I was recently interviewed (via email) by Natalie Wolchover from Life’s Little Mysteries concerning the question When Will We Learn To Speak Animal Languages? Although this is a question that has been around for centuries, it’s in the news again thanks to a new book by Constantine Slobodchikoff of Gunnison-prairie-dog-alarm-call fame. After a discussion of the truly amazing discoveries concerning how prairie dogs can encode information about the size, color, and shape of threats in their environment, and even create novel calls for novel predators/objects, I crop up at the end as the skeptic noting that it’s unlikely that dolphins (or, by extension, any animal) have a communication system that resembles human language. This position is framed in the article as the “old-fashioned” point of view, with Marc Bekoff noting that it’s people like me that are trying to “separate humans from other animals” and thus poo-poo anything that looks language-like in animal communication systems. I suspect that Slobodchikoff’s new book will argue a similar point.
However, within the cognitive sciences, the mainstream point of view is that there are in fact vital differences between animal communication and human language. What makes language different to animal communication is summed up in this passage by Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct (pg. 342):
“The discrete combinatorial system called “grammar” makes human language infinite (there is no limit to the number of complex words or sentence in a language), digital (this infinity is achieved by rearranging discrete elements in particular orders and combinations, not by varying some signal along a continuum like the mercury in a thermometer), and compositional (each of the finite combinations has a different meaning predictable from the meanings of its parts and the rules and principles arranging them).”
It is absolutely correct that almost every cognitive trait that underpins human language has been found to some extent in non-human animals, which means there is no reason to create some sort of fundamental separation between humans and animals. And Gunnison prairie dogs are displaying some amazingly language-like skill in adding new vocalizations that encode novel information. However, this does not negate the undeniable fact that no animal communication system other than human language functions the way Pinker describes, which is why no animal species other than Homo sapiens is capable of discussing an infinite number of subjects. Prairie dog “discussion points” are limited to a handful of attributes concerning potential threats that they find in their environment. The same is true of any animal alarm call system.
A major question scientists studying animal communication and language want to answer is; what exactly is it about human language that makes it different to other animal communication systems? And while the gap that separates language and animal communication will narrow as scientists like Slobodchikoff continue to produce brilliant studies of complex animal signaling systems, there’s no denying that a gap will almost certainly remain in existence. Until we find an animal species with a communication system as open ended as human language, there is good reason to consider human language something unique. If folks consider prairie dog communication complex enough to warrant the moniker of language, then that’s fine. It is pretty complex stuff. But this is just a game of semantics or maybe politics. Whatever vocabulary words you use to label human language vs. animal language will not suddenly make the important differences between these two communication systems disappear. Scientists will continue to try to characterize and understand this difference without worrying too much about labels.
Do Dolphins Have a Language?
Anderson, S.R. (2006). Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language. New Haven: Yale University Press.