Animal Systems of Communication
(Edward Vajda)

There are about five thousand mutually unintelligible forms of language spoken on the Earth today.  Although these languages differ strikingly in their phonological, morphological and syntactic structure, each and every language serves to express a virtually unlimited variety of old and new experience. Each and every language can express any thought the human mind can devise.  In this way no human group possesses a primitive or incomplete language.  And each living language is constantly changing as speakers easily adapt it to new circumstances (cf. Navajo words for automobile parts).  Human creativity continually shapes language, and structural differences between languages do not seem to limit the thought patterns of native speakers in any fundamental or permanent way.

One way to better understand the apparently unique creative potential of human language is to contrast it with systems of communication found elsewhere in nature.  The differences between animal and human communication, as we shall see, are profound, but all the differences seem to derive from a single basic fact: Humans possess a natural, inborn facility to be creative with symbols; as far as we know, animals do not.  (I say this not because I want to disparage animals or condone their mistreatment.  I do not. I like animals--especially cats.) I only want to say that if animals do actually think creatively, or if they have the potential to acquire human-style creative languages, this capacity is not evident in their naturally-occurring systems of communication.  And attempts to teach animals to communicate creativity with human-made symbols have so far shown little real success; occasional claims to the contrary have not been substantiated.

Let's first look at three specific systems of animal communication to examine more closely the implications of these difference between animals and humans.  Let's talk about birds, bees, and apes.

Birds have two types of sound signals--calls and songs

Bird calls consist of one or more short notes and seem to be instinctive responses to danger, nesting, flocking and a few other basic situations.  The English sparrow has three flight calls-- one used just before takeoff, another during flight, and one just before landing at a nesting site.  Sparrows have two types of danger calls, one to announce that a predator is nearby--like an owl in a tree-- and the other to announce that a predator is soaring overhead.  These calls seem intended to coordinate group activity in specific situations.  The meanings of these signs constitute a small, finite set which can't be increased.  And bird calls cannot be varied to produce variations of meaning. 

Bird songs are used primarily by males to attract mates or establish territory.  Bird songs are limited to these and only these functions.  Although bird songs are longer than bird calls, their internal elements aren't separable into meaningful units and cannot be rearranged to produce new songs.

Interestingly, although bird songs are inborn, and young birds naturally begin producing them at a certain age even if raised away from their species, the fledgling bird must experience adult songs to reproduce the song perfectly. If the fledgling is deprived of this input it will grow up to produce the song naturally anyway, but with marked imperfections. [This is radically different from how human children acquire and use words. Children will not naturally develop the word "apple" unless they hear it first and then repeat it; they will not, without ever hearing it, naturally develop a degraded version of the word "apple" or of any other word.)  The specific words of human languages are acquired through exposure and are definitely not inborn.]

Let's turn to what is in some ways a more complex system of communication.  The honeybee system of communication consist of dances performed on the wall of the hive.  In the 1960's Karl von Frisch discovered that the Italian honeybee performs three types of dances on the wall of the hive to communicate to other bees the source of nectar. 

1) The round dance is performed to indicate that the source of nectar is within 20 feet of the hive;  the richness of the source is indicated by intensity of movement and by the number of repetition; direction from the hive is not indicated.

2) The sickle dance is performed to indicate that the source of nectar is within 20-60 feet from the hive; again, the richness of the source is indicated by intensity of movement;  the angle with respect to gravity denotes the direction in relation to the sun.

3) The tail-wagging dance is performed to indicate that the source of nectar is beyond 60 feet from the hive (80 feet in the Austrian honeybee). It imparts all the information of the sickle dance plus indicates the precise distance by the number of repetitions per minute--the slower the repetition the farther the distance. 

