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How To Learn Sign Language

Can Animals Talk? – the linguistics behind animal language

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!

85 Replies to “Can Animals Talk? – the linguistics behind animal language”

  • Excellent video, as usual! 😀
    Your way of narrating is very interesting, and I like how you put forth interesting questions with a mysterious tone, only to answer later. Also, of course, the fact that you point out that things are never as simple as they may first seem. Keep up the good work!

    I'd also like to point out how happy it makes me that you've been more active as of late. That's great, although only as long as it doesn't interfere with your personal lifestyle (just in case). In any case, may God bless you and your great work!

  • To me, language is "transmission of information through sounds". That is what language in the end boils down to. Human language is so diverse already, with so many differnet forms and even views in the language. So, if one creature can decode a piece of information and transmit it to another one who can decode it and get the message – it's language. I have heard about the Pirahã, an isolated tribe, which supposedly does not talk about the distant past or future, nor about unexperienced events. They live in the present – literally. I oculdn't find too much information about it sadly. Anyway. As for the double articulation: I don't really think something like that exists in the real world. Words may be build out of sounds, but that is more a physiological thing we just can't make very differnet sounds than the used ones. But then, so can't dogs. That doesn#t really set us apart in theend. I mean, prior to the invention of scripts, no one would have really thought about that. People just used the words as words.I think a lot of that double articulation was created at the same time as the analysis of languages took place.

  • The bee's waggle dance does in fact have a kind of double articulation. Quoting from Wikipedia: "the direction the bee moves in relation to the hive indicates direction; if it moves vertically upwards the direction to the source is directly towards the Sun, the duration of the waggle part of the dance signifies the distance."

    So, isn't that sort of like double articulation? Simpler units – in this case: a certain waggle duration and a certain direction of the dance – are put together to form a complex unit with a more complex meaning.

  • Every summer barnswallows come to nest in our farm and they really seem to talk to eachother. Do you know a way to decode this?

  • Some ideas for topics I'd love for you to tangent on:

    Bilingualism, polyglottery, hyperpolyglottery

    Aphasias, anomia and other language disorders

    Puns, word games, language games, rhyme and poetry

    Anyway, just suggestions, thanks 😀

  • I rememeber that the Philosopher Gilles Deleuze commented about the issue of whether Bees have language or not.
    "Language always seems to presuppose itself, if we cannot assign it a nonlinguistic point of departure, it is because language does not operate between something seen (or felt) and something said, but always goes from saying to saying […] Benveniste denies that the bee has language, even though it has an organic coding process and even uses tropes. It has no language because it can communicate what it has seen but no transmit what has been communicated to it. A bee that has seen a food source can communicate the message to bees that did not see it, but a bee that has not seen it cannot transmit the message to others that did not see it. Language is not content to go from first party to a second party, from one who has seen to one who has not, but necessarily goes from a second party to a third party, neither of whom has seen."

  • Really insightful! How relevant do you think this is to our understanding of the difference between human language and animal communication?

  • I used this video as a supplement to Yule's chapter 2 on animal communication and the students enjoyed it very much. I wish you did the other features like reflexivity, arbitrariness and cultural transmission. Keep 'em coming, please.

  • Wouldn't the random dance moves of bees often be meaningless if not for their linguistic context, meaning that the dance language is one of double articulation? I mean, yes, many movements are supposed to mimic the path taken to find the flowers, but what about the waggling behind? To me at least, that seems pretty arbitrary.

  • Talking and communication are completely different things. Linguistics is another thing in itself. This type of video is useless and does not offer any real information that answers the question: "Can animals talk?"

  • it's not that animals cannot talk…it's just that the way they do it is completely different from the way we humans would.

  • Apparently, killer whales communicate information about prey and hunting. And have been seen to show differences between pods.

