Animal language

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Animal language is the modeling of human language in non human animal systems. While the term is widely used, researchers agree that animal languages are not as complex or expressive as human language.

Some researchers including the linguist Charles Hockett, who proposed a list of design features of Human Language, argue that there are significant differences separating human language from animal communication even at its most complex, and that the underlying principles are not related.[1] Accordingly, Thomas A. Sebeok has proposed not to use the term 'language' in case of animal sign systems.

Others argue that an evolutionary continuum exists between the communication methods these animals use and human language. Examining this continuum could help explain how humanity evolved its incredibly sophisticated proficiency for language.

Aspects of human language

The following properties of human language have been argued to separate it from animal communication:

  • Arbitrariness: There is not necessarily a rational relationship between a sound or sign and its meaning. (There is nothing intrinsically "housy" about the word "house". i.e. symbolism)
  • Cultural transmission: Language is passed from one language user to the next, consciously or unconsciously.
  • Discreteness: Language is composed of discrete units that are used in combination to create meaning.
  • Displacement: Languages can be used to communicate ideas about things that are not in the immediate vicinity either spatially or temporally, or both.
  • Duality: Language works on two levels at once, a surface level and a semantic (meaningful) level.
  • Metalinguistics: Ability to discuss language itself.
  • Productivity: A finite number of units can be used to create an indefinitely large number of utterances.

Research with apes, like that of Francine Patterson with Koko or Herbert Terrace with Nim Chimpsky, suggested that apes are capable of using language that meets some of these requirements such as arbitrariness, cultural transmission, discreteness and productivity. However, no experiment has yet shown a non-human being to be proficient in all of these areas.

In the wild chimpanzees have been seen "talking" to each other, when warning about approaching danger. For example, if one chimpanzee sees a snake, he makes a low, rumbling noise, signalling for all the other chimps to climb into nearby trees. In this case, the chimpanzees' communication is entirely contained to an observable event, demonstrating a lack of displacement.

Arbitrariness has been noted in meerkat calls; bee dances show elements of spatial displacement; and cultural transmission has possibly occurred between the celebrated bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha.[2]

Human language may not be completely "arbitrary". Some research has shown that almost all humans naturally demonstrate limited crossmodal perception (e.g. synesthesia), as illustrated by the Kiki and Booba study.

Claims that animals have language skills akin to humans however, are extremely controversial. As Pinker illustrates in his book the "The Language Instinct", claims that chimpanzees can acquire language are exaggerated and rest on very limited or specious data.[3]

Non-Primates: Studied examples

The most studied examples of animal languages are:

  • Bee dance - used to communicate direction and distance of food source in many species of bees.
  • Bird songs - songbirds can be very articulate. African Grey Parrots are famous for their ability to mimic human language, and at least one specimen, Alex, appeared able to answer a number of simple questions about objects he was presented with. Parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds- display vocal learning patterns.
  • Whale songs - Two groups of whales, the Humpback Whale and the subspecies of Blue Whale found in the Indian Ocean, are known to produce the repetitious sounds at varying frequencies known as whale song. Male Humpback Whales perform these vocalizations only during the mating season, and so it is surmised the purpose of songs is to aid sexual selection. Humpbacks also make a sound called the feeding call. This is a long sound (5 to 10 s duration) of near constant frequency. Humpbacks generally feed cooperatively by gathering in groups, swimming underneath shoals of fish and all lunging up vertically through the fish and out of the water together. Prior to these lunges, whales make their feeding call. The exact purpose of the call is not known, but research suggests that fish react to it. When the sound was played back to them, a group of herring responded to the sound by moving away from the call, even though no whale was present.
  • Prairie dog language: Slobodchikoff studied prairie dog communication and made the following discoveries. His current findings are that prairie dogs have:
    • different alarm calls for different species of predators;
    • different escape behaviors for different species of predators;
    • transmission of semantic information, in that playbacks of alarm calls in the absence of predators lead to escape behaviors that are appropriate to the type of predator which elicited the alarm calls;
    • alarm calls containing descriptive information about the general size, color, and speed of travel of the predator.[4]
  • Caribbean Reef Squid have been shown to communicate using a variety of color, shape, and texture changes. Squid are capable of rapid changes in skin color and pattern through nervous control of chromatophores.[5] In addition to camouflage and appearing larger in the face of a threat, squids use color, patterns, and flashing to communicate with one another in various courtship rituals. Caribbean Reef Squid can send one message via color patterns to a squid on their right, while they send another message to a squid on their left.[6][7]

Comparison of the term with "animal communication"

It is worth distinguishing "animal language" from "animal communication", no matter how complex the latter may be. In general the term "animal language" is reserved for the modeling of human language in animal systems; though there is some comparative interchange in certain cases (e.g. Cheney & Seyfarth's vervet monkey call studies). Thus "animal language" typically does not include bee dancing, bird song, whale song, dolphin signature whistles, prairie dogs, nor the communicative systems found in most social mammals. The features of language as listed above are a dated formulation by Hockett in 1960. Through this formulation Hockett made one of the earliest attempts to break down features of human language for the purpose of applying Darwinian gradualism. Although an influence on early animal language efforts (see below), is today not considered the key architecture at the core of "animal language" research.

