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If We Could Talk to the Animals

Animal communication systems are fundamentally different from human languages.

If you’ve ever shooed a bee away from a sugary drink, only to fend off a whole swarm of bees a few minutes later, you may have wondered if the first bee somehow told the others about your sweet soda. In fact, that’s just what she did.

Bee on a soda can

Your soda will be all the buzz back at the hive.

Animals communicate about four things. They let others in their group know about opportunities for food and threats from predators. They also communicate to build social networks and to attract mates.

But animal communication systems aren’t just simple languages. Rather, there are fundamental differences between the ways that non-human animals communicate with each other and the ways that human animals do. Let’s consider four of these differences.

First, animal communication systems always have a very limited range of expression. Honeybees perform a dance to communicate about the direction and distance to a resource, but they can’t tell what that resource is. So those bees had no idea what a tasty treat was in store for them—and a caffeine buzz to boot!

Vervet monkeys can warn other members of their group about an approaching predator. They even have different alarm calls for leopards, eagles, and snakes. These are their three main threats, and each requires a different kind of evasive action. But there’s simply nothing else a vervet can talk about.

Vervet Monkeys in Samburu

Vervets have a three-word vocabulary

Human languages, by contrast, have unlimited range of expression. A native speaker of a language knows tens of thousands of words. We’re constantly learning new words as we go through life. And as a speech community, we make up new words as the need arises.

Second, an utterance in an animal communication system is always a holophrase. In other words, each vocalization or gesture refers to an entire situation and not to the specific objects and events that make up that situation. So the vervet “leopard” call really means something more like, “Look out, there’s a leopard coming this way!” And the “snake” calls means something like, “Yikes, I just saw a snake in the grass!”

Human toddlers start their language development with holophrases as well. “Ball!” can mean “Give me the ball!” or “Look, there’s a ball!” And “No!” means something like, “I don’t want that.” Even human adults, when overcome with emotion, often resort to holophrases. In fact, the reaction of most humans to a snake in the grass isn’t much different from that of a vervet monkey: “Snake! Ahh!”

Snake in the grass

Some things still leave us speechless.

Third, animal communication systems generally lack the ability to combine symbols together to express novel ideas. It’s still a matter for further research what a vervet would say if it encountered both a leopard and a snake at the same time. Still, we just don’t see vervets combining symbols to express novel ideas.

The honeybee dance does complicate this issue somewhat. Each honeybee dance will be different, because each time the distance and direction will be different. Still, honeybees have no ability to express any sort of meaning beyond that. It’s this ability to combine symbols to express novel ideas that gives human language its expressive power.

Finally, we can point out one last hallmark of animal communication systems, namely that they are always about the here and now. A vervet “eagle” call is about an eagle flying overhead at this very moment, and not about an eagle it saw last week. When a cow says “moo,” she’s saying, “Here I am, right now,” and not, “See you down by the water trough in half an hour.”

Again, honeybee dance complicates the picture, since she’s telling her hive mates about a resource she found some distance away some time ago. But still, she’s talking about a distance a bee can reasonably fly, and presumably the resource is still there now.

Bee dance

Honeybee waggle dance

Most of our language use also involves communication about the present time and place—“What’s up?” “Not much.” “Hey, watch out for that truck!” But human language allows us to escape the confines of the here and now to talk about the past, to think about the future, to wonder what’s happening on the other side of the planet, and to imagine times and places that never existed.

Modern humans started making their mark on this world within the last hundred thousand years, probably around the time that language became fully formed. This powerful new tool for communicating—and for thinking—enabled humans to transcend the limits of animal life, to bend nature to their will. And then in the blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms, language transported us from the Stone Age to the Space Age.

References

Seyfarth, R. M., Cheney, D. L., & Marler, P. (1980a). Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: Evidence of predator classification and semantic communication. Science, 210, 801–803.

Seyfarth, R. M., Cheney, D. L., & Marler, P. (1980b). Vervet monkey alarm calls: Semantic communication in a free-ranging primate. Animal Behaviour, 28, 1070–1094.

von Frisch, Karl. (1967). The dance language and orientation of bees. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Watts, J. M., & Stookey, J. M. (2000). Vocal behaviour in cattle: The animal’s commentary on its biological processes and welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 67, 15–33.

Zuberbühler, K., Cheney, D. L., & Seyfarth, R. M. (1999). Conceptual semantics in a nonhuman primate. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 113, 33–42.

Teaser image of “Tiger and boy” by simonsterg/ Wikimedia Commons

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).

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