animal languages 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 28)

Hi again, everybody! I’m concluding my section on alleged animal languages with some shorter sub-sections on specific topic areas.


The psychologist and zoologist Irene Pepperberg, who has collaborated with linguists, holds that the vocal behaviour of African grey parrots displays some of the characteristics of human language, and that they are capable of being taught to communicate using aspects of human language. One particular parrot (‘Alex’) reportedly acquired a 150-word vocabulary and used it in a sophisticated way, performing in a way similar to that of a two-year old child; he was also able to differentiate meaning and grasp features of syntax (and to count up to seven). Alex was learning the Roman alphabet and could indicate the names of fifty types of object when he died. Other parrots have demonstrated similar abilities. Pepperberg’s ideas have been reviewed in fairly positive terms. Against critics’ claims that Alex had been taught a ‘script’, she argues that the controls and tests which she used made it impossible for him simply to recite words when she asked questions.

Theodore Barber discusses bird communication mainly in terms of non-linguistic and paralinguistic systems, but endorses Pepperberg’s claims and argues that the general intelligence of birds is equal or even superior to that of humans (he likens it to that of cetaceans; see earlier). Robert Carroll recounts another case of an African grey parrot (‘N’kisi’) which can allegedly engage in conversation.


Several studies have tested the ability of dogs to learn at least the vocabulary of human languages, especially nouns referring to specific, concrete items. Considerable success is claimed, but of course the more specifically ‘human’ aspects of language are not involved here. Another, linguistically more original proposal involves the Bliss Symbols. Of course, sheepdogs can be trained to respond to many distinct whistles, and indeed Robert Schusterman reportedly taught a sea-lion (related to the dogs) over 190 distinct gestures. (See also earlier on Fitch’s work on seals.) However, like the more modest passive repertoires of domestic pets, these abilities do not appear to be linguistic in a strict sense (see again earlier).

There is also, of course, a large corpus of wholly sober mainstream work on communication with such animals.


There have been various papers in anomalist journals on the alleged apparently untutored use of human languages by cats, cows, goats, elephants, tortoises and fish; and on reports of humans using sponges for the recording and re-playing of human speech.

Others who have suggested that animals obtain information and communicate by ‘telepathic’ or other mystical means include figures as varied as Rupert Sheldrake, Ted Andrews, Henry Blake, Amelia Kinkade, Trisha McCagh, Arthur Myers, Ashleea Nielsen, Jim Nollman (on alleged wide-ranging inter-species communication though music), Joan Ranquet, E. Scott Rogo, Penelope Smith, etc. It has been suggested that dolphins in particular are strongly telepathic and can understand unspoken thoughts. Eris Andys presents an account of work with dolphins and whales inspired by that of Lilly (see earlier) but involving alleged psychic communication with these cetaceans and combining ideas adopted from Lilly with those of Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird and of Stephan Schwartz and his ‘Mobius Group’; both of these groups of thinkers are advocates of the reality of psychic powers. Because of the nature of these claims, linguistic details are not normally discussed in the relevant texts; most of these claims are thus of only peripheral interest in this present context. However, Karen Stollznow offers a very useful skeptical review of claims regarding psychic pets.

There have been many sensationalistic reports on ‘the secret life of plants’ (see especially Tompkins as just mentioned), but understandably these seldom involve linguistic matters (though it is claimed by Tompkins that plants can be trained to count). There are also claims involving communication involving even stone and water.

Some reports of non-humans using language involve apparitions of entities interpreted as the spirits of deceased animals. One of the most striking cases involved the ghostly Manx mongoose known as ‘Gef’.


According to some writers who accept their existence, some human-like mysterious animals (cryptids), notably the Himalayan yeti, the North American sasquatch, the Asian almas, etc. (which some writers equate to or liken with supposedly extinct human-like primates such as the pre-historic Gigantopithecus, or indeed Homo neanderthalensis), manifest linguistic or near-linguistic behaviour. If yeti, sasquatches and such exist, they would appear to be very closely related to humans, which renders the matter especially interesting.

