Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

Do animals have language? – Michele Bishop

All animals communicate. Crabs wave their claws at each other
to signal that they’re healthy and ready to mate. Cuttlefish use pigmented skin cells
called chromatophores to create patterns on their skin
that act as camouflage or warnings to rivals. Honeybees perform complex dances to let other bees know the location
and quality of a food source. All of these animals have impressive
communication systems, but do they have language? To answer that question, we can look at four specific qualities
that are often associated with language: discreteness, grammar, productivity, and displacement. Discreteness means that there is a set
of individual units, such as sounds or words, that can be combined
to communicate new ideas, like a set of refrigerator poetry magnets
you can rearrange to create different phrases. Grammar provides a system of rules that tells you how to combine
those individual units. Productivity is the ability
to use language to create an infinite number of messages. And displacement is the ability
to talk about things that aren’t right in front of you, such as past, future, or fictional events. So, does animal communication exhibit
any of these qualities? For crabs and cuttlefish,
the answer is no. They don’t combine their signals
in creative ways. Those signals also don’t have to be
in a grammatical order, and they only communicate
current conditions, like, “I am healthy,”
or “I am poisonous.” But some animals actually do display
some of these properties. Bees use the moves, angle, duration,
and intensity of their waggle dance to describe the location and richness
of a food source. That source is outside the hive, so they exhibit the property
of displacement. They share that language trait
with prairie dogs, which live in towns of thousands, and are hunted by coyotes, hawks,
badgers, snakes, and humans. Their alarms calls indicate
the predator’s size, shape, speed, and, even for human predators,
what the person is wearing and if he’s carrying a gun. Great apes, like chimps and gorillas,
are great communicators, too. Some have even learned
a modified sign language. A chimpanzee named Washoe
demonstrated discreteness by combining multiple signs
into original phrases, like, “Please open. Hurry.” Coco, a female gorilla who understands
more than 1000 signs, and around 2000 words of spoken English referred to a beloved kitten
that had died. In doing so, she displayed displacement, though it’s worth noting that the apes
in both of these examples were using a human communication system, not one that appeared
naturally in the wild. There are many other examples
of sophisticated animal communication, such as in dolphins, which use whistles to identify age,
location, names, and gender. They can also understand some grammar in a gestural language researchers use
to communicate with them. However, grammar is not seen
in the dolphin’s natural communication. While these communication systems may have some of the qualities
of language we’ve identified, none display all four. Even Washoe and Coco’s impressive
abilities are still outpaced by the language skills
of most three-year-old humans. And animals’ topics of conversation
are usually limited. Bees talk about food, prairie dogs talk about predators, and crabs talk about themselves. Human language stands alone due to the powerful combination
of grammar and productivity, on top of discreteness and displacement. The human brain can take
a finite number of elements and create an infinite number of messages. We can craft and understand
complex sentences, as well as words that have never
been spoken before. We can use language to communicate
about an endless range of subjects, talk about imaginary things, and even lie. Research continues to reveal more
and more about animal communication. It may turn out that human language
and animal communication aren’t entirely different
but exist on a continuum. After all, we are all animals.

100 Replies to “Do animals have language? – Michele Bishop”

  • Heared about a story where a german farmer bought a french cow and the cow was unable to stay in the herd he already had. It was an outcast for many months before it was allowed to grazebext to them.
    Sounded like cows atleast have different accents depending where they grew up.

  • You forgot the other half of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I'll forgive it, since it's a very long word and you had limited space.

    (BOOM. Always spell it right on the first try!)

  • I think it is also important to note that prairie dogs have social chatter as well but we do not have enough context to understand it.

  • “Consider orangutans. In all the worlds graced by their presence, it is suspected that they can talk but choose not to do so in case humans put them to work, possibly in the television industry. In fact they can talk. It’s just that they talk in Orangutan. Humans are only capable of listening in Bewilderment.”

    ― Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

  • Birds also eavesdrop on other species of birds! humans may find it rude but for birds, its the choice between life and death.

  • What if some animal language are missing some of those 4 properties, but instead have some kind of 5'th property that we (humans) lack or havn't even thought that a language can have?

  • Crows actually have different dialects for different regions. Calls from different states and even group's can differ. I crow call for fun, and if I am ever going to a new location I listen to recordings of group's from those areas and change my calls accordingly. It's very facinating. As they are extremely intelligent. I even feed my local crows and they come to a specific clicking noise I make, letting them know it's time to eat.. it's been years and I don't feed them regularly and they have taught their children my "feeding call" so they know where to get a free meal if they hear it, it's quite amazing they have passed it down and remembered it even though it isn't a constant feeding source.

