability – a speaker of a language can learn another language

Other additions

Cognitive scientist and linguist at the University of Sussex Larry Trask (1944–2004) offered an alternative term and definition for number 14, Prevarication:

14. (a) Stimulus Freedom – we can choose to say anything we want or say nothing at all in any given situation

There has since been one more Feature added to the list, by Dr. William Taft Stuart, a director of the Undergraduate Studies program at the University of Maryland: College Park’s Anthropology school, part of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. His “extra” Feature is:

17. Grammaticality – a speaker’s sayings conform to the rules of grammar

This follows the definition of Grammar and Syntax, as given by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:

1. (a) the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence (b) a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax
2. (a) the characteristic system of inflections and syntax of a language (b) a system of rules that defines the grammatical structure of a language
1. (a) the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses) (b) the part of grammar

Relationship between the design features and animal communication

Additionally, Dr. Stuart defends his postulation with references to famous linguist Noam Chomsky and University of New York psychologist Gary Marcus. Chomsky theorized that humans are unique in the animal world because of their ability to utilize Design Feature 5: Total Feedback, or recursive grammar. This includes being able to correct oneself and insert explanatory or even non sequitur statements into a sentence, without breaking stride, and keeping proper grammar throughout.

While there have been studies attempting to disprove Chomsky, Marcus states that, "An intriguing possibility is that the capacity to recognize recursion might be found only in species that can acquire new patterns of vocalization, for example, songbirds, humans and perhaps some cetaceans." This is in response to a study performed by psychologist Timothy Gentner of the University of California at San Diego. Gentner’s study found that starling songbirds use recursive grammar to identify “odd” statements within a given “song.” However, the study does not necessarily debunk Chomsky’s observation because it has not yet been proven that songbirds have the semantic ability to generalize from patterns.

There is also thought that symbolic thought is necessary for grammar-based speech, and thus Homo Erectus and all preceding “humans” would have been unable to comprehend modern speech. Rather, their utterances would have been halting and even quite confusing to us, today.

Hockett's "design features" of language and other animal communication systems

The University of Oxford: Phonetics Laboratory Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics published the following chart, detailing how Hockett's (and Altmann's) Design Features fit into other forms of communication, in animals:

Feature Crickets Bee Dancing Western Meadowlark Song Gibbon Calls Signing Apes Alex, A Grey Parrot Paralinguistic phenomena Human sign languages Spoken Language
Vocal-Auditory Channel Auditory, not vocal No Yes Yes No Yes Yes No Yes
Broadcast Transmission and Directional Reception Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Rapid Fading Yes (repeating)  ? Yes Yes (repeating) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Interchangeability Limited Limited  ? Yes Yes Yes Largely Yes Yes Yes
Total Feedback Yes  ? Yes Yes No Yes Yes No Yes
Specialization Yes?  ? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes? Yes Yes
Semanticity No? Yes In Part Yes Yes Yes Yes? Yes Yes
Arbitrariness  ? No If semantic, Yes Yes Largely Yes Yes In Part Largely Yes Yes
Discreteness Yes? No  ? Yes Yes Yes Largely No Yes Yes
Displacement Yes, always  ? No Yes No In Part Yes, often Yes, often
Productivity No Yes  ? No Debatable Limited Yes Yes Yes
Traditional Transmission No? Probably not  ?  ? Limited Limited Yes Yes Yes
Duality of Patterning  ? No  ? No (Cotton-top Tamarin: Yes) Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Prevarication Yes No Yes Yes
Reflexiveness No? No Yes Yes
Learnability Yes Yes Yes Yes

Selected works

  • 1939: Potowatomi Syntax. Language 15: 235–248.
  • 1944: Spoken Chinese; Basic Course. With C. Fang. Holt, New York.
  • 1947: "Peiping phonology", in: Journal of the American Oriental Society, 67, pp. 253–267. [= Martin Joos (ed.), Readings in Linguistics, vol. I, 4th edition. Chicago and London 1966, pp. 217–228].
  • 1947: "Problems of morphemic analysis", in: Language, 24, pp. 414–41. [= Readings in Linguistics, vol. I, pp. 229–242].
  • 1948: "Biophysics, linguistics, and the unity of science", in: American Scientist, 36, pp. 558–572.
  • 1950: "Peiping morphophonemics", in: Language, 26, pp. 63–85. [= Readings in Linguistics, vol. I, pp. 315–328].
  • 1954: "Two models of grammatical description", in: Word, 10, pp. 210–234. [= Readings in Linguistics, vol. I, pp. 386–399].
  • 1955: A Manual of Phonology. Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics 11.
  • 1958: A Course in Modern Linguistics. The Macmillan Company: New York.
  • 1960: "The Origin of Speech". in Scientific American, 203, pp. 89–97.
  • 1961: "Linguistic Elements and Their Relation" in Language, 37: 29–53.
  • 1967: The State of the Art. The Haag: Mouton
  • 1973: Man's Place in Nature. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • 1977: The View From Language. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.
  • 1987: Refurbishing Our Foundations. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


  • Falk, Julia S. 2003. "Turn to the history of linguistics : Noam Chomsky and Charles Hockett in the 1960s". Historiographia linguistica (international journal for the history of the language sciences) 30/1-2, pp. 129–185. [3]
  • Gair, James W. 2003. [Obituary] Charles F. Hockett. Language. 79:600–613.
  • Hockett, Charles F. (1960), "The Origin of Speech," Scientific American.
  • Fox, Margalit 2003 (Obituary) "Champion of structural linguistics" The New York Times

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