animal languages 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 25)

Hi again, everybody!

This is the first instalment of the last ‘non-historical’ section requested by readers, dealing with the alleged ‘languages’ of non-human animals (and in passing with their ‘pre-linguistic’/quasi-linguistic behaviour, which is sometimes regarded, contrary to most scholarly opinion, as of similar complexity to human language; see below); and with the alleged ability of some animals to learn human languages (especially the key feature of syntax) under training by humans.

As usual, I deal chiefly with non-mainstream material presented by those without linguistic expertise. I refer only in passing to the much larger volume of mainstream (or near-mainstream) work carried out in recent years by linguists (in conjunction with primatologists, etc.) on features of human language as allegedly used by or taught to non-human animals – even where this work is controversial.

The mainstream consensus is that only Homo sapiens of all known animals CERTAINLY uses language or any system of comparable complexity and flexibility. Claims in the popular press and in popular books regarding animal communication are thus rendered more dramatic in prima facie appearance by the use in titles etc. of the term language. However, in many such cases the term language is in fact clearly being used in a looser sense; the idea is merely that more has been learned about the NON-linguistic communication system of some species. On the other hand, where the reference to language in such a report DOES involve the strict sense of the term, the claims are very serious and dramatic indeed and require close examination.

The two most salient distinguishing features of human language are ‘double articulation’ (phonemes/morphemes) and secondly grammar and especially syntax. Together these features enable each human language to express a potentially infinite number of sentence-length meanings with finite inventories of phonemes on the one hand and of words and morphemes on the other. There are, of course, other important features than these which also seem to distinguish human language from other communication systems. For instance, philosophical and psychological questions may be raised regarding the ability of animals to refer to other specific entities (especially entities not present at the time of an utterance), to abstract and generalize, and to display innovatory usage. However, the leading strictly linguistic issue involving the contrast between human language and animal communication involves the fact that no animal communication system displaying the two main features of double articulation and syntax has been discovered so far, however intelligent the animal species in question might be in other respects. Non-human communication systems, no matter how sophisticated they may be in other ways, all appear to lack both of these key features. Some species of monkey have as many as thirty distinct calls; but it is generally held that these cannot be further divided in analysis either into phonemes (as if they were doubly-articulated words or morphemes) or into words or morphemes (as if they were syntactic structures). Each call appears to have a unitary sense such as ‘predator!’, ‘food source’ or ‘go away!’. (See later, however, for contrary claims regarding such species.) Bees can modify their messages so as to express numerical factors such as the distance to a food source, but they do not appear to have the ability to modify a message in DISCRETE ways as occurs in human language (for example, in switching between verb tenses or singular/plural nouns).

It is possible that some animals have communication systems which ARE (approximately) as complex and flexible as human language (or even MORE complex and/or MORE flexible), but have radically different natures. In such cases, it is conceivable that the issues of double articulation and syntax might not arise. Even if they did, the actual physical systems and modes involved might be very different indeed from human physical systems. Some such systems, or their most relevant and impressive features, may have escaped notice to date because of differences in physical mode of communication, etc. For instance, dolphins and whales inevitably avail themselves of different modes of communication because of their aquatic environment (see below). (Compare my earlier comments on possible extraterrestrial languages.)

It is important to note that points specifically concerning the nature of the SOUNDS made by non-human animals do not have any direct implications for linguistic structures at other ‘levels’ such as grammar. It is quite probable that when human language itself first developed it was signed rather than spoken; but this might have affected its grammatical structure only marginally. The capacity for phonation is a necessary but by no means a sufficient condition for spoken language, and it is not a prerequisite for language per se. A creature which cannot produce human speech-sounds at all readily or accurately (such as some non-human primates) may still have language or the capacity for language, which would have to be expressed through modes other than speech. In turn, a creature such as a parrot or a mynah which CAN (perhaps by way of mimicking) produce human-like speech sounds may prove NOT to have language or indeed any capacity for language. This consideration is often ignored or underplayed by non-linguists working or writing in this area; but it obviously affects the significance of findings on animal vocal tracts, etc.

I have focused here upon the question of how far non-human animals might spontaneously possess communication systems displaying complexity and flexibility similar to those of human language. The question of how far some animals can be TAUGHT human language systems displaying the relevant features (double articulation, syntax, etc.), to the point where they display passive or even active command of language, is a separate issue; see later.

Some scientists deal on a broad front with the alleged senses, thoughts , ‘feelings’ and non-linguistic communication systems of a wide range of species from mammals to invertebrates and even microbes. Some of these discuss animal communication systems without seriously attending to the above issues or to linguistics generally; others include some serious discussion of the linguistics involved. The maverick linguist Morris Swadesh presents a fascinating and well-informed (if often rather speculative) account of possible scenarios for the evolution of human language out of earlier communication systems.

As ever, detailed references on request. More next time!


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