Animal Language results are controversial for several reasons. (For a related controversy, see also Clever Hans.) In the 1970s John Lilly was attempting to "break the code": to fully communicate ideas and concepts with wild populations of dolphins so that we could "speak" to them, and share our cultures, histories, and more. This effort failed. The very early [chimpanzee] work was with chimpanzee infants raised as if they were human; a test of the nature vs. nurture hypothesis. Chimpanzees have a laryngeal structure very different from that of humans, as well as no voluntary control of their breathing. This combination made it very difficult for the chimpanzees to reproduce the vocal intonations required for human language. Researchers eventually moved towards a gestural (sign language) modality, as well as "keyboard" devices laden with buttons adorned with symbols (known as "lexigrams") that the animals could press to produce artificial language. Other chimpanzees learned by observing human subjects performing the task. This latter group of researchers studying chimpanzee communication through symbol recognition (keyboard) as well as through the use of sign language (gestural), are on the forefront of communicative breakthroughs in the study of animal language, and they are familiar with their subjects on a first name basis: Sarah, Lana, Kanzi, Koko, Sherman, Austin and Chantek.

Perhaps the best known critic of "Animal Language" is Herbert Terrace. Terrace's 1979 criticism using his own research with the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky was scathing and basically spelled the end of animal language research in that era, most of which emphasized the production of language by animals. In short, he accused researchers of over-interpreting their results, especially as it is rarely parsimonious to ascribe true intentional "language production" when other simpler explanations for the behaviors (gestural hand signs) could be put forth. Also, his animals failed to show generalization of the concept of reference between the modalities of comprehension and production; this generalization is one of many fundamental ones that are trivial for human language use. The simpler explanation according to Terrace was that the animals had learned a sophisticated series of context-based behavioral strategies to obtain either primary (food) or social reinforcement, behaviors that could be over-interpreted as language use.

In 1985 during this anti-Animal Language backlash, Louis Herman published an account of artificial language in the bottlenosed dolphin in the journal Cognition. A major difference between Herman's work and previous research was his emphasis on a method of studying language comprehension only (rather than language comprehension and production by the animal(s)), which enabled rigorous controls and statistical tests, largely because he was limiting his researchers to evaluating the animals' physical behaviors (in response to sentences) with blinded observers, rather than attempting to interpret possible language utterances or productions. The dolphins' names here were Akeakamai and Phoenix. Irene Pepperberg used the vocal modality for language production and comprehension in an African Grey Parrot named Alex in the verbal mode, and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh continues to study Bonobos such as Kanzi and Panbanisha. R. Schusterman duplicated many of the dolphin results in his California Sea Lions ("Rocky"), and came from a more behaviorist tradition than Herman's cognitive approach. Schusterman's emphasis is on the importance on a learning structure known as "equivalence classes."

However, overall, there has not been any meaningful dialog between the linguistics and animal language spheres, despite capturing the public's imagination in the popular press. Also, the growing field of language evolution is another source of future interchange between these disciplines. Most primate researchers tend to show a bias toward a shared pre-linguistic ability between humans and chimpanzees, dating back to a common ancestor, while dolphin and parrot researchers stress the general cognitive principles underlying these abilities. More recent related controversies regarding animal abilities include the closely linked areas of Theory of mind, Imitation (e.g. Nehaniv & Dautenhahn, 2002), Animal Culture (e.g. Rendell & Whitehead, 2001), and Language Evolution (e.g. Christiansen & Kirby, 2003).


  1. ^ Hocket , Charles F. 1960. Logical considerations in the study of animal communication. Animals sounds and animal communication, ed. W.E. Lanyon and W.N. Tavolga, pp. 392–430.
  2. ^ Raffaele, P (November, 2006). Speaking Bonobo. Simithsonian. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
  3. ^ Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct
  4. ^ Northern Arizona University Research
  5. ^ Cloney, RA; Florey, E (1968). "Ultrastructure of cephalopod chromatophore organs". Zeitschrift fur Zellforschung und mikroskopische Anatomie (Vienna, Austria : 1948) 89 (2): 250–80. doi:1007/BF00347297. PMID5700268.
  6. ^ The Cephalopod Page: Sepioteuthis sepioidea, Caribbean Reef squid
  7. ^ Byrne, R.A., U. Griebel, J.B. Wood & J.A. Mather 2003. Squids say it with skin: a graphic model for skin displays in Caribbean Reef Squid.PDF (3.86 MiB) Berliner Geowissenschaftliche Abhandlungen 3: 29-35.