  • Maybe it was a coincidence that the first image in your video was that of a prairie dog, but there's evidence that prairie dogs have the most advanced language after humans. Here's a video on it by the scientists, Con Slobodchikoff, who's been studying them for around 30 years:

  • Dogs have a complex Barking system that seems to be built in Genetically…   They differentiate by different tones, and combinations, it seems…      Talk to hunters who run dogs — they know what the different barks are… Dogs seem to communicate more by meaning, not by individual words — of course they do have whimpers of sadness, and growling is as universal as the racking of a pump on a shot gun — it means "I'm about to mess you up –" my translation of course…

  • I don't think Koko is a good example. I don't think they demonstrated real language of any kind. There may be some animals with parts of language, but none that have anything near what we have. Of course, there's still the question of how did we evolve to have language? But I don't have that answer.

  • Killer whales are a good example of animals having language. Killer whales in one part of the world have a specific way of communicating (maybe high pitches) and killer whales in another part of the world have another way of communicating (low pitches). So if you put two different whales together from other parts of the world they wouldn't be able to communicate.

  • Well Humans can teach animals language, but they rarely have it more advance on their own. Language is basicaly means of communication between a group or a construct made by single person to code information/store data. Yes you can make your own language that only you will use and understand if you want.

  • From what I've heard some studies indicates that dolphins have sentence structures (although lower average number of "words" then we humans do in english)

  • The first thing on that list, sound, is easily disproven considering that written text and sign language both communicate effectively and constantly, sometimes even exclusively for groups people

  • I want to make a dolphin language with fundamentally all characteristics of human language, teach it to a bunch of dolphins and watch how it impacts their behavior and society. Can someone do this please… in my lifetime please… please.

  • Isn't there some statistical formula to determine if something is a language or not? and I thought they proved dolphins are the closest (I dont remember it it was full on proven it was a language) and they even have names for each other

  • Interesting concept, but the only thing I can pay attention to is the whoo-hoo-hoo vocals and kazoo music filtered through static. The background music is bit of a barrier to your content.

  • what do you think of this new study that dogs can understand human language–words, not just tone of voice?

  • I am sure my guinea pigs talk. A lot. About that big fat arsehole that tried to touch them. Or isn't fast enough with the food. Or how annoying that other guinea pig sow is (that bitch!). They also act differently after one of them is removed and doesn't come back . . .

  • You should take a look in Killer whales… The different populations in antartica, australia and california have even a different language! The frequency of the sound waves they use to comunicate change completely to say exactly the same thing! They articulate, plan… Is blow minding!

  • I watched it with my teacher in the class. My teacher suggested that we comment about this. It is really interesting video.However, I wonder how dolphins communicate. Everyone who comments wonders it as I see. I think you can improve your video. For example, you can give the information about interesting animals We haven't seen before. If you do it as I said, I think you will attract watchers attention more. I liked it apart from things I said.

  • I think it is a interesting video. Most people wonder about how animals communicate. We saw how some animals communicate with each other in this video but I would like to see all animals there. Thank you for this video.

  • I think it is interesting video. I never thought about communicating animals before. I think that if people communicate, they communicate instinctively in their animals. All animals have their own communications. This video has many examples.

  • It's a good video that includes some information about animals and human language.There are some information which I knew but the others are not common .So, I learn specific information how some animals use the language.And also the video isn't boring because it is not long video.

  • I liked the video especially the part of bees. Communicating by dance could be enjoyable. Also humans should try it 🙂 I agree with Hande. It would be nice to see how dolphins communicate in this video

  • Before this video I thought that animals don't have a real language. I knew they can communicate but I didn't suppose that they have a system for it, and actually it can counts as a language. Now I'm convinced.

  • l think all animals talk just like human. In contrast to human, they talk simple sounds, act and gestures. For example monkeys use sounds, acts and some gestures. Birds can sing. But this way is not the same human sing technic…

  • I think some animals have language, but they don´t use it when humans are around, kinda when you bump into 2 people having a private conversation and they notice you and stop talking and just stare at you in a very cringy fashion and wait till you leave to proceed with their chat. I bet cats do that, they sure fit the profile.

