People have always yearned to be able to “talk” to animals, but scientists have traditionally seen language as a uniquely human attribute. However, the more scientists study animal communication, the more they come away convinced that our language capabilities aren’t that special after all.
In the most recent of these studies, scientists at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, Tennessee analyzed recordings of vocalizations from several different species, ranging from birds like finches and chickadees to whales and orangutans.
They expected the calls to follow what is called the Markov process, which limits their complexity, in contrast to the flexibility of human language. As head scientist Dr Arik Kershenbaum explained to the Washington Post:
“A Markov process is where you have a sequence of numbers or letters or notes, and the probability of any particular note depends only on the few notes that have come before. What makes human language special is that there’s no finite limit as to what comes next.”
Surprisingly, none of the animal calls analyzed in the study fit the Markovian hypothesis. In fact, five of the seven species used vocalizations that matched more complex statistical models that are closer to human speech.
Does that mean that animals do have language in the same sense that we do? Not necessarily. But according to Kershenbaum, it does mean we may be able to learn more about the origin of human speech by studying animal vocalizations. As he explained to the Evening Telegraph,
“Language is the biggest difference that separates humans from animals evolutionarily, but multiple studies are finding more and more stepping stones that seem to bridge this gap. Uncovering the process underlying vocal sequence generation in animals may be critical to our understanding of the origin of language.”
If you could choose one animal to talk to, what would it be? And what would you talk about? Let us know in the comments!
Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by Liam Quinn