Further reading

Selected References from Primate, Parrot, Marine Mammal animal language programs, as well as the Linguistics literature:

  • Bickerton, D. (2005). Language evolution: a brief guide for linguists. link
  • Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton. Reprint. Berlin and New York (1985).
  • Chomsky, N.; Skinner, B. F. (1959). "A Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior". Language 35 (1): 26–58. doi:2307/411334.
  • Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • Chomsky, N. (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Chomsky, N. & Lasnik, H. (1993). The theory of principles and parameters, in: J. Jacobs A. von Stechow, W. Sternefeld, and T. Vennemann (eds.) Syntax: an international handbook of contemporary research. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Christiansen, M.H. & Kirby, S.H. (Eds.)(2003). Language Evolution: The States of the Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Deacon, T. W. (1997) The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain. Allen Lane: The Penguin Press.
  • Fitch, W.T.; Hauser, M.D. (2004). "Computational constraints on syntactic processing in a nonhuman primate". Science 303 (5656): 377–380. doi:1126/science.1089401. PMID14726592.
  • Fouts, R. S. (1973). "Acquisition and testing of gestural signs in four young chimpanzees". Science 180 (4089): 978–80. doi:1126/science.180.4089.978. PMID17735931.
  • Gardner, R.A.; Gardner, B.T. (1969). "Teaching sign language to a chimpanzee". Science 165 (3894): 664–672. doi:1126/science.165.3894.664. PMID5793972.
  • Gardner, B.T.; Gardner, R.A. (1975). "Evidence for sentence constituents in the early utterances of child and chimpanzee". Journal of Experimental Psychology General 104 (3): 244–267. doi:1037/0096-3445.104.3.244.
  • Gardner R. Allen and Gardner Beatrice T. (1980) Comparative psychology and language acquisition. In Thomas A. Sebok and Jean-Umiker-Sebok (eds.): Speaking of Apes: A Critical Anthology of Two-Way Communication with Man. New York: Plenum Press, pp. 287–329.
  • Gisiner, R.; Schusterman, R. J. (1992). "Sequence, syntax, and semantics: Responses of a language-trained sea lion (Zalophus californianus) to novel sign combinations". Journal of Comparative Psychology 106: 78.
  • Gomez, R.L; Gerken, L. (2000). "Infant artificial language learning and language acquisition". Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4 (5): 178–186. doi:1016/S1364-6613(00)01467-4. PMID10782103.
  • Goodall, J. (1964). "Tool Using and Aimed Throwing in a Community of Free-Living Chimpanzees". Nature 201 (4926): 1264–1266. doi:1038/2011264a0. PMID14151401.
  • Hauser, M.D.; Chomsky, N.; Fitch, W.T. (2002). "The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?". Science 298 (5598): 1569–1579. doi:1126/science.298.5598.1569. PMID12446899.
  • Hayes, C. (1951). The Ape in Our House. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Herman, L. M.; Forestell, P. H. (1985). "Reporting presence or absence of named objects by a language-trained dolphin". Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 9 (4): 667–691. doi:1016/0149-7634(85)90013-2. PMID4080284.
  • Herman, L. M. Kuczaj; Holder, M. D.; Holder, Mark D. (1993). "Responses to anomalous gestural sequences by a language-trained dolphin: Evidence for processing of semantic relations and syntactic information". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 122 (2): 184–194. doi:1037/0096-3445.122.2.184.
  • Herman, L. M.; Richards, D. G.; Wolz, J. P. (1984). "Comprehension of sentences by bottlenosed dolphins". Cognition 16 (2): 129–219. doi:1016/0010-0277(84)90003-9. PMID6540652.
  • Hockett, C. (1960). "The origin of speech". Scientific American 203 (3): 88–96. doi:1038/scientificamerican0960-88.
  • Holder, M. D., Herman, L. M. & Kuczaj, S. III (1993). A bottlenosed dolphin's responses to anomalous gestural sequences expressed within an artificial gestural language. In H. R. Roitblat, L. M. Herman & P.E. Nachtigall (Eds): Language and Communication: Comparative Perspectives, 299-308. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Hurford J.R., Studdert-Kennedy, M., & Knight, C. (Eds.) (1998) Approaches to the evolution of language: Social and cognitive bases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kako, E. (1999). "Elements of syntax in the systems of three language-trained animals". Animal Learning & Behavior 27: 1–14. doi:3758/BF03199424.
  • Kellogg, W.N., & Kellogg, L.A. (1933). The ape and the child. New York: Whittlesey House (McGraw-Hill).
  • Knight, C., Studdert-Kennedy, M., Hurford, J.R. (Eds.) (2000). The evolutionary emergence of language: Social function and the origins of linguistic form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • N. (1935). Infant ape and human child. Museum Darwinianum, Moscow.
