Is Language Just For Humans?

April 28th, 2014

One of the things that separate us as humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our use of language. This incredibly complex form of communication has enabled us to essentially pull ourselves out of the food chain and construct modern society as we know it today. But animals have language too, right? After all, dogs bark, cats meow, and birds chirp. Isn’t that language? Interestingly, this is one of today’s most disputed topics in linguistics and biology, and while a great deal of research has been done, the answer isn’t very clear-cut.

Many researchers feel that language is exclusively human. Noam Chomsky, one of the most famous linguists of our time, theorized that language, with its complex grammar structures and syntax, is something inherited genetically among humans as a part of the evolution of the human brain. Charles Hocket, another linguist, asserted that the underlying principles between human language and even the most complex forms of communication of animals are not even related, despite efforts to apply human language to mating and warning calls in animals. Language among humans is not simply a reaction to their present environment, but can also communicate abstract and hypothetical ideas about the past and future, and so it is light years ahead of what animals are capable of communicating.

Communication among animals, on the other hand, is severely closed, limited to a number of different stimuli. Several species, including chimpanzees and bonobos, have been taught signs and lexigrams, and have learned to use these to communicate, but with only a relatively small number of signs. Researchers have turned to animals’ wild environment for clues as to whether they possess anything that could be called a language. Con Slobodchikoff at Northern Arizona University, who studies prairie dogs, is convinced that these small mammals do have a very complex language, as they have different alarm calls for the various predators who try to eat them, and these calls can describe the color of clothes, the body style (tall, thin, or short) and other specific details of a human being. Bottlenose dolphins have also been observed to communicate age, gender, and personal identities through their whistling, which can be heard by others at long distances underwater.

Despite the complexity of animal communication, research up until this point has shown that this communication only resembles parts of the many advanced components that make up human language. In that sense, they do not have “language.” But anyone who sees the wagging tail of their pet dog or listens to owls at night knows that they do have an interesting system of communication. Only future research will tell us if there’s something about animal communication that we’re not seeing yet that makes it as advanced as human language.