Animal Communication Is Not the Same As Human Language

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Some people still resist the notion that there’s something unique that human beings do when it comes to language. Do animals use language just like us? Let’s take a look at some examples from the animal kingdom to understand why they’re not quite getting to where we are.

A woman and a man standing at opposite ends of the frame with headphones on, and flags representing various countries and   thereby the various languages populate the middle of the image.
Language is a lot more than just a collection of words because it includes grammar, the order of the words, and even the inflection of our voices. (Image: Pathdoc/Shutterstock)

First, what we want to establish is exactly what we mean by language. It’s important to realize that as easy as it is to think that language is just a collection of words, it is a lot more than just that. It’s not only the words, but also the grammar that we use to put the words together in order to convey an utterance and even in order to affect the world by the utterances that we produce.

So, for example, you could know 5,000 words in a foreign language. You could cram them all into your head with flashcards, and still, you wouldn’t be able to say things like, ‘She might as well finish it’, getting in that nuance of might as well and what that means. Or, you probably wouldn’t know how to say, ‘It happened to be on a Tuesday.’ In many other languages, you wouldn’t use the corresponding word to happen. That’s just one way happen happens to be used. But it’s things like that, that is language; it’s something very unique that we can do.

Learn more about what is language.

Animals Communicate, But Not With Language

In general, we can start with the fact that animals, even though they communicate, are not exactly using language. We love dogs and cats and can kind of communicate with them. But, Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, once said, ‘A dog cannot relate his autobiography; however eloquently he may bark, he can’t tell you that his parents were honest though poor.‘ That’s true: there’s a lot that a dog simply could not say.

Bees are examples of how an animal can communicate, to an extent. It’s been found that in their hive, a bee can tell the other bees where the honey is based on this kind of dance. It goes in the direction where the honey is and then waggles its posterior with a certain frequency that corresponds with how far away the honey is and vibrates frenetically while doing this waggling to indicate how rich the source is. That’s pretty neat. Bees can actually tell each other which way to swarm.

That’s absolutely fabulous, and that’s all they can do. They can’t talk about anything, they can’t talk about where anything else is, and they can’t convey concepts. There’s just this one thing—absolutely miraculous—that allows them to communicate that one way about that one thing. So, that is communication, but bees cannot ‘chew the fat’. They only do that one thing. That’s one level of communication, but it’s not exactly language.

Learn more about developments that lead to novel grammatical features.

Apes Can Approximate Human Communication

Apes are better than bees at this kind of thing. There have been all sorts of attempts to get some sort of speech out of apes. I recently had occasion to deal with a chimpanzee. They do seem to look at you with almost-human eyes. They are little human beings. So, you would think, Well, can’t you talk? The fact is that they can just approximate what we are doing, but they never get terribly impressively far.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, Wondrium.

It goes way back to hope that you could make these queer little semi-people talk. Samuel Pepys, who was a man of affairs in restoration England, encountered a baboon and he writes about it in his diary, which is very quotidian and colloquial. At one point he said, “It is a great baboon, but so like a man in most things, that…yet I cannot believe but that it is a monster got of a man and she-baboon. I do believe it already understands much English; and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.”

Portrait of a male chimpanzee.
Over the years, people have tried to teach apes to talk like humans, and they do manage to learn a few words and even a few phrases, but that’s about it, which isn’t really language; it’s communication. (Image: Thorsten Spoerlein/Shutterstock)

People have tried to teach apes how to talk. It doesn’t really get too far. In 1909, there was a little chimpanzee and it learned to say, mama. And that was it. Then in 1916, there was an orangutan and it learned how to say, papa and cup. That was as far as he got. Then in the 1940s, there was a chimpanzee that could say, papa, mama, cup, and up, referring to it wanting to be picked up. But it never got any more words than that.

That’s not language; that’s communication. So, parental units, cup with something probably good in it and being picked up, but that was it. That’s different from talking about how you saw a strange-looking piece of fish and ate it and it made you sick, or something like that. They only went so far.

