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10.1: Human Language versus Animal Communication

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    Human Language versus Animal Communication, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    part of it. I know a number of you have felt it was difficult throughout this whole process; I’m not going to argue. But when we talk about the actual neural components to language—how the brain processes language—this is where things get really technical.

    For this section on animal vs human communication, this is evidence that we have up to this point. It's still evolving and we're still learning, but I can be more confident with what we're saying and what we're presenting here. There is so much that we're still learning about this thing between our ears and how it processes everything, including language, that this is constantly evolving. Just for a frame of reference, I am recording this mid-August of 2021; by the time you watch this, there could be some significant advances, and I won't know it until we get there. Just know that everything I’m presenting is with a grain of salt, in the sense of I am presenting the latest that we have up to this point. There is much more research to come, there is also more research underway and, additionally, our understanding of everything is changing. I'm confident and what I’m going to present for this chapter, but understand that things are changing.

    Let's start off with a discussion that we had back in Chapter 1 when we talked about animal communication and human language. Let's refresh our memories a bit; let's go back to those attributes or hallmarks of human language. We understand that human beings have something that is potentially unique, if not very rare, that this form of communication—we talk with arbitrary signs and signals, we talk about things in front of us and not in front of us., we transmit aspects of our culture of our lives, we make an infinite use of finite means, we only have a certain number of vocabulary or lexicon, we only have a certain number of ways that we can put them into a phrase, and yet we can say anything that comes to mind, that we are productive and creative and constantly changing and adapting with our language, we can talk about all these things and ourselves, we can create, we can express and we can talk about things that are not just here in now, not just immediate needs, we go well beyond that. Just think of this class alone!

    There are some similar aspects that we see in other forms of animal communication, but limitedly. Let me explain a little bit. There's no question that all animals have some form of communication to express their needs and basic desires; that's not in-argument. The question is: Are they be able to talk about things, not in front of themselves? Are they able to talk about hypotheticals, or make suggestions? Are they able to talk about things that happened in the past, or what may happen in the future?

    Maybe. This is why I’m going to say maybe. We know, for example, that most species of birds are able to describe where food or mates are when they're not in front of them—as if to say, “Oh yeah, that flower, that is about five miles that way. That's a really good place to go get nectar.” We know that birds and bees tend to do this, and we see other mammals, especially other primates, have aspects to this in their forms of communication. However, we're still not sure what they actually do among their species.

    We are not talking about mimicking human language, and that's a really crucial piece of this argument. We are not talking about when we try to teach a parrot how to talk, or when we try and force another primate to learn a primary sign language. That is not how they communicate with each other, and so we have to abolish that concept entirely.

    Because we understand that what a different species used to communicate with its peers is going to be different than what humans do, the research that I’m referring to requires analyzing, observing and being descriptive about what species do amongst their own kind, and to a lesser extent to other animals in the region.

    When we talk about animal communication, I love this old The Far Side comic—I'm sorry, I’m a Gen X and The Far Side was part of my upbringing.

    Far Side Comic showing what a human is saying to their dog, and that the dog only understands their name.

    It encapsulates everything that we think of about animal communication versus human language, as far as what we say to them versus what they hear and understand. I absolutely love and adore The Far Side, especially this comic but I’ll give you an example in real life. I have a cat her name is Bella and she is 16. When I think about my cat, and I’ve had her since she was a kitten since she was three months old, there's a ton of things that we communicate to each other through voice and through body language. She tells me when she needs attention and love, and when she thinks I need attention and love. She tells me very clearly when she has no food in her bowl or its old food and it's not acceptable anymore. She plays well, not so much anymore, but certainly when she was younger, and she definitely communicates that when I go away, she doesn't like that, and when I come home, she makes that very well known. I communicate to her when she does it behavior that I do not approve of, like if she were to scratch the furniture—which she's never done save for once, and it was to get my attention because I forgot to feed her, so she knows how to get my attention. We have a form of communication. When I am at a low point, she's one of those folks I confide in; I cry and she's there. She cuddles me, and I cuddle her; I tell her all my hopes, fears, desires and wishes. and she purrs.

    Now, does she understand what I’m saying? Or, is she like The Far Side comic where she just hears noise and she doesn't know what it is? I don't speak cat and she doesn't speak human, so I don't know what really is able to be communicated as far as displacement, as far as productivity or creativity. We certainly have arbitrary sounds and meanings for those sounds. It has often been said, the cats probably learn to meow because of humans their interactions with humans. When they meow in certain ways, humans do certain activities, and it's a symbiotic relationship. I think there's some of that that's true. But she's not able to tell me her deepest hopes, wishes and desires; she's not able to tell me what she thinks might happen in the future, or what did happen in the past. I don't know what she thinks really, although as I’m saying this, she's walking around my feet right now, because she's clearly telling me she doesn't want me talking like this, she doesn't want the camera and she doesn't want the lights. She wants me on the bed right now; she's able to communicate her needs and basic desires. But not much more. Is that to say that she can do that with a different cat? Who's to say?

    Where we have been starting to observe a few pieces with respect to animal communication and whether they might have a language, primarily, has to do with our primate cousins. We know certain things to be true. First of all, their vocal tracks are not like human vocal tracks; they are well more primitive, to the point that they cannot produce the sounds that we can produce. We know that part that goes out the window. Yes, it is true that, certainly for other great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas, some have been taught American Sign Language, in particular, and a few other primary sign languages. But—and this is a huge ‘but’—their learning is very slow and formulaic, and they basically get stuck at the level of a three-year-old. If you remember telegraphic speech from child language acquisition in the previous chapter, they're not able to do much more than that, at least not in ASL. They're also not able to create with ASL very well at all. Therefore, I would argue that you can throw out using any kind of human language with a primate; it's probably not going to work.

    All that being said, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that they might have something primitive. I’m saying the term ‘primitive’, but I do not want you to think that this is a prescriptive use of it. It's saying that this is a very early stage, and maybe in a millennium or several they might have the capability to use a language, much like a human language. At this stage, we don't know. What do we know is that chimpanzees and other great apes are able to teach each other tools. Chimpanzees are particularly good at this, but even we see this in gorillas and some other great apes. We also know that other primates use sounds to communicate things beyond basic needs and desires, not just a warning system, not just to say, “Hey, I need food” or “Hey, I need sex.” You do observe them using the sounds in more arbitrary ways. But—and this is an incredibly important point—we are still trying to decipher what those calls and sounds mean. When we observe our primate cousins teaching each other how to use tools, they are not necessarily using a vocal communication to do it. There is some kind of gesturing. I don't really want to call a sign language yet, because I think it's too early to say that, but our colleagues and primatologist are showing us that our primate cousins, especially the great apes are able to use some kind of communication that's at a higher level than what most other animals do.

    Primates are an interesting discussion. What is also interesting, and this is in the video below is Zipf’s Law, and the video is going to go a little more into that. Here's the interesting thing: It could be that dolphins in particular might have a language. You may have heard of studies on dolphin communication before, and this is an area that continuously evolves. Suffice it to say we are very much at the precipice of understanding what other animals do when they need to talk to each other, when they need to communicate to one another, beyond their basic needs, hopes and desires. We are still learning so much about what our own brains do, let alone what other brains of other animals do. So, we'll come back to this—maybe not in this class, and maybe not in the next year, but certainly in the future, so keep an eye on this.

    10.1.2 More on Zipf's Law, from NOVA Wonders (PBS)

    To finish things off, watch the video below about Zipf's Law, and why we still have so much more to learn about other animals and their methods of communication. (The video is captioned.)

    10.1: Human Language versus Animal Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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