Charles F. Hockett

Charles Francis Hockett (January 17, 1916 - November 3, 2000) was an American linguist who developed many influential ideas in American structuralism. He represents the post-Bloomfieldian phase of structuralism often referred to as distributionalism or taxonomic structuralism. 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 which he called "a theory spawned by a generation of vipers".

Professional and Academic Career


At the age of sixteen, 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.

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 and teaching of a language.

13. Duality of Patterning: The ability to rearrange the smallest units of human language, phonemes, to create new words.

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 spoken human language.

Hocketts Design Features and their Implications for Human Language

1. Hockett suggests that the importance of an 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 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 to its recent evolution in culture.

4. Interchangeability represents a humans 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 different male and female courtship motions; a male cannot replicate a females motions and vice versa.

5. Total Feedback is important in differentiating a humans 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

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

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 and sounds.

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 relate information in regards to the location and distance of the 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. Productivity - waggle 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 extragenetically through the process of traditional transmission. Hockett distinguishes Gibbons from humans by stating that despite any similarities in communication among a species of apes, we 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.


  • 1939: Potowatomi Syntax. Language 15: 235-248.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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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