  • A dolphin was taught how to tail walk and when it was released that dolphin taught the other dolphins in the region how to tail walk

  • It was humans who made those the four qualifications of language… this view of language is completely human-centric. There are plenty of animals that can communicate in ways we are unable – I.e. the bat uses echolocation.

  • Crabs talk about themselves? That explains why Mr. Krabs is so selfish and only loves himself and his money! 😀

  • Does ghetto-speak qualify as a language? Limited vocabulary. no discernible grammar, lacks complexity and therefore both productivity and displacement. Topics are always selfish, with a very narrow world view, right down to the individual, and usually limited to carnal and dietary needs. No ability to abstract, have foresight, plan for the future, etc. I dont think we need to talk about ghetto "productivity", do we?

  • He also said that humans “EVEN lie”while I’m pretty sure koko was observed to do this. Similarly we know of humans who have been isolated and not learned a language who the loose the ability all together so the fact that he states that apes ability to use language is less so because they were taught human ways of communicating I think is a bit off.

  • Kwak kwak kwak kwak kwak kwak kwak kwak kwak. Kwak kwak, kwak kwak kwak.
    Kwak kwak kwak kwak, kwak kwak kwak kwak kwak kwak kwak, kwak kwak.

  • We all are living being but not all are animal…
    It is a state of mind or body functionig that creat that huge differece …If they think that he is an animal then just try to walk nekad on street..and eat veggi and meat withput cooking

  • " After all we are all animals " No we are not Darwin theory is only a theory not a fact and its just believed in world wide to be truth because nobody have the ability to travel to past in time to prove Darwin theory wrong just as new things are discovered people purposes many theories about it whether it be right or wrong nobody knows for example Humans Lived on Earth for Huge time and many of them in the past believed Earth was Flat which was obviously wrong and only after advancement of technologies and Science people finally concluded that Earth was round another example is that of light people through out history gave many theories upon how light works among which many were wrong one such theory was Corpuscular Theory of Light proposed in 1672 people at that time believed in that theory but as time passed by people proposed new theories and Corpuscular theory failed . the science is a huge sea just as you cant judge whats in the deep sea by looking at its surface the same way you cant judge whether its true or false by just reading a theory many people have given many theories some were right some were wrong eventually as technology advanced and people thought more about theories Many people founded Errors and just like that many Theories were rejected 100 of years later . the Darwin theory have only survived because Darwin proposed the idea but no theory in opposition to it have been created yet and so people start believing the theory is true but the real reason why no one opposed Darwin theory is because Modern Humans simply lack power and technology to research and go into such Ancient History and dig out complete 100% truth people can only guess what is right and what is wrong Only Time Will Tell us what is truth about evolution and what is not so no one can say for sure what is right and what is wrong about this theory in the end Darwin theory is just a theory and will likely remain as a guessed theory until elements such as maybe time machines are invented so I will still say i am Human not an animal because i dont believe in Darwin theory we must also explore other options and oppose the Darwin theory so we can reach the truth and as time passes by we may gain what is in reality true theory

  • Yeah we don't exactly need grammar to communicate. Grammar is a mostly written thing used only by humans to make it easier to understand on paper. For example, I wouldn't be using all these periods, or these commas, if I was speaking. Animals don't need grammar because they only speak to each other.

  • Or is it selfish to say that they don’t have any language because the criteria favors us or is tailored for us or simply put applicable to us and not them.

  • Let's talk about prarie dogs smart enough to realize if the human is dangerous if it has a gun or not. Like dayummm

  • This strengthens the statement that humans aren't evolved from apes.. We are way more intelligent and smart…
    And btw humans evolving from apes was also just a theory

  • I was wondering if dogs that live in the same house talk to each other when the people are away like "Hello, want to eat the treats up on the counter" "but human isn't here" "act now, think later."

  • I don't think these 4 things are good enough to explain what's special or different about human language.

    Bees can displace information you said. Well, if you can displace information, surely you're doing the other three things as well. Even if humans haven't decoded how you're doing it.

    Discreteness just means a vocabulary exists.

    Grammar just means there's a shared set of rules how to glue units into larger messages (in a way that a recipient can break it back apart again to understand the larger meaning.)

    We must disagree about productivity, then. It's the most unclear requirement to me.

    If it's truly just about infinite combination, then it's purely a property of the grammar. Not even the whole language, just the syntax. Even simple computer grammars can express and parse arbitrarily large messages.

    If it's about an infinite variety of subjects and topics, that's a question whether the vocabulary can grow over time. Which is hard to say without fully mapping out any given animal's language faculty.

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