Dr. Dolittle To the Rescue: Animals Do Indeed Have Language

Con Slobodchikoff's new book shows we aren't the only linguistic animals.

Posted Dec 14, 2012

Animals do talk with one another and prairie dogs show us the way

Many people know the famous song "If I Could Talk To the Animals" and now and again I find myself humming it without even thinking about it. And, each time I do I realize that Dr. Dolittle's song raises many important questions that have attracted the attention of numerous researchers in different academic disciplines ranging from biology, ethology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy.

For decades on end scientists have been debating if nonhuman animals (animals) have language. Opinions range widely from adamant "No's" to strident "Yes's", with various shades of gray. People who don't directly study animals as well as those who do have chimed in, but who would have expected that it would take an esteemed scientist, Con Slobodchikoff at Northern Arizona University who studies prairie dogs, to provide compelling data that these wonderful rodents, as well as many other animals, do have language and have a lot to say to one another. His new book, "Chasing Doctor Dolittle" is a must read for all those people interested in the vexing question "Do animals have language?"

"Chasing Doctor Dolittle" is an easy read. Organized into nine chapters including "What is language?", "A New Theory of Language", "Let Me Love You", "Back off!", and "What's the Big Deal?" Slobodchikoff shows that we are not the only animals who use language. In addition to charming and highly verbal and linguistic prairie dogs, other animals including bees, squid, birds, bats, monkeys, whales possess languages of varying complexity. Prairie dogs, for example, have different alarm calls for the various predators who try to eat them, can describe the color of clothes, and can communicate about the body style (tall, thin, or short) of a human being. 

Slobodchikoff correctly notes that it is essential to study wild animals, no matter how difficult it might be, because "laboratory environments aren't necessarily conducive to animals expressing their full range of behaviors - when you sit in a cage all day and then are taken out for an hour by technicians wearing white smocks, you might not choose to display any behavior other than fear." (p. 13) Indeed, ecologically relevant and noninvasive field experiments can lead to better results that tell us much more about who the animals really are and what they are able to do when they are able to express their full behavioral repertoire.

Chapter 2 of "Chasing Doctor Dolittle" called "What is Language" lays out the core of Slobodchikoff's argument. In a nutshell, he uses linguist Charles Hockett's thirteen design features of human language (pp. 20 ff) and shows how nonhumans share them with us. He concludes this chapter by writing "I show that we already have the evidence to conclude that a number of animal species have semantic signals and that these signals are arranged according to rules of syntax within different contexts." (p. 35) He then goes on to provide numerous examples of animal language.

It's difficult to see how even the most hardened skeptics can reject his arguments. At the very least, but he really does much more, Slobodchikoff urges us to keep the door open on the nature of animal languages. Slobodchikoff recognizes that animal language is a very controversial topic and notes that the researchers he discusses might disagree with him. Nonetheless, his arguments are solid and compel us to conduct much needed comparative research in this area. 

Slobodchikoff also recognizes that "The idea that animals have language is frightening to some people, but also empowering to animals. When people find out that an animal species has a language, they often look at that species in a more compassionate way." (p. 3) He's right because when we recognize the highly evolved cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals it requires us to treat them with more kindness, respect, and dignity

"Chasing Doctor Dolittle" shows clearly that the division between "us" and "them" (other animals) is one of degree, rather than kind, as famously stated by Charles Darwin when he discussed evolutionary continuity. So, claiming we are an exception, the only language bearing animals, is a myth that must be shelved. It's bad biology to rob other animals of their cognitive and emotional capacities. Slobodchikoff notes, "For us, the idea that other animals have language is a bridge back to the natural world ... "Us" and "Them" ... are not very different at all." (p. 264) Amen.

I highly recommend "Chasing Doctor Dolittle", and I'm not alone. You can hear Dr. Slobodchikoff's very interesting interview with Diane Rehm and read an excerpt from his book here.