The bees system of communication is capable of yielding an infinite number of different messages, like human language.  But unlike human language, bee communication is confined to a single subject: the location of nectar with respect to the hive.  Bees can only report the location of nectar recently detected;  they cannot reminisce about a wonderful source of nectar found last week or convey parental worries about the work habits of younger generations of bees; they cannot predict nectar sources.  Nor can bees vary their message to convey additional information which is crucial for finding nectar, such as hardships discovered en route to a source of nectar.  In an experiment, one bee was tricked by being made to walk in a tube 25 feet to a particularly rich source of nectar; when she returned to the hive, this bee performed the tail-wagging dance, expressing that the honey was hundreds of feet from the hive--which would have been correct if the bee had spent the same amount of time flying to the source instead of walking there. 

Novice bees returning from their first nectar foray instinctively know how to perform the dance--just like a newborn baby instinctively knows how to cry and later instinctively develops the smile reflex. The bees' dance is basically an instinct-driven response to an external stimuli-- like our laughter, sneezes, or tears but unlike our words.  

What about ape communication? Many people think that primates are at a level of development only a few steps below that of humans.  In some parts of Indonesia people believe that apes don't speak because they know that if they did humans would put them to work. As it turns out, ape communication is no closer to human language than the systems of bees and birds--it is a strictly limited, non-creative system.

First of all, the social context of primate communication in the wild is completely different than for humans.     

a) Among apes communication generally takes place within a single social group composed of members of both sexes and of disparate ages, who have spent most or all of their lives together.  Attempts at communication between complete strangers is very rare. 

b) Primates, as a rule, have very good eyesight and much of their communication is accomplished in gestures or body language.  To show dominance, a primate has a relaxed posture and walks with a sort of swagger.  The timid primate, by contrast, is tense and walks with its back arched as if to spring away at any moment. 

c) The meaning of gestures differs from species to species, even slightly from group to group among the same species.  Monkeys use a grimace to signal aggression and hostility, while chimpanzees bare their teeth as a form of greeting or reassurance.  One species of primates raised within the community of another species will come to comprehend the other primate's signals but will only produce the signals of its own species.  This seems to indicate that primate communication systems, like those of bees and birds, are largely instinctive rather than learned. 

Let's generalize the similarities and differences between human and animal communication? 

Similarity.  All systems of communication contain signs, units of form with specific meaning (words).  Human languages contain sound symbols called words; animal systems use more varied formal media, but each form is a sign conveying definite meaning.

a) Foxes have a system of 20 vocalizations.

b) Electric eels have a system of electric pulse signals

c) Spiders have an elaborate system of courtship gestures. 

d) Scents and smells serve as signals for many other species. 

Differences. For animals, the form of the signal may be visual, auditory, olfactory, but each animal system differs entirely from all human languages in six key ways.

1) The signs of animal systems are inborn.  Birds, apes and bees naturally and instinctively develop their species' signals, even if raised in captivity and away from adults of their own species.  Humans must acquire language through exposure to a speech community (cf. example of children picking up obscenities vs. a child getting a new tooth).  A Korean child adopted and raised in America won't spontaneously develop Korean words or sentences in an all-English speaking environment--or naturally develop a degraded form of Korean. The words of human languages are definitely not inborn.  Rather, it seems that it is the capacity to acquire creative language which is innate to humans. (Linguist Noam Chomsky calls this still mysterious capacity the LAD, or language acquisition device.) The actual form of any particular language is definitely not inborn and must be acquired through prolonged exposure.  No linguist disputes the fact that a child of any ethnic origin can learn any language flawlessly if raised in a community where that language is spoken. In acquiring a human language, exposure to a speech community is all important; racial or ethnic origin in themselves are completely unimportant.

2) Animal systems are set responses to stimuli.  Animal communication is here and now--used to express something more or less immediately present in space and time.  In other words, the signs of animal communication are used as indexes. As far as we know, animals can't communicate about yesterday, about what might be or what wasn't.  In this way animal communication systems are not unlike the repertoire of sounds of a 12 month old infant, who has a way of conveying interest in something immediately present, or conveying emotional responses such as discontent, loneliness, and a few other basic states of being. 

