Animal Language

Language is a useful ability that allows us to cooperate with other members of our species.
It surrounds us everyday and even accompanies us in our thoughts when we remain silent.
This elemental feature of ours therefore arouses our curiosity and keenness to understand it in the same way we now understand the functioning of our heart.
In the last decades, scientific findings could place the human being in a precise phylogenetic context. More than 97 % identity showed between the genetic material of the chimpanzee and the human being. The binary thinking "human - animal", "language - animal communication" must be suspended. They form an ideological presumption which disturbs the view of their mutual relationship.
After genetic and phenotypic differences are introduced as an essential feature of evolution, this essay will highlight the similarities that tie language and animal communication together.
Both the logic of genetics and the phenomenology found in language will be used to point out that language is basically a stage of animal communication as all features of animals have a genetic basis and can develop into diverse forms in different species.
This essay will point out that it is possible to establish a direct line of development between language and animal communication because there is a phylogenetic necessity for an origin of the human language and such precedence shows in mammals and even more distantly related groups of animals. These not only possess great similarities in motivation and structure of their communication but individuals can even exchange meaning across species boundaries.

Before starting the argumentation, I will give an explanation of how language and its development is understood in this essay. Though it stays a very philosophical question, I can refer to how some linguistic researchers define language by certain quantitative and qualitative characteristics. The quantitative determinant of language is its theoretically infinite range of signs and their combinations. Even more important are the qualitative characteristics: by combination of signs, organized in a kind of syntax, the meaning of the single signs can change; the signs can be composed of elements; different signs can be combined to attribute state or actions and refer to absent objects or themes; communicative acts are performed.
When examining the development of language, it is important to look for these characteristics in animal communication as evolutionary antecedent and temporary companion of human language. This reasoning concerns more the phenomenological side than the mental deep structure of language. However, if one wanted to argue language originated in mental representational systems that might well be true - but if so, representation would be the key to all animal communication. Rather the development is a two sided complex in which the internal genetic potential constantly drags external phenomena after it.

Before considering the similarities between language and animal communication, I will discuss the role of difference in their relationship. It is striking how broad the term "animal communication" is. It refers to the communication of ravens, parrots, mice, sheep, dogs, whales, ants, bees, fish - all the 8600 bird species, 4200 mammals known and countless other species at the same time. This makes clear that there is not really a thing such as "animal communication" but it is only a collective term for numerous ways of communication which is sometimes more similar like the one of donkeys and horses but often fundamentally different like the ones of bees and bears, fish and rabbits or nightingales and foxes. Even the communication of an owl might be so different from that of a red robin as it is from human language. Anyhow, one cannot deny a line of development in bird communication except one wanted to suggest thousands of autonomous bird languages. In general, genetic development often produces highly developed forms of certain properties which are so different from their origin that it is hardly detectable from what they started. As an illustration, bats developed echo detection as the only terrestrial animal. No matter how great the difference is, their extraordinary property originates in the ears of other mammals. Not to mention their ability to fly. Marsupials, penguins, chameleons and snakes are only a few of many possessors of extremely developed, distinctive attributes.
Consequently, language can be very different from all other animal communication at its present stage and still be in a direct line of development from it. Its difference is rather a sign of evolutionary success, a stage of high development, than of division.
Language has a very pro-selective character because the more information individuals can exchange with their language the more coordinated can be their actions. As a result, the use of signs and their variation could easily have increased at an extreme rate - not only because of evolution but also by the utilization of existing structures. Among these are sound organs as well as representational systems which can be existent even if only scarcely used for speech in preceeding times.

However, the direct line of development proposed in the previous paragraph is difficult to grasp because, like with the bats echolocation, we have no access to the intermediate stages of human language because they vanished with their ancient users. In any case, the connection between language and animal communication can be revealed by the similarities it shares with many examples of animal communication. Furthermore, the diverse species and their communicative abilities stand for different stages of language development and therefore they prove a line from simple communication to complex language.
Now that we noted the necessary differences between the varieties, to find decisive features that are the same in our language and in other animals' communication is the key to establish a direct line of development between them.
One criticism diminishing animal communication says that it was always holistic. Apart from this is wrong, our knowledge about animal language itself must quickly be examined.
In truth, this presumption arised because of humans failure to interpret animal communication - it is only holistic animal communication we can understand. It is comparitively easy for us to connect a single call or gesture with a situation. All more sophisticated communication, for example about things that are not present, we can hardly interpret. In consequence, human kind understands only a small part of animal communication. As an illustration, an example from the world of birds: the meaning of holistic calls of many birds are well known but most other sounds they produce are only perceived as meaningless singing. But this leaves a considerable amount of possible language codes open. Especially in the case of birds that utter, like the wren, 130 notes in seven seconds or even more the singing could contain dense information. Indeed, the bearded titmouse was recognized to combine calls of which the researchers had beforehand classified their holistic meaning. In the case of a titmouse male that was abandoned by its partner it formulated "tschin - dschick - tschr'ä" which single meanings one after another are something like: Attention! [tschin] - (I am) Desirous [dschick], female please come - [tschr] (I am) Lonely! [ä].
Although access is only gained through the few single calls that were related to situations by researchers, already this example shows remarkable qualities; some of these are the expression of feeling through communication, self-expression that aims at a listener and wants to motivate a certain reaction, the construction of a singing unit that resembles a sentence with a logical order and the generation of meaning that is different from the meaning of the single parts. The other singing of the titmouse possibly functions in the same way though we do not understand the elements of it. Especially interesting in this example is the possibility of a species to employ seemingly pure holistic signs in other context, to put them in structures and this way convey complicated meaning. This makes it even more plausible that human language could have achieved elaboration out of once simple beginnings like holistic calls.

