Can Animals Talk? – the linguistics behind animal language
August 26, 2019
Obviously, animals can talk. If they couldn’t,
would we name social chat services after them? When we say “animals”, we’re not usually
talking about humans. We have this intuition that humans are very different from the rest
of nature. If we are so special, the search is on for
what makes us special. The first thing to reach for is often human language. We can
talk to each other, but the rest of the animal kingdom? Blank stares.
What about animals that can communicate? Ants leave pheromone trails that other ants
can sniff out with their antennae. Bees dance to tell the hive where to find flowers. Birds
learn to sing. But is any of this really language? To sort this matter out, linguists, ethologists
and biologists came up with lists of things that make a language a language. It’s not
an easy thing to do. Before you look at these, try making your own.
Take one of the terms that often ends up on these lists: displacement. Animals adopt postures
or vocalizations to signal an opportunity or warn of immediate danger. But displacement
– signaling about something removed from our surroundings, something far away, something
in the past or future – seems legitimately rare. Not for humans! You’ll catch us languaging
displacement all over the place. We’re not the only ones, though.
Enter the honey bee, who performs a waggling, rotating dance that contains information about
the direction and distance of a point of interest. This “waggle dance” definitely has displacement,
but it doesn’t have double articulation. Double articulation or “duality of patterning”
gives us humans a layer of meaningless sounds that we can put together and switch around
like building blocks to create a meaningful layer of words and sentences. Linguists
argue that these two levels – meaningless pieces we use to build up meaning – make us more flexible
talkers than we’d be if our smallest communication units were already packed with meaning, like
if we communicated by pointing to pictures of real-world objects.
Wait! You hear that? There’s a low rumble building up in the audience. Hold on! What
about apes? Didn’t Koko the Gorilla cry when she was told that Robin Williams died?
I mean, that sounds like displacement. And it sounds like sadness. And doesn’t she
use sign language to build meaning out of simple gestures? I mean, that’s double articulation
right there! Hmm, okay, let’s come back to that.
But what do you think language is? And do other animals have it? Set us straight in
the comments and subscribe for language!