Human language is not purely a reflex triggered automatically by external stimuli or internal emotional states.  Human language can be used as an index, just like animal communication, but it may also exhibit what has been termed displacement. Humans can not only talk about things that are absent but also about things that have never been.  Humans can invent myths and tell lies.  Human language can be used arbitrarily, with the stimulus deep within the speaker's psyche and the topic not present or even non-existent.  Animal languages can only be used as a means of pointing to something directly present in time and space.

3) In animal systems, each signal has one and only one function.  More than one sign cannot share the same meaning.  For example, gorillas in the wild have three types of signals which express danger, presence of food, and desire for sex.  The gibbon system of communication consists of three signals: a signal for danger on the ground, another for danger in a tree, and another for danger in the air; these three do not overlap in meaning and each meaning can only be expressed by that one sign.

In contrast the signs in human language usually have more than one meaning; and each meaning can be expressed by more than one sign (example with the word eye).

4) Animal signals are not naturally used in novel ways.  Animal systems are essentially non-creative.  They cannot be used metaphorically or figuratively.  As far as we know, animals can't lie or invent myths.

Human language is creative and can be used in novel ways. Two-year old children can produce novel utterances they have never heard before (*sheeps, *Daddy gived the book).  By three, children regularly produce sentences they have never heard before and regularly use words in new, creative ways.  Messages can be sent that have never been heard before by the sender or by anyone else.  Human languages are infinitely creative in that a potentially limitless number of messages can be sent. 

Unlike animals, humans can lie, they can use language to distort or extend the world around them.  Animal communication is based on a limited inventory of signs.  If you learn the set of signals and their meaning then you know the system completely; there is no creativity for extending it further.  This is not the case with human language.  If you were to learn the entire set of words in any human language, you would still not know the language. 

5) Because they are non-creative, animal systems are closed inventories of signs used to express a few specific messages only.  Honeybees, for instance, can communicate only about the location of a source of nectar. As far as we know, bees do not communicate about the weather or the beauty of nature, or gossip about other bees in the hive. 

Human language is unlimited in its expressive capacity. Besides containing word symbols, human languages are based a system of patterns, or rules, called grammar.

Grammar can be defined as patterns with function but no specific meaning: phonology (new sound combinations), morphology (new words), syntax (new sentences). It is the grammar that allows language signs to be used with virtually endless creatively.

Animal systems is limited to a strictly defined, finite range of possible messages--there is never anything new because there is no abstract level similar to human grammar. 

6) Because they are non-creative, animal systems seem not to change from generation to generation.  Actually, they change extremely slowly, over periods of many thousands of years, but as a result of genetic drift rather than conscious innovation.  (Compare the dialects of the American redwing blackbird, and the dialects of the European honeybee).

Because it is a vehicle for creativity, human language is very changeable. Human language often changes quickly from generation to generation.  If you read Shakespeare, who wrote in the 16th century, you will note that the use and meaning of many words has changed.  If you were to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written a few centuries earlier, you would need to consult a dictionary of Middle English to get through the text.  And if you tried to read Beowulf in the original, you would understand almost nothing; even a dictionary wouldn't be enough to get you through the text.  The English spoken 1000 years ago would seem a completely foreign language, at least as unintelligible to you as German or Icelandic. And roughly 7000 years ago, the ancestors of such different languages as English, Italian, and Russian were simply dialects of the one and the same language.  And 40,000 years ago it is possible that the ancestral forms of such disparate languages as Basque, Navajo, and Chinese may have been dialects of the same language. 

Animal languages also change, but they change with the slowness of genetic drift. The minute differences between the dialects of the European honeybee language, by contrast took perhaps 100,000 years to develop.  Human language changes more than that even during the lifetime of each individual speaker (cf.: computer terminology; such terms as "to impact," "to pig out"; also the changing pronunciation of wh). Human language is constantly in flux; animal systems are extremely stable.

