What language do animals speak? Well, it depends on the animals we suppose. Those who don’t have a mouth to speak, use their bodies to communicate. Crabs for example wave their claws at each other to signal that they’re healthy and ready to mate. Honey bees on the other hand use complex dances and movements to signal other bees to know the location and quality of a food source. This is all fine and good, but do animals have language?
To answer this we first must look at what language is exactly and what elements make it up. In large there are four specific qualities that make up language: discreteness, grammar, productivity and displacement.
Discreteness means that there is a set of unique units like sounds or words which can be combined to generate new ideas. Like the letter magnets some of us have on our fridge and which we can change to create new words all the time.
Grammar provides a set of rules which tells you how to combine those individual units so they make sense every time.
Productivity is the ability to use this language and create a virtual infinity of new messages. And Displacement is the ability to talk about things that aren’t right in front of you. Things like the past, future or fiction.
Now, most animals don’t have these qualities in their day to day language. Crabs for example don’t combine their signals in any creative way and don’t seem to be in a grammatical order and only communicate current conditions like “I’m healthy” or “I’m horny”, but nothing more.
Bees on the other hand change and accentuate their movements and dances in order to better explain to other bees where the good food is. This shows that their language has the property of displacement. Prairie dogs have the same qualities when they talk about predators. Besides the usual coyotes and eagles, prairie dogs can describe to their entire community a human predator as well; what he’s wearing and whether or not he has a gun with him.
Great apes are good communicators as well. Some chimps and gorillas bred in captivity have learned a modified signed language and were able to form their own, even if basic, sentences. One female gorilla was even able refer to a beloved kitten of hers who had recently died. This proved that she was using displacement to communicate. These forms of language off course are of human design and were taught to these apes in captivity. There is no such language with wild apes.
There are more examples of different types of communication in the wild, like dolphins or some species of birds, but none -including the ones we talked before- present all four qualities that make up a language. Moreover, the level of speech in animals is very limited to one or two subjects, like bees who talk about food or prairie dogs who talk about predators and can be easily outpaced by most 3 year old children.
In short, we stand alone when it comes to language as we know and define it. Our brain is the only one that we know of, to be able to take a finite number of elements and create a virtual infinity of messages. We can even create new words that have never been spoken before, which put in the context of what we’ve talked up until now, is huge. We can even lie!
in the end, if we think about it, when it comes to speech and language, lying, acting and embellishing messages is just another way of communicating the most simple, basic and primordial of urges and feelings we might have. Instead of grunting or howling if we’re hungry, we might talk about it and ask someone to come to lunch with us. This could ultimately be what separates us from the rest.
Thanks to the people at TED-Ed and Michele Bishop who gave us this information and through them we are able to share it with you.