The language of life – The word (2017)

Sophie Scott

Sophie Scott asks where the human ability to use language comes from and whether there any other animals that can do anything similar?

Watch time: 59:03

Lecture 3 - The word

What is language and how close do other animals come to having it? Dogs can be very good at following our commands, but do they actually understand any of the words we use?

Birds are the only other species that can say human words and Sophie Scott reveals how humans and birds share some common brain functions that make this possible. She also shows what happens when this section of our brain cannot function properly. But are birds simply mimicking us or can they comprehend anything of the human words they can be trained to utter?

Language isn't just a power to combine words. Sophie explores how we convey a huge amount of information through the tone of voice, our accents and the pace and pitch of our speech. In a world when we regularly talk to computers, she also shows why scientists need to develop machines that can understand the subtleties of our speech to be able to fully comprehend human language.


In our 2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES, Sophie Scott explores how laughter provides a link to our animal past, how our voice box has changed the shape of our faces and why we sound the way we do. She also uncovers the hidden code of communication, the more secret and sometimes more sinister side of human interaction – everything we say without opening our mouths – from contagious behaviours to the emotional clues in smell, and whether information wired directly into our brains is really a future we want.

Sophie shows how one of the biggest puzzles in science – how and when humans first evolved language – reveals the huge amount of raw brain power and sensory skill needed to understand even a simple sentence and how we convey as much meaning through our tone, pace and pitch of voice as we say with our words.

Along the way, the lectures reveal a modern-day return to classic television moments from past Lectures such as Sir David Attenborough’s The Language of Animals from 1973, and even attempt a world record. 

2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES supporters