What conclusions can we draw about naturally occurring animal communication?  We can say that the signs of animal communication are more like inborn and involuntary human reactions such as laughter, crying, and sneezing than they are like human language.  As far as we know humans have always had laughter and tears as natural inborn responses--children develop them naturally and they don't change from generation to generation--although, even here, humans can use these responses deliberately and creatively, or suppress their naturally-felt urges to express them.

TEACHING ANIMALS CREATIVE LANGUAGE.  Animals clearly do not have creative communication which could be called true language.  But can animals be taught to use creative human-style languages?  This question is still debated by linguists and natural scientists--but the answer is probably no.  Let's look at some of the evidence for and against the presence of latent creative linguistic ability in animals.

Some birds have an almost uncanny capacity for mimicry.  Mockingbirds imitate the songs of other birds.  Parrots and mynah birds can render perfect imitations of the human voice.  This shows that the difference between human and animal languages is not due merely to the specific structure of the human speech organs which animals lack.  Mynah bird can repeat "dad" and "bad" but cannot produce a novel utterance "dab" by creatively rearranging the elements in the former two words.  In order to produce "dab" the parrot would have to hear it and respond to it as a stimulus.  A two-year old child, by contrast, can invent new utterances based on the elements of the ones he has already heard.  A parrot, on the other hand, can repeat "cat" and "cats", "dog" and "dogs", but if it hears the word "parrot" it will not be able to produce the form "parrots" by analogy.  (There is a report of an African gray parrot in Chicago who can form plurals creatively, and says "Hello" and "Good-bye" at the appropriate time. This seems to be a highly unusual instance if it is true.)

Let's compare how children naturally form plurals of nouns creatively.  One child psychologist performed experiment with three-year old children: showed a picture and called it a wug, then showed several of them.  The children all produced the plural "wugs". 

This experiment seems to prove that the difference between human and animal languages is in the brain rather than due to the specific structure of the speech organs.  If bird calls were put to use by humans they could be used creatively and would cease being set responses to certain stimuli only.  On the contrary, if human signs are used by parrots, they seem to be used as single isolated responses to things present at the moment. In other words, they are indexes (indices) used telegraphically.

What about apes?  Can humans teach apes to use language creatively?  Unlike certain birds, apes clearly lack the vocal cord apparatus necessary to imitate the actual sounds of human speech. This is irrelevant, though, since the true language organ is the brain. Is there a latent language capacity in the brains of our closest evolutionary cousins?  Once again, scientists disagree, although experimentation so far suggests that apes have only very minor amounts of ability to be creative with human-taught symbols. 

a) In an experiment, two linguists from Berkeley, Beatrice and Allen Gartner tried to teach a female chimp Washou to communicate using colored blocks.  By the age of 6 Washou had learned 100 signs but couldn't put them together in novel ways or use them in the absence of the given stimulus. In other words, each symbol was used as an index. 

b) Certain other experiments however, seem to indicate, that apes, given extensive teaching and training by skilled scientists, evince a limited capacity to be creative with symbols. (One ape supposedly signed that a bagel was a "rock bracelet".) However, apes seem incapable of acquiring a true grammar--a set of functional patterns that can express unlimited meaning.

Human children, by contrast, learn language without being deliberately taught by anyone at all.  Even severely retarded children acquire language spontaneously from adults without any special teaching.  Thus we must conclude that animals--even the most clever apes, and, yes, even cats, lack the cognitive mental apparatus to be infinitely creative with communicative symbols.  Humans--all humans--are distinguished from all other species by an innate capacity acquire grammar and create language. 

And yet, linguists and psychologists still do not understand precisely what this human language learning apparatus is.  The question remains a subject of intense scientific scrutiny and debate.  One aspect of that debate is--if humans evolved from apes--then how could creative human language have evolved from stimulus and response systems like those found in modern primates.  Tomorrow we will discus theories on the origin of human language.