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Do Animals Have Language?

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It is in the opinion of the author that animals do not have the capability of language; this essay will focus and put forward the evidence as to why this opinion takes place. Language is a form of communication; it can be visual, audio or sensory. In humans the vocal language provides only 10 per cent of how we communicate, body language plays a much higher role, however, both verbal and non verbal language in humans is intentional, communicating about past, present and future, thus defining it as language, whereas in animals this is not always the case, their communication is immediate and relates to issues of immediate importance. Research suggests communication in the animal species is for survival, there are many functions of this (Grier & Burk, 1992) suggested, many pet owners probably like to think they talk with their pets and these if not response, at least understand.

But whether this is true and pets or animals in general are capable of understanding language. Furthermore, whether they are capable of meaningfully communicating between themselves remains without a clear answer. The question whether humans are or are not the only species capable of language can be answered only after deeper analysis, which can be carried out by taking into account and comparing main characteristics of language. Firstly, a definition of language, there are many attempts to define language but the one that is the closest to the full definition of language is that of Charles Hockett. Over ten years Hockett tried to define language by determining the main properties of human language. The longest list consist of 16 design features or essential characteristics (Aitchinson, 1989)

There is the use of vocal-auditory channel, which is one of the most obvious features of language and simply means that vocal organs generate communication and hearing mechanism receives it. This design feature is not unique to humans and it is relatively widespread in the world of animals. But also, since the linguistic communication can be transmitted via writing or sign language it is not a defining feature of human language.

Another feature is arbitrariness, which suggests that the concept and the meaning are not connected; hence the symbols used in language are neutral. For example there is no natural connection between word “rabbit” and the fury animal it symbolizes. This is generally a rule although there are some exceptions – onomatopoeic words such as “crunch” or “bang” but there are only a few in each language.

The fact there is an arbitrary relationship between linguistic signs and the object they represent can be considered a defining feature of language and therefore it can be examined in more detail whether arbitrariness is also present in communication system of animals. The first impression might be that there is a strong link between the message conveyed and the signal used to convey it (Yule, 1985). However, this is not supported when taking into consideration an experiment carried out on chimpanzee Sarah.

Sarah was rewarded an apple if she managed to select the right plastic shape. Apple was represented by blue plastic triangle and therefore it is possible to say that the feature of arbitrariness is present in animal communication since there is no obvious relationship between the blue plastic triangle and an apple (Aitchison, 1989).

Another aspect of language is semantically, which is according to Dobrovolsky the use of symbols that convey meaning “through set of fixed relationships among signifiers, referents and meanings”(Dobrovolsky, 1996). It is argued that semantically is unique to humans since animals do convey a meaning but in a very restricted form e.g. bird songs or calls. However, there is certain evidence suggesting that semantically is present in animal’s speech. This was shown in the experiment with chimpanzee Washoe when she named the objects after seeing them on the picture having a prior knowledge of the object from a different situation. Semantily is also present in her use of sign “more”. Firstly, she associated this sign only with tickling situation but later she used it to demand “more” food (Aitchison, 1989).

Another important property of language is a cultural transmission or tradition (Yule, 1985). This indicates that language is not genetically inbuilt in humans- it must be learnt from the environment. However, this cannot be applied to animals whose learning is instinctive. For example, a puppy born in England or in any other different country will always produce the same sound whereas a baby born for example in Sweden but brought up in England will automatically become a fluent speaker of English. This, however, also has some exceptions which suggest that this feature is not unique to humans- for example birds – if these are in their first weeks separated from other birds they will still produce songs but these will be abnormal to their species (Yule, 1985).

Among Hockett’s features is also a spontaneous usage of language. This occurs when the speech is initiated freely. This is said to be present in both human and animal communication systems as most of the animals do express freely. Although there might be some difficulties to decide whether the answer is yes or no. These are based on experiment with chimpanzees that proved that in the interaction with humans they only rarely initiated the conversation and if they spoke, most of the times it was in response to trainer’s questions (Yule,1985).

Along with spontaneous usage comes turn-taking as a second social feature of the language. This means taking turns in speaking and it is one of the most obvious features present in both communication systems. It frequently occurs in phenomenon known as antiphonal singing when birds take turns in singing. (Yule,1985).

Duality is also one the defining features of language. This means that language is organised into two levels. There is physical level which enables us to produce sounds like p, i, g. These, standing by themselves, are meaningless. It is only at the second level after combining them into sequences such as p-i-g when they become meaningful. It is generally thought that this property is exclusive to humans but there is also evidence against- duality is present in bird’s songs where the individual notes do not have any particular meaning but a combination of them does convey a meaning (Aitchison, 1989).

The ability to refer to the past and future and other locations is called displacement. This feature enables us to talk about things far removed in the time and place. This too, is claimed to be an asset of human language only although it was proved that e.g. bees show ability to refer to distant sources of nectar (Yule, 1985). This, however, does not apply when referring to sources of nectar in the past or future or -as shown in experiment conducted by Karl von Frisch – to vertical movement (Yule, 1985) thus making the feature of displacement very limited and only partially present in animal communication.

Apart from displacement, another feature that seems to be particularly human trait is structure dependence. This involves recognising the pattern of a language and manipulating parts of the sentences into different structures and also includes the use of grammar. Findings from the experiment with chimpanzees do not suggest that they grasped the idea of structure dependant operations and neither do the other studies of animals.

Similarly, there is no evidence of animals having an ability to reflect e.g. talking about the language in terminology.

In conclusion, it is possible to say that critical evaluation of Hockett’s design features suggests that animals may have not as much of a language as just a communication system within their species.

Nearly each of the Hockett’s design features can be found in communication systems of certain species but it never is all of them that are present in just one communication system. This applies fully to all animal communication systems although it is worth mentioning that particular species such as apes are proved to do considerably better in regards to enclosure of design features in their speech. This however, is aided by assistance of research conductors and does not happen naturally.


Aitchison, J. (1989) The articulate mammal – An introduction to Psycholinguistics. London: Hutchinson.

Dobrovolsky, M. (1996) Animal communication. London: Longman.

Hockett, C. F. (1959). Animal “languages” and human language. Human Biology, 31, 32-39.

Yule, G. (1985) The study of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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