  • I resent the requirement of sound.
    My third language is was ASL, and ASL is not English. ASL absolutely is a language, and meets all other standards.
    It would be absurd to say that Deaf people never speak if they don't know their vocal local language.

  • communication by various means other than gesture and vocalisation is common, even among plants. The content is unambiguous and pertinent, and mostly irrelevant to us, although some schools of rewilding consider the possibility of tuning in to certain aspects of bird, animal, and tree signalling.

  • communication by various means other than gesture and vocalisation is common, even among plants. The content is unambiguous and pertinent, and mostly irrelevant to us, although some schools of rewilding consider the possibility of tuning in to certain aspects of bird, animal, and tree signalling.

  • I would certainly say Dolphins.

    there might be something in the tone pitches of other birds and mammals, I would also like to make a suspect test for animals like Crows.

  • I believe what sets humans apart from the animals is not language at all, but, in part at least, our capacity to neglect / subdue / oppose our own instincts and compulsions. We humans are the only ones, that I know of anyway, that can feel urges and choose not to act on them.

    This, I believe, is where morality derives from. You cannot fault a beast for acting like a beast; animals cannot be good or evil, they are just natural. Humans though can be good or evil because we can choose to behave as animals would, as our temptations compel us, without regard for impact on others or on society or on our own futures, regardless of social norms. Evil does not require a victim, it only requires the debasement of the individual to the level of an animal.

  • I believe animals have some language but our definition may not even qualify. It is our attempt at putting specifics to something not so specific in the animal kingdom. When a dog growls; we know his meaning but is that language if I or other dogs clearly understand it?

  • I think that the other animals don't communicate on the same level as we but there are some animals that come really close in my eyes. Some examples are dolphins and chickens.

  • language is a communication tool, but different from signalling, i would say. the difference lies in cognition and cognitive functions. human communication using language allows to "read minds" (theory of mind), it allows to think about thinking (which is not conscious), to release us from here and now and to participate in very complex social networks, more complex that of any other social animal.

  • It sounds like linguists are very uncomfortable with the idea of any animals stepping into human territory. It's setting some very distant goal posts that animals are unlikely to cross – as if these linguists aren't defining what a language is, so much as creating criteria so that only human methods count as "language". If that's ultimately their criterion, that language is "the method humans use to communicate", then by definition animals don't have language, obviously. Narrowing the definition specifically so that animals don't fit it is something humans do a lot when we start realizing we're not so far removed from nature.

    Of course I don't think most people outside academia would agree with those stuffy limitations, these days. Just like how we can no longer ignore animals using tools (some even create tools whose only purpose is to be used in the creation of a tool with the secondary tool being intended for the task), it would be unfair to say that some animals don't at least use "proto-language".

    Prairie dogs use adjectives to modify words. They report what they see in their surroundings, but it's being reported to those still in the warrens who are displaced from it but interpret the report (rather than simple warning calls). And of course they use otherwise useless sounds to construct words – because they don't point to pictures of real life objects either (even though breaking it down into letters of an alphabet is obviously western-centric – lots of people construct and communicate words through larger units than letters). They're not the only example, but they're an excellent proof of concept that you don't need a giant brain to have a language.

    I think it's fair to say lots of animals have proto-languages – and maybe if they had as complicated lives as modern people, they'd come up with more words and clarifications just like we have since the time that we had proto-languages.

  • To me, a language is a mean of communication that can be used to discuss about abstract stuff. The bee "language" may have displacement, but direction, distance and safety are still pretty concrete concepts, unlike, say, the concept of social equity. And I'm not even talking about metaphysics or religion yet.

  • Of course the problem is that, like most concepts and ideas, language was named without being properly defined.

  • Each letter represents sounds. In the list "sound" means that. Not necessarily to hear but writing and showing the letters by sign language would be the same as well.

