Week 1 Module 1 Lesson 1.4 Do animals have language?

"Bizarro" by Dan Piraro

Is language the exclusive property of the human species? The idea of talking animals is as old and as widespread among human species as language itself. All cultures have legends in which some animal plays a speaking role. Consider the many talking animals in Aesop's Fables. The fictional Doctor Doolittle's strength was communicating with all manner of animals, from giant bears to tiny sparrows. 

Aesop's Fables: The dog in the manger Illustrator: Unknown Publisher: McLoughlin Bros, NY Date: c.1880. Original antique plate from Victorian children's book by McLoughlin Bros illustrating Aesops Fables

If language is viewed only as a system of communication, then many species communicate. If you have a dog, you probably know from its sounds and body language when it wants to play or when it wants to go outside. We know that dolphins, whales, bats, and many other animals use both oral and body signals to communicate with each other. 


But language is more than body language and other signals

Animals that can make human-like sounds, like some parrots and mynah birds, do not possess language. Parrots and mynah birds are capable of reproducing what they have heard, but their utterances carry no meaning. They are repeating what they hear and are speaking neither English nor their own language when they sound like us.

Talking birds do not dissect the sounds of their imitations into discrete units. Polly and Molly do not rhyme for a parrot. One property of all human languages is that speech units can be ordered and reordered, combined and split apart. Generally, a parrot says what it is taught or what it hears, and no more. If Polly learns "Polly wants a cracker" and "Polly wants a donut" and also learns to imitate the single words whiskey and malasada, she will not spontaneously produce, as children do, "Polly wants whiskey" or "Polly wants a malasada" or "Polly wants whiskey and a malasada" or make the word plural, as in "Polly wants malasadas."

"Rose is Rose" United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

Some animals have complicated communication systems. Studies show that bees, for example, use dance-like movements to communicate where food is located. Bees can signal how far food is from the hive and perhaps even about the quality of a food source. Science is learning more each day about these fascinating creatures. As effective as this system is to other bees in the hive, it is confined to a single subject: food source. 

waggle dance diagram

Bee Dance


Learn about how bees communicate at Nova's Tales from the Hive


Some research has shown that primates seem to have some ability for learning and using language in the way human beings do. Researchers at the Central Washington University Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, for example, believe that the ability of primates to learn language has profound implications in helping us understand how early humans may have acquired language. Their most famous resident is the chimpanzee Washoe, who learned over 100 American Sign Language signsUsing sign language (because primates do not have the vocal organs needed for human-like speech sounds) starting in 1966. 

Arguably the most famous primate is Koko the Gorilla, who researchers of the Gorilla Foundation say has mastered over 1000 signs. It is said that Koko can not only express her needs but can ask questions and even express emotions, such as her love for her kitten, Ball. 

Koko demonstrating four of her favorite signs. 


Watch videos of Koko and her trainer sign at the Apple Learning Interchange.

As a result of these studies, some linguists and animal behaviorists believe that the gap between human and animal language is somewhat narrower than has traditionally been assumed. It is evident that chimpanzees and gorillas can learn to imitate signs, combine them into sequences, and use them in different contexts, but the explanation of this behavior is less clear. Many scholars believe that the chimp's behavior can be explained as a sophisticated imitating ability rather than as evidence for some form of linguistic processes. Others claim apes are somehow gleaming clues from their trainers. More systematic data must be collected and analyzed before these questions can be resolved. 


So what are the differences, then, between animal communication and human language? 

Animals communicate mostly as a response to stimulus, such as fear or hunger. Human beings, on the other hand, are productive and creative. We use language to:

  • to communicate information
  • to share ideas
  • to solve problems
  • to express dreams and goals
  • for fun (such as jokes and word games)

Human beings use language to refer to something that's not necessarily right in front of them, called displacement. When you tell me about the shopping you did at Pearl Ridge last night, you are talking about things and places not in right in front of us. When a child talks about dreaming that a unicorn flew into her window last night, she is talking about a mental exercise (dream) about a creature that doesn't actually exist. Do animals have displacement? Can chimps and gorillas do this? What about whales? Dogs?

Human beings dissect sounds and words - arrange and rearrange them, combine and split them up - to create an infinite set of sentences. We'll look at what "infinite set of sentences" means in an upcoming module.


In conclusion

Human beings use language for more than simply communicating needs.

Although some animals may have some human language features, no animal has ALL of them, including productively and displacement. This doesn't mean human language is superior; we have a lot to learn about animal species, especially in ways that might help us understand our own human origins. They are merely qualitatively different.


Animal Communication

  1. Listen to Aesop's Fables: here and here

  2. Learn about conversations with Koko http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/koko/ a scrap book of Koko's life, games, animal sign language, and more

  3. Watch Spiders courtship gesturing

  4. Watch Fiddler crabs claw-waving (takes a long time to download)  

  5. Watch Honey bee waggle dance



back to Lesson 1.3

On to Lesson 1.5

Ling 102/WI Introduction to the Study of Language, University of Hawai'i - Leeward Community College
Professor Pat Kamalani Hurley

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