Do animals have language?
Have you ever listened to magpies warbling in the morning and wondered what they might be saying? For animals that communicate acoustically, research shows that specific vocalisations do have certain meanings including alarm calls and sounds for courtship and finding food. Some animals such as dolphins even have unique whistles for individual animals, just like we have names. But are these repertoires enough to call it language?
Australian Magpie. Hilton Hope, Alexis. Via Wikimedia commons.
What is language?
There have been numerous attempts over time to define language, yet despite being studied for over 2,500 years, the definition remains unclear.
Noam Chomsky is one of the leading experts on language today. He argues that every language has what he calls ‘The Basic Property’: “an unbounded array of hierarchically structured expressions that receive interpretations at two interfaces, sensorimotor for externalisation and conceptual-intentional for mental processes.” He states that humans differ to animals in that their communication appears to be caused by circumstances in its environment, whereas humans can voluntarily use complex language independent of environment and circumstance.
But Linguist Martin Joos took a more open-minded approach to defining language. He believed that languages can differ randomly, and that each new one should be studied without any prior conceptions to what language is.
Author Deepak Chopra offers a holistic view on the definition of language: “We think of language as a purely human trait, and that is because we experience it verbally, as linguistically structured and verbally elite. But at pre-verbal levels language is information and energy and all of nature is alive with language.”
What can we understand?
Jacob Beck, a philosopher at York University believes that there is enough evidence to suggest that animals can think, but a human’s ability to understand them is limited because of the way we are preconditioned to think about language.
There have been numerous studies of ‘theory of mind’ in great apes, where the animals are raised like humans and taught sign language as a means to communicate their thoughts and knowledge. But what is important to consider is that they have their own form of communication. As Chomsky puts it, “it’s an insult to chimpanzee intelligence to consider this their means of communication. It’s rather as if humans were taught to mimic some aspects of the waggle dance of bees and researchers were to say, “Wow, we’ve taught humans to communicate”.
Jane Goodall spent many years researching chimpanzees in the wild at Gombe and although she identified many different chimp vocalisations, she concluded that they do not have language. “They have lots of sounds, but they cannot sit and discuss. They cannot teach about things that are not present”. Instead, sounds were linked to certain emotional states. However Dr. Goodall found that chimps have other ways of communicating with each other, such as embracing, patting and looking.
Darwin, Charles. The Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals (1872). Illustration by T. W. Wood. Via Wellcome Collection.
Going beyond words
Could it be possible that the way in which humans perceive language – a linguistically structured system – has limited our capacity to understand the language of the wild? Indigenous cultures have lived in harmony with the natural world for thousands of years and have a very different perspective on animal communication than is often found in modern minds. For example, according to the history of the Yawanawa people of the Amazon rain forest, the forest once spoke, as did flowers and animals. Perhaps living amongst animals in their natural habitat gave them a much greater opportunity to understand them better than any laboratory experiment ever could.
To give an analogy, when we hear a piece of music that we respond to, we may not be able to understand the musical notes being used, but we can usually sense the overall emotional intention of the music. For example, if you listen to John Williams ‘Theme from Schindler’s List’ or ‘Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake: Scene’, the music itself “speaks” and tells a story without the aid of visuals or words. It’s message is received not just with the ears it seems, but felt.
In the same way, perhaps we need to go beyond words and adjust our way of looking at language in order to better understand animal language. As Deepak Chopra points out, at a pre-verbal level, language is energy and information and this may just be the place where communication with all of life is possible.
Chomsky, N. (2016). What kind of Creatures are We? Columbia University Press, New York.
Chopra, D. (1994). Sacred Verses, Healing Sounds. Audible. Available at https://www.audible.com.au/pd/Sacred-Verses-Healing-Sounds-Volumes-I-and-II-Audiobook/B00FOH1C8S
Corballis, M. (2002). From Hand to Mouth. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.