Duality of Patterning in Language

A woman playing with foam letters with kids
Indeed / Getty Images

Duality of patterning is a characteristic of human language whereby speech can be analyzed on two levels:

  1. As made up of meaningless elements; i.e., a limited inventory of sounds or phonemes
  2. As made up of meaningful elements; i.e., a virtually limitless inventory of words or morphemes (also called double articulation)


"[D]uality of patterning," says David Ludden, "is what gives language such expressive power.

Spoken languages are composed of a limited set of meaningless speech sounds that are combined according to rules to form meaningful words" (The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach, 2016).

The significance of duality of patterning as one of the 13 (later 16) "design features of language" was noted by American linguist Charles F. Hockett in 1960.

Examples and Observations

  • "Human language is organized at two levels or layers simultaneously. This property is called duality (or 'double articulation'). In speech production, we have a physical level at which we can produce individual sounds, like n, b and i. As individual sounds, none of these discrete forms has any intrinsic meaning. In a particular combination such as bin, we have another level producing a meaning that is different from the meaning of the combination in nib. So, at one level, we have distinct sounds, and, at another level, we have distinct meanings. This duality of levels is, in fact, one of the most economical features of human language because, with a limited set of discrete sounds, we are capable of producing a very large number of sound combinations (e.g. words) which are distinct in meaning."
    (George Yule, The Study of Language, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

    Duality of Language and Animal Communication

    • "The level of sounds and syllables is the province of phonology, while that of meaningful elements is the province of grammar and semantics. Has this kind of duality any analog in animal communication systems?... The short answer to [that] question seems to be no.
      (Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry Into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth. Oxford University Press, 1999)


      • "It is hard to find clear and uncontroversial examples of duality of patterning outside our own species. But let us say that we can find them—and there is evidence, from the way some animals like birds and dolphins manipulate melodies, that this might be true. This would mean that duality of patterning is a necessary condition for a communication system to be a human language, but that by itself it may not be enough. There is no human language without duality of patterning."
        (Daniel L. Everett, Language: The Cultural Tool. Random House, 2012)

      Hockett on Duality of Patterning

      • "[Charles] Hockett developed the phrase 'duality of patterning' to express the fact that discrete units of language at one level (such as the level of sounds) can be combined to create different kinds of units at a different level (such as words)... According to Hockett, duality of patterning was probably the last feature to emerge in human language, and it was critical in separating human language from other kinds of primate communication...
        "The most difficult bit to figure out is how and when duality of patterning could have emerged. How did individuals manage to isolate various bits of calls so that they could be endlessly combined into arbitrary symbols? Hockett thought that if two calls each had two distinct parts, then perhaps something in the blending process might alert individuals to the existence of discrete units. If you can combine breakfast and lunch into brunch, then does that alert you to the possibility that br is a distinct unit of sound that is combinable with other distinct units of sound? Solving this puzzle remains one of the thorniest of the problems in determining how language became possible."
        (Harriet Ottenheimer, The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Wadsworth, 2009)

        The Structures of Phonology and Syntax

        • "The question of whether the structures of phonology and syntax are separate and distinct is relevant to the notion of duality of patterning... The division between meaningful and meaningless elements is less sharp than it appears, and the fact that words are composed of phonemes is arguably just a special case of the pervasive hierarchical structure that is present in language...
          "Of all Hockett's design features, duality of patterning is the most misrepresented and misunderstood; in particular, it is frequently conflated with or linked to productivity (Fitch 2010). Hockett seems to have regarded duality of patterning as the single most important breakthrough in the evolution of language (Hockett 1973: 414), yet he himself was unsure whether to ascribe duality of patterning to the dance of the honeybee (Hackett 1958: 574)."
          (D.R. Ladd, "An Integrated View of Phonetics, Phonology, and Prosody." Language, Music, and the Brain: A Mysterious Relationship, ed. by Michael A. Arbib. MIT Press, 2013)