  • Some of these requirements do not sound like someone thought about the question "What is a language?" but more likely tried to solve the problem "How can I define language in a way that only human language furfills the definition".
    I cannot take such an approach seriously.

  • How can you test a human concept using human requirements and conditions on animals? Animal communication has much simpler requirements and if the communication succeeds by fulfilling these conditions, then that's all they need. I don't think my dog ever felt like "Hey human, wanna know what I did yesterday?!"

  • The one thing that sets our way of communicating apart from many other animal's is our usage of metaphor. Humans have the mental capacitiy to map certain features of 'real' objects onto 'abstract' ideas.

  • Language, from my perspective, is action of pictures, sounds, gestures and smell or anything that can transfer or communicate one idea to another

  • Let's call it "triple displacement", what human language has that the various ACSs do not. A honeybee can displace in space, talking about a food source at some distance from the hive, but she (yes, she; worker bees are all female) cannot talk about the food source she found yesterday. Nor can she talk about some hypothetical food source that doesn't actually exist. Her dance must indicate the direction and distance to an actual, real source of nectar that's there right now, never one it would be nice to find tomorrow if the hunt goes well.

    Human language can manage all these things. We can displace in space and speak of things that are elsewhere. We can displace in time and speak of things as they were yesterday, or last week, or last year. And we can displace in reality, and speak of contrafactuals and hypotheticals, and speculate on the future. We can even tell each other stories of people who never lived, doing things no one has ever really done, in places that aren't real, at a time when, at the very least, there cannot have been any people around.

  • Some animals can lie which is an impressive cogitive feat, since it requires the ability to anticipate reactions and possible scenarios.
    Also some animals clearly have words although it's harder to notice since they rely on a tonal language.

  • Eeeeh- kinda. Some animals can call eachothers names(like Parrots), and tell their own names. Thats not too shabby.

  • There is receive and transmit. I can tell my dog understands simple english. Can't speak it. But he makes sounds I understand. Not human words. But a sound for hunger, thirst, come here, go away, let's go for a walk, I'm bored. I'm sleepy. He knows when certain people arrive. Different physiology, different language. Same as when space aliens communicate. Effort has to be made, and some literals may never translate or work. Some animals understand, but play dumb. That I know for sure.

  • In a game called Meadow, where you play as animals, the devs came up with a series of icons and emotes that the players can use to communicate. This system doesn't have double articulation, but it has displacement (signalling each other about collectibles that are far away), simple two-icon structures (usually icon goes before an emote, for example), and plenty of creativity 🙂

  • The answer depend on the definition for language, that many species got calls, body language to communicate the location of food, presence of danger, pain and discontent is long established.
    You point out the obvious shortcoming for naming it 'language' – as we have at least not learned if any other species can imagine or express future on past events or places to others.
    The other way to look at it is those who study animal intelligence, and when lets say a parrot use the words in a creative way, it's said to be able to communicate.
    And I have studied a species who have a very limited vocabulary, that indeed combine the few calls/words they got in a creative way to give them a new meaning.
    So are they intelligent – not at all.
    Linguists will chase me with a flame thrower for this, but I label this language nowadays.
    Whereas another species, with a larger brain and slightly larger vocabulary, do not make such combinations. In that case I label it 'calls' even though it's more complex and include 'Hello' and 'How are you?'.

  • Languages require sound? That's the stupidest thing I have ever heard! Have you not heard about sign language?

  • I think what we refer to as "language" is any form of communication that happens by sharing context between the sender and the receiver. If we created a language that was just the letter "a" said in various tones and rhythms, and the receiver would legitimatelu understand it, it would be a language! So, thus, animal communication is language!

    A a á æ a ãa ą ăā ââ a A ã Æ a?

  • My response to the bit about Koko is this: Yes, but all that was taught to her by humans. If it occured naturally, then it'd count, but gorillas can't be said to use language just because one of them was taught how.

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