  • Ladygina-Kohts, N.N, & de Waal, F.B.M. (2002). Infant Chimpanzee and Human Child: A Classic 1935 Comparative Study of Ape Emotions and Intelligence (Tr: B. Vekker). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lenneberg, E.H. (1971). "Of language, knowledge, apes, and brains". Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 1: 1–29. doi:1007/BF01066934.
  • Miles, H.L. (1990) "The cognitive foundations for reference in a signing orangutan" in S.T. Parker and K.R. Gibson (eds.) "Language" and intelligence in monkeys and apes: Comparative Developmental Perspectives. Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Nehaniv C. & Dautenhahn, K.(Eds.) (2002). Imitation in Animals and Artifacts. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
  • Patterson, F., and Linden, E. (1981) The Education of Koko. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Pepperberg, I.M. (1999). The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative abilities of Grey Parrots. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Pinker, S. (1984). Language Learnability and Language Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reprinted in 1996 with additional commentary.
  • Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: how the mind creates language. New York: William Morrow & Co.
  • Pinker, S.; Bloom, P. (1990). "Natural language and natural selection". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13 (4): 707–784. doi:1017/S0140525X00081061.
  • Plooij, F.X. (1978). "Some basic traits of language in wild chimpanzees?" in A. Lock (ed.) Action, Gesture and Symbol. New York: Academic Press.
  • Premack, D. (1971). "Language in a chimpanzee?". Science 172 (3985): 808–822. doi:1126/science.172.3985.808. PMID5572906.
  • Rendell, L.; Whitehead, H. (2001). "Culture in whales and dolphins". Beharioral and Brain Sciences 24 (2): 309–382. doi:1017/S0140525X0100396X. PMID11530544.
  • Roitblat, H.R., Herman, L.M. & Nachtigall, P.E. (Eds.)(1993). Language and Communication: Comparative Perspectives, 299-308. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Rumbaugh Duane M. (1980) Language behavior of apes. In Thomas A. Sebok and Jean-Umiker-Sebok(eds.): Speaking of Apes: A Critical Anthology of Two- Way Communication with Man. New York: Plenum Press, pp. 231–259.
  • Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S. (1990). "Language Acquisition in a Nonhuman Species: Implications for the innateness debate". Developmental Psychobiology 23 (7): 599–620. doi:1002/dev.420230706.
  • Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S.; McDonald, K.; Sevcik, R.A.; Hopkins, W.D.; Rupert, E (1986). "Spontaneous symbol acquisition and communicative use by pygmy chimpanzees (Pan paniscus)". Journal of Experimental Psychology:General 115 (3): 211–235. doi:1037/0096-3445.115.3.211.
  • Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S.; Fields, W. M. (2000). "Linguistic, cultural and cognitive capacities of bonobos (Pan paniscus)". Culture and Psychology 6 (2): 131–154. doi:1177/1354067X0062003.
  • Sayigh, L.S., Tyack, P.L., Wells, R.S. & Scott, M.D. (1990). Signature whistles of free-ranging bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): stability and mother-offspring comparisons. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 247-260.
  • Schusterman, R. J.; Gisiner, R. (1988). "Artificial language comprehension in dolphins and sea lions: The essential cognitive skills". The Psychological Record 34: 3–23.
  • Schusterman, R.J.; Gisiner, R. (1989). "Please parse the sentence: animal cognition in the Procrustean bed of linguistics". Psychological Record 39: 3–18.
  • Schusterman, R. J.; Kastak, D. (1993). "A California Sea-Lion (Zalaphos californianus) is capable of forming equivalence relations". The Psychological Record 43: 823–839.
  • Schusterman, R. J.; Krieger, K. (1984). "California sea lions are capable of semantic comprehension". The Psychological Record 38: 311–348.
  • Seyfarth, R. M.; Cheney, D.L. (1990). "The assessment by vervet monkeys of their own and other species' alarm calls". Animal Behavior 40 (4): 754–764. doi:1016/S0003-3472(05)80704-3.
  • Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Terrace, H. S. (1979). Nim. New York: Knopf.
  • Terrace, H.S.; Petitto, L.A.; Sanders, R.J.; Bever, T.G. (1979). "Can an ape create a sentence?". Science 206 (4421): 891–902. doi:1126/science.504995. PMID504995.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1991). "Classification linguistique des langues signées non vocalement." Revue québécoise de linguistique théorique et appliquée 10:1.215-88.[1]

External links

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