Some reports attribute telepathic and associated linguistic powers to sasquatches. However, there are in addition more sober reports of what could be pre-linguistic behaviour involving these cryptids. Myra Shackley also summarizes reports of apparently pre-linguistic behaviour and/or attempts at communication with humans in rudimentary human language among the alleged humanoid almas of the Caucasus and Mongolia (but not among Himalayan yeti or the Chinese yeren). In Belizean folklore, the duende (unlike the other local humanoid cryptid, the sisimite) is explicitly described as able to speak. Until recently, there has not been sufficient data on any such cases which might be suitable for analysis; but I am now working on one such case.

Marius Boirayon reports (quasi-)linguistic behaviour among the supposed giant yeti-like creatures of Guadalcanal, Santa Isabella, Malaita and other islands in the Solomon Islands group; however, no concrete evidence is produced. Boirayon also expresses naïve
ideas about relationships between these creatures’ linguistic performances and the Fijian language (and has apparently naïve notions about language generally).

As ever, detailed references on request.

Are there any other general topic areas of skeptical linguistics which might be of especial interest? Let me know!


9 Responses to animal languages 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 28)

  1. dmarx says:

    great theatre of ruin

    what’s the harm of little idi*ts?

  2. fotoguzzi says:

    How about bee dances in the hive? Do bees really communicate distance and direction to flowers?

  3. zhankfor says:

    Could you elaborate on “reports of humans using sponges for the recording and re-playing of human speech”? What exactly does this refer to? Humans are reportedly speaking into sea sponges which then have the ability to play the sound back?

    • marknewbrook says:

      Yes, that’s basically it!    See: William Sutton and John Sutton, ‘The Recording Sponge’, Fortean Times, 171 (2003), pp. 56-57.  (In some cultures trees are supposed to be used in a similar way.)  Mark

  4. […] animal languages 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 28) ( […]

  5. Pacal says:

    Pepperberg’s research on Alex is some of the best research ever done on a non-humans mental abilities and it certainly is one of the longest and most intense. I’ve read some of Pepperberg’s papers and they certainly show a determined attempt to avoid, cuing and the clever Hans effect. Also Pepperberg was pretty restrained in her claims about what she discovered. Although some of what Alex did was pretty freaky. All of this from a medium sized parrot with a brain the size of a walnut!

    You mentioned Tompkins. Well aside from his totally risible and just plain DUMB The Secret Life of Plants, he also wrote Secrets of the Great Pyramid, in which he seems not to find a single far out, insane piece of nonsense about the great pyramid he doesn’t take seriously. His follow up Secrets of Mexican Pyramids is even dumber.

    Both books go into detail and take seriously fantasies of secret knowledge, world wide floods and of course great conspiracies to suppress the “truth”.

  6. MatthiasK says:

    Hello Mr. Newbrook,

    I found extremely interesting your series about animal languages, especially its implications for the concept of interspecies cultural uplift (the prospective of improving the knowledge and cognitive abilities of both humans and animals via a shared communication channel)

    Wanting to go into this subject in depth, I have a few questions :
    – Firstly, could you share some references about B.F. Sergeev’s work on the methodological issues about the communication systems of cetaceans ? I can access some academic journals if necessary.
    – Secondly, do you have a copy of the 1974 interview that Boyce Rensberger conducted in sign language with a chimpanzee ? I had not been able to find it on the New York Times website.

    Matthias K.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks for this! 

      F. Sergeev, The Living Sonars of the Ocean (M. B. Rosenberg trans.) (Moscow, 1985), especially pp. 204-210.

      On Rensberger, see Nicholas Wade, ‘Chimps and Monkeys Could Talk. Why Don’t They?’, New York Times (online), 13 January 2010http://tech. mit. edu/V129/N61/monkeys. html Tell me more about ‘interspecies cultural uplift’? Mark N

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