Animals and Language

canada-goose-216003_640Language is often used to separate Homo sapiens from other species, sometimes to argue our species superiority over others, sometimes to ultimately justify our dominion over the rest of life. However, when we delve into the topic of language, we find that our assumptions quickly begin to unravel.

What exactly is language, anyway? What is its evolutionary purpose? Is language unique to humans, or do other animals possess similar linguistic abilities?

Language is one of several forms of communication. Other methods of communication include visual cues (gestures, facial expressions), smells (chemical communication), touch, and body language. What separates language from other forms of communication is that it includes culturally-defined symbols as reference points.

Living beings communicate in order to fulfill certain basic needs: to attract mates, warn of predators, coordinate the search for food, as well as to convey feelings and emotional states.

Janice Light, an expert in Communication Sciences, suggested that there were 4 main purposes of communication:

1. Expression of needs and want – to regulate the behaviour of another person to get something

2. Information transfer – to convey information from person A to person B

3. Social closeness – to establish and maintain relationships with others

4. Social etiquette – to conform to the social conventions of politeness

Firstly, we must remember the humble, original evolutionary purpose of language; it may well have evolved into an incredibly rich, complex cultural and social tool, however at its core it has a simple biological purpose. We must not lose sight of this when attempting to justify our delusions of human superiority to other species, especially when used to discount the moral worth of other animal beings who happen to belong to different species.

Is language unique to humans? Do other species have language?

The inherent difficulty of this question is that it really depends upon one’s definition of language. If you mean words etc, then no, however one could interpret human language as our deconstruction of sounds and verbal communication into a phonetic alphabet and words, which we have figured out as a way to transfer the communication into different formats: written and verbal constructs. Language potentially evolved as a way of understanding our verbal conversations in the abstract, theoretical.

Many other animal species, broadly speaking, use their own forms of language to communicate. Honeybees are able to impart precise information based on the angle, duration and intensity of their waggle dance. They are able to describe the distance, quality and location of a source of food. Researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney also discovered that chickens use over 30 different calls as signials to refer to specific situations or objects. Farmers also note how cows from different areas have different dialects – evidence of the biological, universal roots of culture.

Language is unique in the sense that perhaps our humans possess it, however it is just one means of communication, one unique evolutionary device, one variant of verbal communication. The verbal interactions between other species are equally different manifestations of the same evolutionary tool. The human language is a spectacular feat of nature, but it does not equate to increased moral worth or superiority. It is unique and special, but in the grand scheme of nature and evolution, so is the complex communication between members of other species.

Further reading:

http://www.columbia.edu/~rmk7/HC/paper_filles/Hedeager.pdf

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201212/dr-dolittle-the-rescue-animals-do-indeed-have-language

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