animal languages 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 27)

Hi again, everybody! Yet more on alleged animal languages: this time, non-primate mammals.

Some accounts of the use of ‘language’ or of ‘speaking’/‘talking’ on the part of non-primates, especially domestic pets such as cats and dogs, involve loose use of these terms, as discussed above. However, there are many reports, some more clearly non-mainstream than others, of animals other than primates displaying behaviour of a genuinely linguistic nature.

Of course, it is commonfor pet-lovers to over-interpret the quasi-linguistic performances of intelligent mammals such as cats. For example, my fiancée and I have a cat which often appears to call ‘Mam!’ [the Cumbrian word for Mum/Mom] ONLY when we are out of sight. Pre-theoretically, it would be easy to regard such enunciations as linguistic in nature. And indeed many writers have seriously advanced claims (mostly poorly supported) about the supposed quasi-linguistic abilities of domestic cats and dogs. See also later on the alleged teaching of human communication systems to dogs.

Much has been claimed about the communicative abilities of horses (communicating with each other or with humans) – and indeed about the therapeutic value of interaction with horses, especially for children who suffer from autism and similar conditions or have undergone trauma. It is suggested that, like autistic humans (by preference) and non-human primates (see earlier), horses think and communicate pictorially rather than linguistically.

Some of the ideas involved here relate to shamanism and other aspects of ‘New Age’ thinking, and the associated claims regarding horses are of varying degrees of plausibility.

Con Slobodchikoff’s study of prairie dog communication found both dialectal diversity (across three American states) and a sophisticated system of partly musical calls which differentiate even between human beings of different heights and in differently coloured clothing. Slobodchikoff proposes that prairie dogs can refer to other entities (including entities not present at the time of a call), abstract and generalize, and display innovatory usage; he even suggests that they may employ double articulation and syntax. This position appears seriously exaggerated.

Tecumseh Fitch discusses seals, which are able to imitate human speech sounds to a surprising degree. Fitch clearly knows linguistics to a high level, and it appears that his conceptualization and theorizing are sound; but even some of the more scholarly summaries of this work arguably do not adequately distinguish between phonation (the production of speech sounds) and spoken language (see above). Fitch does not claim that seal communication manifests all the key features of human language; for instance, he does not hold that it displays recursiveness, double articulation, syntax etc., and indeed he argues that such features are confined to human language.

There have been various claims regarding the linguistic and artistic behaviour of elephants, which (like some primates) can be induced to paint abstract pictures and may also have surprising mathematical abilities. One study regarding the linguistic or near-linguistic abilities of elephants was made in the context of a rather naïve acceptance of linguistic behaviour on the part of primates (see above) and cetaceans (see below); but given the apparent general intelligence of elephants such studies are not without interest in themselves. On the other hand, the claims for success in this case were modest. Some success was claimed in respect of signing and the use of Zener cards; but it is not in fact clear from the evidence presented that even these positive findings were genuinely valid.

Charlotte Uhlenbroek and other scientists acknowledge that elephants communicate among themselves using low-frequency sounds inaudible to unaided human ears; Katie Payne argues that these calls can be exchanged over great distances and often express personal relationships. Payne’s ideas are to a large extent grounded in personal emotions and in the acceptance of traditional African ideas regarding ‘telepathic’ communion between humans, elephants and other animals; as they stand, they appear too impressionistic and imprecise to permit rigorous testing.

There have been many claims, some fairly persuasive, regarding the linguistic and artistic behaviour of cetaceans, notably baleen whales and dolphins. These mammals’ main modes of communication are said to involve sounds at various frequencies, some of them inaudible to unaided human ears. It has also been argued that they can be successfully taught significant aspects of human language.

John Stuart Reid heads a multi-disciplinary team investigating dolphin communication (whistles and clicks) using a ‘CymaScope’. Dramatic results (allegedly proving that dolphins ‘have language’) are anticipated. An earlier Japanese study reported some success in inducing a beluga whale to develop its own vocabulary of high-pitched sounds to refer to specific, concrete items.

John Lilly (a supporter of the view that apes have been successfully taught significant aspects of human language) reports that bottle-nose dolphins in particular communicate among themselves by ‘painting sound pictures’ (compare the case of horses; autism in humans is again invoked here) and can be trained to communicate systematically using versions of human languages. Towards the end of his career, Lilly came to believe that some trained dolphins were actually communicating with him in English.

In addition to Lilly’s earlier, more sober account of the general intelligence and communicative potential of the small cetaceans, there is a body of early work in this area by Javis Bastian. There are various later writers who cite Lilly and develop his ideas or their own theories regarding dolphin communication. B.F. Sergeev focuses more especially upon the use of sonar by cetaceans in obtaining information, and also surveys material involving other non-human species. He is critical of Lilly’s excesses, and is among the few such authors who discuss the methodological issues involved in seeking to demonstrate the reality of complex and flexible communication systems among cetaceans and to determine their specific nature.

Theodore Barber (see later on birds) endorses rather stronger interpretations of the data in respect of the linguistic behaviour and capabilities of both larger and smaller cetaceans.

Ashleea Nielsen presents ‘New Age’ accounts of dolphin and whale mentality and communication in ‘telepathic’ terms. Heathcote Williams offers a highly personal and overtly partisan (anti-whaling) multi-disciplinary celebration of the great whales and their allegedly profound and spiritual intelligence and communicative abilities. Opposition to the whaling industry and an arguably sentimental identification with its victims are in fact salient features in the contemporary focus upon the supposed intelligence of these mammals. Wade Doak presents a somewhat more restrained but also very personal and committed account of the author’s interaction and communication with dolphins, including elements of ‘telepathy’ and such. Many other writers take similar sensationalist views of dolphins and other cetaceans.

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


4 Responses to animal languages 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 27)

  1. dmarx says:

    what’s the harm of little idi*ts?

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  3. Pacal says:

    If I remember correctly it was recently demonstrated by the smudge on the face and look in the mirror test that Elephants have something that appears to be self awareness. I.e., they recognize themselves in a mirror.

    I do remember reading somewhere that Elephants communicate by, to humans are, inaudible low frequency rumbles.

    The stuff about Prairie dogs is more than a little unnerving especially since Prairie dogs aren’t really that smart.

    As for whales. I agree that sentimentality and anti-whaling stuff is part of it. But that doesn’t particularily bother me because I don’t much like the whaling industry. It always puzzled me that in the novel Moby Dick the whale is supposed to be some sort of symbol of evil. After all a bunch of humans were making every effort to kill it and it was trying to stay alive. That’s evil?!

    Lilly before he went off the deep end had some interesting stuff to say. But then he got all “freaky”. Supposidly he tried giving dolphins LSD! But then when I was going to University I heard all sorts of strange shit regarding Lilly’s later “experiments”. I will spare you further details except to say it was sad and pathetic to see a once important researcher descend to la-la land.

    As for Dolphin communication. Some interesting results have been achieved teaching Dolphin’s the meaning of hand gestures and the animal’s seemingly able to understand how the meaning changes according to the order in which the gestures are given. In other words some sort of understanding it seems of syntax. My favorite is the command to the two dolphins to do something the same that they’ve never done before. They then both do the same thing they’ve never done before. What the hell is going on with that?

    One of the sadder aspects of doing research on whales is that historically speaking the death rate among dolphins, for example, captured for research is very high. Dr. Lilly’s research was sort of damaged by the fact that virtually none of the Dolphins lived more than a few years in captivity. Things have improved but the death rate is still high among captive whales.

    It is my understanding that since most whales use sonar to navigate it may be possible as you say for them to “communicate” states of mind “directly”. In which case why have language?

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