While the titmouse shows utterances that practically follow Jakobsons' six elements of communication, perform different communicative acts and might be employed in a form of syntax, there are examples of animal communication that show even more similarities to the human language. These are interesting because they demonstrate the ability of dialogue, the use of abstract reference, a great range of signs and complicated formal structure. One species which researchers recognized to master all these components in their language are dolphins.
The content of their communication is not only in reaction to situations but contains abstracted information - dolphins can talk about things that are not there and hold long conversations just for the sake of personal exchange. Two dolphins in two different empty basins talk extensively with each other through underwater telephones though no outer reference motivates their communication. Evidently dolphins can talk about concepts and decide about which. The meaningfulness of their conversation was verified by several means of manipulation of the underwater telephone. The dolphins at once noticed interruptions in the connection because the breaks did not stop senseless sound combination but disturbed the coherence of the conversation. They did not continue to talk before they tested the line and exchanged their basic identification code, roughly: "Hello! Somebody there? Here is X." Those are the only sounds of dolphins researchers could decipher until now, the so called a- and b-whistles, a static set of sounds. Beyond that, dolphins employ highly variable c-, e- and f-sounds. While a dolphin recording of a- and b-whistles is not suspicious to a dolphin, the moment f-whistles appear the dolphin recognizes the fake and stops communication. This is quite like a human being at the telephone, not being irritated about a recorded "Hello here is X. Who's there?" but would become conscious of the fake as soon as it came to true conversation which asks for appropriate response to each other.
Likewise, in freedom, dolphins employ their language to discuss problems like we do, for example when an obstacle arises, they were observed to swim away from it, fall into discussion, send a single member to the object to examine it, have it return, take the latter's judgement into account, discuss again, send another member and then pass the obstacle together.
Not only that dolphins parallel the human language in their ability of dialogue and consideration of absent phenomena, they also communicate like humans in a highly structured way. At first hand, dolphins combine units in a syntax-like way. Bottlenose dolphins utter up to 50 signals a minute which themselves consist of 1 to 24 blocks, averaging at 5-7 blocks (results of frequency change, short-duration cessations, local expansions and periodic pulsations of the spectrum). Even "observations show that the structure of blocks is formed by the combination of simpler elements, i.e. there is a gradual complication of the structure.[…] Any structural block can be used both as an independent part of a signal , and as a structural element for the formation of blocks with a higher degree of complexity. " (Markov, Organisation of communication system in Tursiops Truncatus Montagu, p.5). Interesting about this is also the unrestricted option of vocabulary formation. In spite of the knowledge about such elaborated signals still their syntactic employment might be doubted. But evidence for this feature exists as well:
"In free dialogue (for instance, during communication of isolated animals through electroacoustic communication link), signals with different structures are combined into groups , the way human words are combined to construct phrases.[…] The analyses of variability of signals from the set, has shown that their middle sections are most stable while edge sections (especially those at the end) are extremely variable. Variability behaves different in groups composed of different signals. This allows one to assume that the order in which signals follow each other in groups, is meaningful for the animals and that the described variability depends on the interaction of signals and, consequently, on the existence of organization in a sequence of signals. This assumption is supported indirectly by dolphins producing groups with identical composition, sometimes consisting of signals with very complicated structure." (Markov, Organisation of communication system in Tursiops Truncatus Montagu, p.21-22)

These facts are only an extract of how complex dolphin utterances are; their practice of a kind of conjugation is another result of their amazing command of combination and variation that in some respects might even extend the possibilities of human languages.
Though we cannot understand the meaning of the components it becomes clear that they perform language in a similar way we do; dolphins employ an extremely compositional technique - it includes equivalences to syllables and words as well as a kind of grammatical organization. The formal structure of dolphin language as an "animal communication" is so highly developed and similar to human language in function that no fundamental difference exists between language and dolphin communication. This example indicates that both human and dolphin language exemplify the evolutionary potential of language. There is neither a quantitative nor qualitative border between the language of the two different mammals that could arise doubts about their evolutionary relation.

