When It Comes to Having Languages, We're Not Alone

An interview with Dr. Eva Meijer about her book, "Animal Languages."

Posted Feb 23, 2020

I recently read Dr. Eva Meijer's book called Animal Languages and resonated with many of her important messages about how animals communicate with one another and with us. Part of the book's description reads:

"Is language what sets humans apart from other animals, as many have argued? Or do animals speak in their own languages, to each other and to us? In Animal Languages, Eva Meijer explores the latter possibility ... Talking with animals forces us to challenge the hierarchy of humans and other animals, and suggests a new way of thinking about language."

I wanted to know more about what Eva had to say about animal languages, and I was pleased she could take the time to answer a few questions about her more inclusive view that includes a variety of nonhumans. Our interview went as follows.

Why did you write Animal Languages?

In my Ph.D. thesis—published as When Animals Speak—I developed a philosophical theory of political animal voice. It is often assumed that nonhuman animals do not use language or act politically—and these capacities are interconnected, in philosophical theory and political practice—but empirical research shows they do. Also, who does or does not speak is not a neutral question, but rather the outcome of unequal power relations. In When Animals Speak, I investigate how animals speak and act politically, why humans should take this into account, and how we can begin to build new political relations and even interspecies communities with them. 

When I was writing the thesis, I found out that there is a lot of empirical research about nonhuman animals’ linguistic capacities—for example, related to grammar, gestures, scents, and so on. Dolphins, parrots, and bats call each other by their names.

In the songs of many species of birds, whales, or in the skin patterns of squid, we find grammatical structures. Horses communicate with humans through using symbols and gestures. Prairie dogs describe intruders in detail—including their size, shape, speed and the colour of their hair and T-shirts.

These studies challenge dominant views of nonhuman animal inner lives and cultures, as well as views about ‘the human’—language was long seen as the defining characteristic of humans. They also raise ethical and political questions concerning humans’ relations with other animals. If nonhuman animals speak about us—chickens, for example, name their humans—and our common environment, we should take not just their interests but also their perspectives into account in formulating just relations. These questions do not just matter to the academic community: They are relevant for everyone. So I decided to write a book for a general audience about this.

How does it relate to your general areas of interest?

As a political philosopher, my focus is at the intersection of language and social justice. I also work as a novelist, so the relationship between language and meaning, and the role of language in constituting common worlds always has my attention.

Who is your intended audience?

Animal languages are of interest to many people—those who live with and care about animals, those who work with and think about animals, professionals who develop policies that concern other animals, politicians, activists: basically everyone who wants to find out more about animal inner lives. It is even, or maybe especially, relevant for those who do not care about nonhuman animals at all because it shows that other animals are not objects we can ignore. They are active agents who shape their own lives and influence humans, and with whom we share a planet, like it or not. For reasons of justice, their views on this shared-world should be taken into account in decision-making that concerns their lives, relations, and habitats.

What are some of your major messages?

Animals speak and we should learn to listen to them in better ways. In order to build new multispecies communities, it is not enough to draw on human insights about what they want—we need to engage with them differently and let them speak for themselves where possible. 

On the philosophical level, I argue that it is time to reverse the questions. Instead of asking how similar animal languages are to human language, and then judging whether they can be called ‘language’, new empirical studies ask us to redefine the concept ‘language’ in a multispecies way. I, for example, draw on the work of Wittgenstein and Derrida to further think about this.

Challenging anthropocentrism in our concepts and practices is also important for humans. We are currently confronted with a climate crisis and the extinction of many species, phenomena caused by human exceptionalism. Technological inventions are not going to help us deal with all the challenges of the Anthropocene. In order to survive, we will need to reinvent ourselves as humans, this time as part of a bigger whole, as a part of the natural world, together with the other animals.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

While there are some books about nonhuman animals and language from the perspective of biology, such as the work of Con Slobodchikoff, there is almost no philosophical literature about this topic. Philosophers of language tend to view language as human language. 

What are some of your current projects?

I currently work as a postdoctoral researcher in a project about animal agency in the Anthropocene at Wageningen University called Anthropocene ethics: Taking animal agency seriously. This project deals with our paradoxical attitude towards other animals. On the one hand, recent studies in animal cognition and emotion call into question the sharp division between human and animal minds, showing that animals have more agency—the capacity for self-willed action—than has been presumed. On the other hand, human domination limits their capacity for exercising agency more than ever before. In our project, we investigate the ethical implications of this.

For those who are interested in animal agency and creating new forms of knowledge, there is a paper coming out in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies soon, which is called "Stray Philosophy II: Dog/Human Reflections on Education, Boundaries, Care and Forming Interspecies Communities." This article is based on my experiences with my companion dogs Olli and Doris. 

In April, my fifth novel will come out in Dutch, The New River. This is a magical realist murder mystery about a new river that divides the land, a soy farmer who is also a poet, and a girl who possesses the old wisdom that is needed to fight the current ecological crisis and human greed (people who are into the work of Jorge Luis Borges and David Lynch will like this).

Later this year (or perhaps early next year) an English translation of my book-length essay about depressionThe Limits of My Language, will come out with Pushkin Press in the UK. 

Those who are interested in my work can always go to my website to find out more.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Creating a better world for other animals might seem like an impossibly big task: it asks for large-scale societal reform, including changing laws and other institutions. However, on a smaller scale we can at this moment already change the narrative and choose to engage differently with other animals—and here I mean not just going vegan, but also beginning to take them seriously in our interpersonal relations. These aspects are furthermore related: in order to know how a better world for other animals should look, we need to ask them. Fortunately, they are often willing to tell us.

References

For more information about Dr. Meijer, click here

Bekoff, Marc. "If We Could Talk With the Prairie Dogs, Just Imagine it..." (An interview with Dr. Con Slobodchikoff in which he argues we can talk with these language-bearing rodents." Psychology Today,  May 14, 2017.)