Learn more about how language changes-sound change.

Washoe, the Chimpanzee

Now, there have been times when things went a little further. There is a large literature about this: Washoe, the chimpanzee, in 1966. Washoe was taken when she was about a year old, and after about three months she started being able to sign. Washoe was in the company of people who really wanted to see how far we could go in teaching these creatures to sign because one suspects there’s something about their vocal apparatus that keeps them from doing this, but maybe they could do it with their hands.

Humans, of course, have sign languages, which are very much full and nuanced languages. By the time Washoe was four, she had 132 signs—that’s pretty darn good. She was taught, open by opening a door, and then she could mentally extend that to, say, taking a lid off of something, taking a lid off of a pot. It’s kind of an advanced cognition to think about both of those things as an opening.

At one point, the big dramatic moment with Washoe, there was a pond somewhere in New York City and a swan went by. Washoe pointed at it and with her hands said, water bird. Now, that’s pretty darn good. She knew water and she knew bird, and then she called this thing something. Even if maybe she was saying that this bird is in the water, that’s pretty good for something that’s not supposed to be able to talk, and also that Washoe pointed this out on her own. Nobody said there’s this thing, what is it? All of a sudden, she pointed and said it. So, Washoe was pretty interesting and there have been other cases of apes that learned something kind of like language.

Learn more about when language began.

But There Are Limits

For example, they are inconsistent. It’s one thing to talk about water birds or things like me you out, which Washoe would say to indicate she wants to go out. The thing is that, generally, if there are two or more words at a time, then apes will understand, most of the time, but not all. They misunderstand a lot more than even a small child would. So, it seems it can only penetrate so far for them.

Then there’s the issue of are they understanding ‘grammar’ or are they going from context. For example, you can say, ‘Put the sour cream in the cooler’. There it’s clear that ‘put’ is the action, ‘sour cream’ is the object, and ‘the cooler’ is what we might call a prepositional object as linguists, but suffice it to say that’s where the sour cream should go. Those are the three big elements.

As it happens, you can also sign cooler, sour cream, and put, and an ape might then go put the sour cream in the cooler. Some may say that means they understand grammar; they understand that one of these things is the action, one of these things is the object, you can scramble it around and they can still tell. But, really, there’s a lot of contexts, too, because you couldn’t put the cooler in the sour cream. If you put the cooler on top of the sour cream, as an ape you couldn’t get to it and you wouldn’t want that.

Obviously, if there are ‘putting’, ‘sour cream’, and a ‘cooler’, then you would put the sour cream into the cooler. That’s not necessarily understanding grammar, that’s just being a relatively sentient being in the world. So, one wonders.

Common Questions about Animal Communication and Human Language

Q: Are animals capable of language?

Even though they communicate, animals don’t exactly use language in the same way that humans are capable of. For example, bees have an elaborate and intricate dance to tell the other bees the direction where the honey is, how far away the honey is, and how rich the source is. That’s quite incredible, but they can’t talk about anything else, and they can’t convey concepts. In other words, bees or other animals can’t ‘chew the fat’, so to speak. So, they are capable of one level of communication, but it’s not exactly language.

Q: Which animals can talk like humans?

No animal in the wild can talk like humans, but there are some animals who can be taught to speak like humans. For example, apes can be taught how to talk like humans, but it’s limited. They can learn a few words and a few phrases, but it’s mainly imitating and not true knowledge of the words. Also, they can’t grasp grammar in any meaningful sense.

Q: Will dogs ever talk?

No, dogs are unlikely to be able to ever talk; definitely not in the sense that humans talk. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, summed it up well when he said, ‘A dog cannot relate his autobiography; however eloquently he may bark, he can’t tell you that his parents were honest, though poor.’

Q: How many signs did the chimpanzee Washoe learn?

By the age of 4, Washoe, the chimpanzee, had learned 132 signs. She did show signs of advanced cognition, and also learned a number of words and phrases, and even said things without being prompted.

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