Do Animals Have Language?

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!

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This Elephant Speaks Korean

There’s no doubt that elephants are intelligent. Aristotle once called them “”The animal which surpasses all others in wit and mind.” They have the largest brains of any land mammal, and have exhibited such human-like behaviors as holding funerals for their dead, painting, playing music and counting. They’ve even outsmarted human researchers in some intelligence tests!

Now, scientists have confirmed that a male Asian elephant at a Korean zoo has learned to “speak” Korean. Well, 5 words of it, at least. The elephant, called Koshik, has a spoken vocabulary that consists of the following words: “annyeong” (hello), “anja” (sit down), “aniya” (no), “nuwo” (lie down) and “joa” (good).

When it comes to communicating with other intelligent species, the main limitation is in their ability to vocalize human words. That’s why apes have to be taught sign language or how to use a computer. So how does Koshik do it? According to a paper published by the scientists:

“To create these very accurate imitations of speech formant frequencies, this elephant (named Koshik) places his trunk inside his mouth, modulating the shape of the vocal tract during controlled phonation. This represents a wholly novel method of vocal production and formant control in this or any other species.”

His method works- Korean speakers can readily understand what he is saying. Scientists believe that he learned to vocalize Korean words because he spent much of his youth as the only elephant in the zoo.

Researcher Angela Stoeger-Horwath told Live Science,

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Koshik’s drive to share vocalizations with his human companions was so strong that he invented a whole new way of making sounds to achieve it.”

However, researchers don’t believe that Koshik actually understands the words. It seems he’s just using his talent to bond with his trainers, rather than to communicate.

Chimpanzee Language: Apes in Translation

We’ve known for decades that chimpanzees and their smaller cousins the bonobos have the ability to learn some human sign language.  They also use their own signs and gestures  in the wild, but until recently most research had focused on teaching them to communicate on our terms.

However, in two new studies published earlier this month, researchers were able to decode some of the apes’ own gestures.

The first study looked at a group of chimpanzees in the wild. Over a period of 18 months, primatologists carefully noted every gesture the chimpanzees seemed to be using for communication, as well as how each gesture was responded to by other chimps. Then, the researchers used computer analysis to break down the data and find out which gestures seemed to have consistent meanings. They were able to uncover 36 commonly used and understood gestures, with 15 different meanings.

Study co-author Richard Byrne, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews, told Wired,

“What we’ve shown is a very rich system of many different meanings. We have the closest thing to human language that you can see in nature.”

The other study, from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, decoded a complex hand sign used by bonobos. Bonobos are the free-love hippies of the primate world; they are known for having sex and lots of it. So, it’s only appropriate that researchers translated the gesture to mean something like “Hey baby, let’s you and me go someplace where we can be alone together.”

Dr. Catherine Hobaiter, the other co-author of the chimpanzee study told the BBC that the way the chimps used gestures indicated that they are closer to us linguistically than we might like to believe:

“The big message [from this study] is that there is another species out there that is meaningful in its communication, so that’s not unique to humans. I don’t think we’re quite as set apart as we would perhaps like to think we are.”

However, not everyone agrees. Evolutionary biologist Dr. Susanne Shultz, of the University of Manchester, told the BBC that the study’s results were  “a little disappointing”. She went on to say,

“The vagueness of the gesture meanings suggest either that the chimps have little to communicate, or we are still missing a lot of the information contained in their gestures and actions.”

It’s quite possibly the latter. Dr. Hobaiter told Wired that she believed their ability to analyze and understand chimpanzee gestures was limited at best:

“I have the impression that there were some meanings we couldn’t capture,” Hobaiter said. Sometimes, she recalled, a chimpanzee would gesture to another, then appear satisfied, though nothing else seemed to happen. Said Hobaiter, “I’d love to know what was going on!”

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Bonobos, Technology and Language

When historians look back on this time period, one of the themes that will undoubtedly define the past two decades is the way technology allowed us to break through barriers like language and distance and allow people from around the world to communicate with each other.

Some of the same technologies are also making it easier for humans to communicate with animals, often with surprising results. For example, an article by Ken Schweller on the IEEE Spectrum website describes how great apes called bonobos have learned to use touchscreen tablets to communicate with their human caretakers at the Great Ape Trust.

There are several advantages of using tablets over using sign language to communicate with the apes. First, the tablets reduce the chances of the apes “taking cues” from their handlers. The tablets also make it easier to document the apes’ linguistic capabilities, and new symbols (called lexigrams) can be created as needed and immediately incorporated into the animal’s vocabularies.

Bonobos can recognize and use hundreds of different symbols, and they can understand thousands of spoken words. They are also capable of learning to use the tablets to communicate through observation, much as a human child would, without having to be taught.

For example, Kanzi, the Trust’s celebrity bonobo, picked up on the meanings of the different lexigrams by watching his mother use them to communicate with researchers. As Schweller described it, when she was taken away for breeding, the researchers got a huge surprise:

After searching in vain for his mother, he spontaneously began using her keyboard to communicate with his caretakers. What is more, he understood the spoken words that the lexigrams represented, and he could locate their representations on the keyboard.

What’s more, Kanzi’s son Tesco began using touchscreens to communicate at only 4 months of age. Linguists will quibble over whether or not the “sentences” the bonobos construct out of lexigrams are complex enough to be “language” or not, but there’s no denying their capacity for communication.

In fact, reflecting on the bonobos’ language skills, Schweller writes,

“What we now believe is that language, rather than being a uniquely human trait, is something other species can develop to varying degrees under the right circumstances—not to our level of sophistication but certainly to the point where we can communicate intelligently with them.”

Unfortunately, bonobos are quite endangered. Schweller’s piece ends on a chilling note:

“While the bonobo species still survives, we believe it’s our obligation to learn as much as we can about these extraordinary animals.”

Wouldn’t it be awful if we drove one of the few animals capable of talking back to us to extinction?

Photo Credit:  AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Jeroen Kransen