It’s an age-old question, and one that continues to be widely debated in the scientific community: can animals talk? And if so, might we someday be able to converse with some of our furry, scaly, or otherwise slimy counterparts?
Over the centuries, there have been countless anecdotal examples of animals that have learned to use human language to varying degrees. In 1973, a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky was sent to live in a household of humans to see if being raised like a human child might condition him to communicate with humans. In four years, he learned more than 125 ASL signs before his chimpy behavior got the best of him, and he was sent away for biting the human children in the house. Similarly, Alex the Gray Parrot knew over one-hundred words, could count up to six, and could identify a variety of shapes and colors.
But can the ability to produce or recognize a limited number of words or concepts be classified as language? In order to begin answering such a lofty question, let’s look at the five core properties that scientists use to define human language.
When your dog stands at the window howling, or your cat brushes against your leg and meows, you may not know exactly why. But it’s usually safe to assume that whatever is being communicated has something to do with the here and the now. Your dog might be howling at a squirrel, or at a neighbor mowing their lawn. Your cat may have caught a whiff of your tuna sandwich and be requesting a bite, or she may just want a scratch behind the ears. What’s unlikely, though, is that your dog is howling about seeing the garbage man three days ago, or that your cat is reminding you about the time last year when she got in a fight with the calico up the block. Displacement – the ability to discuss things unrelated to the here and now – is generally considered to be a property unique to human language. One notable exception, however, is the honeybee, which is able to communicate the direction and distance to a source of food by moving its body in a specific motion known as the ‘waggle dance.’
When you see the word ‘finger,’ there is nothing inherently finger-ish about that specific combination of letters or the sound that it produces. Human language depends on arbitrariness, meaning that the relationship between the symbols or sounds of a word and its meaning is arbitrary or random. This is the reason the idea of a ‘finger’ can be produced through any number of symbols and sounds – ‘dedo’ in Spanish, ‘doigt’ in French, or ‘toenga’ in Maori. Onomatopoeic words like ‘whoosh,’ or ‘splat,’ are exceptions to arbitrariness because their sounds are representative of their meanings.
Most sounds made by non-human animal’s lack arbitrariness – that’s why a growl is understood to be menacing whether it’s made by a wolf or a lion or a chihuahua. Some animals, however, are capable of communicating arbitrarily. Meercats use six different calls to express the type, size, and location of predators, as well as the urgency of the warning. Because the sounds of these calls are not inherently related to their meanings, they can be classified as arbitrary.
Janet said she likes raisins. Tory told Ryan that Janet said she likes raisins. Zoli said that Tory told Ryan that… are you catching on? This is an example of productivity, or the ability to produce an infinite number of novel utterances simply by combining and recombining a limited set of sounds or symbols. Productivity is the property of human language most highly associated with creativity. Not only are we able to understand an infinite number of different utterances, but every day, we produce thousands of novel combinations of words, like the ones you are reading right now. Productivity is the element of language where most non-human animal species fall short. In one experiment, waggle dancing honeybees were shown a food source at the top of a telephone pole. They returned to their hive to inform their fellow bees but found that their waggle dance lacked a term for ‘up.’ Because honeybees do not possess productivity, they were unable to come up with a way to describe the new direction, and though their hive-mates went out looking, they never did locate the elevated food source.
Cultural transmission is the reason that my stepbrother, both of whose parents are Chinese, grew up speaking English rather than Mandarin. Unlike physical traits, which are genetically inherited, language is inherited through culture. No matter what their genetics, people will grow up speaking the language they are surrounded by. In many non-human animals, communicative sounds are produced by instinct. Thus, whether an animal grows up in isolation or thousands of miles from another animal of the same species, it will produce the same sounds for the same reasons.
However, there are a number of non-human animals that learn through cultural transmission. Birds learn their songs through a process of observing their parents, attempting to mimic them, and failing miserably for months before they begin to succeed. In fact, new-born birds make noise that is known as sub-song and is comparable to baby babble. Across long distances, birds of the same species will often sing very different songs, much as a person born in Australia will learn to speak a different language than somebody born in Papua New Guinea.
Cultural transmission has also been shown to exist in dolphins, whales, bats, and elephants. Certainly Nim Chimpsky learned those 125 ASL signs through this process. It’s when his human counterparts started expressing themselves using displacement and productivity that he likely began to come up short.
Human language is organized into two simultaneous levels: sound and meaning. When we combine sounds in a specific way, such as the word ‘R-A-T’ we are capable of producing one meaning, whereas if we combine those same sounds in a different way, ‘A-R-T,’ we produce a different meaning. Unlike humans, many non-human animals use single, fixed signals that cannot be broken down to produce new meanings. Thus, your dog can say ‘W-O-O-F,’ but cannot produce a new sound like ‘F-O-W-O,’ in order to convey a new meaning.
Some scientists have suggested that whale-songs or birdsongs may possess some of the elements of duality, but a lack of deep understanding of these systems of communication makes the question of duality a difficult one to answer definitively.
What Makes A Language a Language?
It is a combination of displacement, arbitrariness, productivity, cultural transmission, and duality that give us human-kind’s rich and complex systems of communication. However, many non-human animals have also been shown to communicate using one or more of these properties. Thus, the question becomes: how much is needed for a system of communication to be considered a language? Do all five qualities have to be present, or might two out of five suffice? Are any of these qualities indispensable to earning the qualification of language, as some linguists have suggested of productivity? This is where the scientific and linguistic communities are still lacking in consensus.
For me, though, it’s enough to know that cats have invented their own system of cat-human communication for me to believe that our animal counterparts are onto something in the way of language. Among themselves, adult cats communicate through scent and body language, but never through meowing. Once they began cohabiting with humans and realized we weren’t able to pick-up on their methods of communication, they started to meow at us – a habit they previously dropped after infancy – in order to get what they wanted!
Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.