Those who do research in ethology are sometimes accused of making the animals seem all too human-like. The ethologists smile and concur that it’s not the animals who seem human-like, it is humans who didn’t really evolve so far from animals as is commonly thought. One of the criteria that is often cited as proof of human superiority to animals is the fact that humans have a developed language, and animals do not. It is an frequently held opinion that animals do not go beyond the scope of “communication”, or, otherwise said, of transmitting information vital to their survival, and that anything abstract is far beyond their limited capabilities.
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The ability to use language is also tied in vitally with being able to use tools and to develop technology. It is a mark of a certain level of thought that is considered to be what distinguishes humans from animals. Almost like the old saying that the monkey who picked up a stick (and, perhaps, used it to communicate its desires to other primates) was the first human. But is it really so true that animals are incapable of speech and of using tools? Is our speech really that much more sophisticated than theirs is? Recent research often proves that animal language in various species is at very different stages of development: though the languages of some animals are only on the level of communicating geography, some animals – apes in particular – have even learned to use words and speak to humans almost on par with them, which quite seriously blurs the lines.
The notion that animals can communicate is too basic and simple to observe for any skeptic to disprove, as communication can be defined as any behavior that influences another animal. The question which really remains is the scope of their communications. For a very long time there was a number of popular stereotypes on the existence of several key differences between human language and animal communications. Communications are not supposed to be learned culturally – they are acquired by instinct; they are responsive and not active – they cannot refer to matters removed in time and space; and they are neither able to make generalizations nor to elaborate on “words” (or, better put, morphemes) passed down genetically. There is also a stereotype that human languages have a double structure – not only morphemes carry meaning, but phonemes, as well – while animal communications do not, but considering how animal communications does not consist only of noise, it is a more complex subject that should be addressed more seriously than has been done thus far. Chimpanzees, for instance, use gestures to signify spatial and temporal markers.
Most of these notions have been disproved to one degree or another. Some creatures, even such unlikely ones as prairie dogs, are able to elaborate on words, as was proven by Con Slobodchikoff, who spent over twenty years studying prairie dogs and their calls. He tested this by giving them stimuli which were previously unknown, but somehow they would all have one word for it. “There are no black ovals running around out there and yet they all had the same word for black oval,” Slobodchikoff says (Soussan, 2004), . He also showed four prairie dogs predators they could not have seen before – and the dogs independently came up with the same kind of warning calls. Slobodchikoff thinks that the ability to describe in a manner so that they are understood is generally embedded in prairie dogs. Generalization is more difficult to find, and yet experience on animals close to mankind, such as different kinds of primates that they are able to use metaphors like small children would (referring to all dogs as “dog”) and combining old concepts into new one while attempting to describe a concept they have no word for (describing a melon as “drink fruit”, for instance, or using the word “monster” to describe a misbehaving visitor, to cite the two most famous cases). The same chimpanzees mentioned above understand the concept of grammar and of the fact that sentences break down.
All of these instances may be instances of “instinctive” communication. But groundbreaking research on attempting to teach various animals to communicate shows that animal trainers themselves may be at fault here, They show themselves capable of interacting only on the level of stimulus-reaction, and this is the only way the animal talks. But if an animal that has the beginnings of a language system is treated more like a small child, being dynamically put into an environment created to help learn words, and, moreover, to create a communicative interest in using them beyond the scope of the simple “me hungry” relationship. This method involves spending considerably more time with the animal and teaching it as one would teach a small child: remaining in context and explaining the meaning of each word. But it works extremely well: as research shows, not only animals as high on the evolutionary ladder as primates are capable of achieving significantly better results with this method, but even parrots are shown to be able to understand a great deal more than animals usually do and to speak in sentences, as research on such parrots as Alex or N’Kisi. “N’kisi speaks in sentences, showing a grasp of grammar in formulating his own original expressions. He is capable of actual conversations.” (Morgana, 2002).
There has, so far, been no additional research as to whether this kind of learning goes any quicker in groups – even doctor Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has only worked with two animals at a time, though her bonobos pass many a remarkable language test. Still, it is a well-known fact that social animals learn faster when inside their social group. Rats learn new tricks faster when a certain amount of rats in a group learns it, and the mechanism is similar for monkeys, dogs and crows. Yet a study on the possibility of massive language learning is yet forthcoming, but considering the fact that all of the instances when animals learn quicker are related to technology – and, sometimes, tools – which all may be direct byproducts of language, the results of such a study, when it appears, should be more than interesting.
What does all of this change for us, however? Different species, of course, have different possibilities for communication, and different degrees at which they communicate, and humans are still by far the most sophisticated, having mastered the process of questioning the environment and being able to actually explain these questions to other people, sharing many gradients of emotion. Does this really make animals closer to humans? For an illustration of the case in point, we turn to the most famous of these cases- the bonobo Kanzi and his sister, Panbanisha. These two primates, as reports go, “are aware of that [their odd status as creatures who socialize with humans, but are not human themselves], and sometimes it’s a sadness because they realize they can’t go everywhere we can go and can’t do everything that we can do,” doctor Savage-Rumbaugh says (Hamilton, 2006) . And creatures who are able to understand the concept of alienness, who have developed a “theory of mind” and are able to comprehend humans as, possibly, friends and not just members in an hierarchy, are not that far removed from us. We are closer to our primordial ancestors than most might think.
Nonetheless, these are primates, and people who argue for the impenetrability of inter-species barriers are apt to accept apes, more or less grudgingly, but nonetheless. They are, after all, our ancestors in a way. Yet what about other animals? Of course, not all of them are as sophisticated as we are. But we should consider the fact that we, too, learn our languages by mechanisms that are not completely yet understood. Moreover, children -who are widely renowned as the most adept class of people at learning languages – seem to be very instinctive about it, muchly akin to the way animals learn their communications. Perhaps we are not so advanced as we seem to ourselves – and, perhaps, should we include animals into our social groups more, we might be able to see this more clearly as research continues. We are not superior to animals, perhaps only a step or two ahead of them. Perhaps there, if we are to believe evolution,exist creatures in the universe who have already transcended our understanding of language, and perhaps animals may be capable of more than we give them credit for. One thing is certain: as we learn about animal language, we learn about the structure our own nervous system and the way we communicate. And, possibly, the day will come when linguistics will finally come to the ability of officially considering the relationship between instinctual and learned forms of language, as exemplified in animals who are taught to think like humans.
Hamilton, J. A Voluble Visit with Two Talking Apes. National Public Radio website,2006. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5503685&ft=1&f=1007 on March 18, 2007.
Kosseff, L. Primate Use of Language. Retrieved from http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/language.htm on March 18, 2007.
Morgana, A. The N’kisi Project. 2002, Retrieved from http://www.sheldrake.org/nkisi/ on March 18, 2007.
Soussan, T. Language of Prairie Dogs Includes Words for Human. Animaldomain, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/animalworld/prairie_dogs_041206.html on March 18, 2007
Lingformant: information on animals and language news feed. Retrieved from http://lingformant.vertebratesilence.com/category/animals-and-language/ on March 18, 2007
Advanced Linguistics: Biological Foundations of Language Retrieved from http://www.phon.ox.ac.uk/~jcoleman/animals.htm on March 18, 2007