Do you believe that animals have a language? Let’s find out if they actually do!
We, as humans, are very different from the rest of Nature. We think of ourselves as unique, but what makes us so special? The first thing to reach for is often “HUMAN LANGUAGE”. We can communicate with each other, but can the rest of the animal kingdom? Crabs wave their claws at each other to signal about their health; Cuttlefish use pigment skin cells to create patterns in their skin and act as camouflage or warning signals. Some kind of monkeys make different calls depending on the type of predators that may be attacking them; Honeybees perform complex dances to let other bees know the location of their food source. Ants leave trails of pheromone that other ants can sniff out with their antennas. All animals have impressive communication systems, but do they have a language?
In order to form or have a language, we have to look at the four specific qualities that are often associated with language:
Discreteness means a set of individual units, such as words or sounds, that can be combined to communicate ideas. Grammar proceeds a set of rules that tell how to combine those individual units. Productivity is the ability to use language to create an infinite number of messages. Displacement means the ability to talk about the things that aren’t present in front of us. A human can communicate about things that are not present in the current time or space. So, does the animal kingdom communication consist of any of these qualities? For Crabs and cuttlefish, the answer is no. They don’t combine their signals in creative ways. Those signals do not have to be in grammatical order. They only communicate about their current situation, “I am Healthy” and “I am unhealthy”
But some animals do display some of the mentioned properties of language. Bees use the moves, angels, duration on their waggle dance to describe the location and quality of food sources outside their hive, so they mention the property of DISPLACEMENT. Prairie dogs show displacement in their communication. Their alarm calls indicate the predator’s size, shape, speed and if human predators, what if wearing and whether he/she carries a gun.
Chimps and Gorillas are great communicators too. Few even have learned a modified sign language. A female Gorilla understood more than 1000 signs and more than 2000 words of English. She showed displacement during an incident. One very good example of a sophisticated animal communicator is Dolphin, which uses whistles to identify age, location, name and gender. They can also understand grammar however it can’t be seen in their natural communication.
While these communication systems may have some of the qualities of the language, none display all four. Animals have limited topics to have a conversation. Human language on the other hand stands alone due to the powerful combination of Grammar, Discreteness, Productivity, Displacement. A human brain can create an infinite number of messages, we can understand complex sentences and words which have never been spoken before. We can talk about imaginary things as well as a lie.
Human language and animal communication aren’t entirely different but exist on a continuum. After all, we all are animals.
Originally published at https://www.fuzia.com.