Whereas bottlenose dolphins exemplify a congruence of one kind of animal communication with another, namely with human language, other species some of us call our pets achieve an extraordinary ability which tightens the connections between animal communication and language.
Though the communication of a dog or an African Gray Parrot is strange to us and only partly understood, as in the case of the dog often judged as simple, these animals can (like other, i.e. the crow, the chimpanzee and also the dolphin), at least in some respect pass the frontier between their communication and human language.
In the example of the dog, the adoption of human language is passive - it cannot utter anything of human language. But if a dog has the extensive chance to learn the comprehension of some elements of human language, it can pick up a remarkable amount of information from it. If the connection of concepts to human words seems of any use to dogs, they have the potential to differentiate more than a hundred objects by their name the dogs learned humans use to apply to them. They even can expand their vocabulary by foreclosure proceedings. Dogs do not only understand the reference to objects, but also can learn to interpret terms of spatial deixis like "left" and "right" or "up" and down" and verbs like "sit", "come" or "stay." In addition to that they can interpret verb-object structures like "search the ball" or "search the stick" in contrast to "roll the ball" or "crush the stick." This ability is difficult to explain if their exists no genetic disposition in the dog to understand elements of language like abritrary signs and reference and therefore makes it very likely that there is a common basis.
Anyway, there is an example of an adoption of human language which goes further. The African Gray Parrot can both understand and produce some of human language. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the parrot Alex does not only know 100 items by name but can connect attributes to them. Alex can combine objects with material, five shapes and seven colours and even their number up to six. For example, Alex can name objects shown to him as "black woollen ball", "grey stone ball" or "five cubes". He also can show these objects when asked for them, judge their relative size and similarity/differences in attributes, or request to get a certain object of his desire. This, Alex does with the basic grammatical structure "want X" (X=item), likewise he uses "wanna go X" (X=location). For example, Alex says "want nut" when he wants to get a nut. He does not only learn to use abritrary human signs to refer to objects but also to refer to more abstract concepts, for instance, when Alex says "wanna go cage" he does not only communicate his wish to go to an object but to go to a place of rest and relaxation.
This means Alex can make statements and requests and also answer questions about entities.
He can achieve these speech acts because he was able to adopt the basic adjective-noun and verb-noun structure to refer to present as well as absent objects - constructions with which Alex attempts to change his environment through language to his favour.
He knows what concept a word stands for and, what is even more important, he can combine words to describe the qualities of unknown objects which unite different concepts (i.e. "rubber cone"). Alex abilities all demonstrate that he can exchange meaningful utterances with human beings in their language.
Most strikingly, Alex is so aware of his own use of language that he tried out word formation on his own. Alex invented the word "bananerry" to label an apple because in his opinion, an apple is a mixture of the texture and taste of a banana and a cherry. This word formation is a demonstration of Alex' metalinguistic insight. As Alex strived to give his mental representation of an apple a name, he shows that pre-lingual thinking, like in human beings, is the basis of speech production.
There can be no doubt that the African Gray parrot is equipped genetically and mentally for employing language - only this way it can achieve a small, but evident command of human language though it is very strange to its species. The communication of the wild African Gray Parrot is very likely to extend the quality it can accomplish in the exotic human language. In any case, the strong tie between animal communication and language becomes obvious through the potential for exchange between them.

Evolution developed out of one-celled organisms the diverse species - species that embody amazing capabilities that range from flying, visual processing, chemical analyses (smell and taste) to sonar detection.
All the arguments in the course of the essay have pointed to the fact that animal communication and human language are not only very likely to be direcly connected because of Evolution Theory, but that they are indeed not very remote from each other. While there are fundamental qualitative and quantitative differences between some kinds of animal communication and human language, others fulfill the most important characteristics to be closely related to it. Besides the similarities between the communications, the potential of users of animal communication to pass the species border and learn some of the foreign human language is a very convincing sign of a common neuronal basis.
Because human language is not a single peak in language development but can be seen in a context of several animal communications which show all kind of grades in development, from simple holistic calls across basic syntax use to highly elaborated sign systems with grammar use like that of bottlenose dolphins - it becomes clear that it is possibe to establish a direct evolutionary line between language and animal communication. After all, it is essential for the research on language development not to be ignorant of the abilities of other species, not to mistake obvious incidences of communication for the total capability of a species to communicate and to increase knowledge about the more subtle aspects of animal communication.


Dröscher, Vitus (1967): „Die freundliche Bestie, Neueste Forschungen über das Tierverhalten," G. Stalling, Oldenburg

Markov, Vladimir and Ostrovskya, Vera: "Dolphin Language: A Scientific Evidence",
<>, (consulted December 2004)

Pepperberg, Irene: "Referential Communication with an African Grey Parrot",
<>, (consulted December 2004)