Animals besides Humans have Systems of Language

By Kelsey Prosser

Humans are the most sophisticated and intelligent animals on the planet and have developed complex languages as a means to communicate with each other. Many people believe that humans are the only true language-bearing animals because humans have developed an alphabet and words, but there are many other animals that also have complex systems of language for communicating such as chimpanzees and especially dolphins.

Although animals such as chimpanzees and dolphins demonstrate the qualities of having their own complex systems for communication, many people disagree that animals actually have languages. Noam Chomsky is known as the father of linguistics, and is also a firm believer that animals do not possess a language of their own. Language is an infinite number of sentences (Chomsky 1967) and each sentence has to have a set length and a certain number of elements, and the elements deal with words combined from letters of an alphabet (Chomsky 2002). Over the years, Chomsky has published countless books and articles dealing with the basics of linguistics and the concepts of human language. His published findings discuss basic rules for how languages work and how there is a set grammatical structure which enables humans to understand complete and complex sentences from sentence fragments or parts of sentences. Chomsky also defined sentences as being complex combinations of words strung together in a particular order. That order is important for the understanding and actual meaning of the phrase, but the choices of possible words to compose the sentences can be shown in a continually changing loop. The loop demonstrates probability, and how choosing the first word of a sentence then limits what the second word can be in order to make sense (Chomsky 1967).

Noam Chomsky stated that the basics for language include a certain structure and a set grammatical pattern, and that language is not simply a means of communicating which is what he claims is all animals do. Since language according to Chomsky is far too advanced for animals, he claims that language it is a highly unique adaptation that can only be found in humans (Chomsky 1967). Humans are capable of producing an infinite number of word combinations and phrases to form sentences never before spoken, and humans also have the ability to comprehend and understand sentences that they have never before heard (Chomsky 1967). This is a basic characteristic that defines language as being unique to humans because no known animals have this capability. Chomsky also believes that children are naturally born with a slight knowledge of language which helps them quickly learn the language as they are growing up and learning to talk (Kasher 1998). Chomsky’s linguistic rules specify that human language deals with both the auditory and vocal systems, and it has a grammar with certain structural principles crucial for expression (Chomsky 1980). The final aspect of human language according to Chomsky states that language is a basic thought process used for communication and for administering ideas (Chomsky 1967).

Dr. John Searle is another specialist in the study of linguistics, although his views on language differ somewhat from those of Chomsky. The basic principle of a language according to Searle is communication (Kasher 1998). Because communication is the key principle of language, communication is what has the overall influence on the structure of a language (Kasher 1998). Although social animals are known to communicate with each other, Searle argues that human language is still far more complex than what animals exercise as a means of communication because human language has a greater aptitude of representation, and animals only use signals instead of words to communicate (Kasher 1998). According to Searle, the human language has three basic components. The first component is composition that deals with how humans can understand sentences by the way they are composed, and how language is complex because sentences are basic expressions that built off of other expressions. A second component of language is representation through a written language. The final component is commitment which states that humans communicate that they will perform a certain action through language, and then they follow through with the action (Baker 1997).

Both Chomsky and Searle believe that language is a unique trait found only in humans, and although Searle believes that language is based on communication, both Searle and Chomsky are in agreement that social animals are able to communicate with one another through signals and body language (Hock & Joseph 1996). Brain imaging also shows that humans have a unique temporal lobe that primarily deals with analyzing and producing words. It also showed that the human brain was unique in that there were many language regions present in the brain containing fibers connecting the regions, which is different from any other animal and allows humans to have a huge expansion in the brain for language unique only to them (Rilling 2008).

Since Chomsky and Searle defined language with grammar, structure, and an alphabet then produced into words and sentences, animals are excluded from having a language. However, social animals are able to communicate, and the more intelligent an animal is, the more complex the communication is (Brakke & Savage-Rumbaugh 1996). Any verbalization or action that a being or animal does to send a signal to something or someone else to relay a message and in return to have their message received should be constituted as an element of language. Humans overall usually have trouble contemplating that there are other intelligent beings on the planet who are capable of intellectual activities and thoughts, although chimpanzees are a human’s closest living relative. Being 99 percent genetically identical to humans, chimpanzees possess traits that used to only be associated with humans. Through Jane Goodall’s discoveries, chimpanzees were witnessed creating tools and then using them in everyday activities (Cavalieri 1993). Another example dealing with chimpanzees and their intelligence is the research done by Roger and Deborah Fouts. They adopted an orphan chimpanzee named Washoe and successfully taught her sign language (Fouts & Fouts 1993). Since social animals clearly exercise communication skills efficiently to relay messages and thoughts, then their communication is technically just a less complex language than what humans exercise. In some cases, animals even have a more complex communication system than some people (Ladefoged & Traill 1984). In Africa, there are two languages that only use clicks to communicate. The Khoi language called Nama uses a variety of around 20 clicks, and each click has 4 individual types of articulation from actions in the vocal cords. Nama is a language simply based off of clicks and sounds, and it is a human language implemented without an alphabet or any type of written language, so therefore it is almost less complex than the language of some animals (Ladefoged & Traill 1984).

Chimpanzees are a great example of animals that use language in order to communicate amongst their species. Chimps are 99 percent genetically identical to humans meaning that they are very intelligent and capable of language. Washoe, the young chimp that Roger and Deborah Fouts adopted, was a chimp who was taught over 100 signs of American Sign Language. Roger and Deborah Fouts raised Washoe as they would have done with a deaf child, and Washoe was able to communicate to her surrogate parents (Fouts & Fouts 1993). The signals that Washoe used after she learned sign language were determined to be similar to chimpanzees’ natural gestural abilities, so the signs were not far-fetched from the natural communication skills of chimpanzees in the wild (Herzing 2004). Washoe was videotaped for 45 hours, and of those 45 hours there were 90 incidents where Washoe signed to herself. Researchers concluded that those incidents were Washoe’s thoughts, and after reviewed the videotapes, the researchers found that her signs were logical thoughts compared to what Washoe had been communicating to other chimps during interactions. Other chimps also seemed to be picking up on Washoe’s signs, and videotapes and observations made it clear that the chimpanzees were communicating to each other (Herzing 2004). It also became clear that the chimps could ask for objects that were not present in their immediate environment or within eyesight. This was an attribute originally only associated with humans, but the notion fits with Chomsky’s ideas about sentences, and that humans can understand sentences that they have not heard before, just like how the chimpanzees knew to ask for objects that were not present nor visible (Fouts & Fouts 1993).

After Jane Goodall’s endless research and the research done with Washoe, the idea was widely accepted among biologists that some animals other than humans actually have a complex communication system considered to be a language. This is especially true of dolphins. Dolphins are an extremely intelligent species, and are very playful and trainable. Recent studies done comparing brains of humans to brains of dolphins showed that they are very large and of similar size, although the visual imaging area of a dolphin’s brain is only about one-tenth of what a human’s imaging area is (Knight 1999). On the other hand, the auditory or acoustic are of the brain for imaging in dolphins is about 10 times greater than the auditory imaging of the human brain, meaning that dolphins are far more adapted to sounds than humans (Knight 1999). Dolphins lack vocal cords which would enable them to make sound from their mouths, but they are well-adapted to the water and are capable of making many unique clicks, whistles, and squeaks with their blow hole (Snowdon 1997). Since sound travels about 5 times faster in the water than in the air, dolphins’ exceptional hearing and system of clicks is very efficient. Although dolphins also have complex eyes and see great both above and below the water, water is often filled with silt causing it to be murky, so dolphins use a type of sonar called echolocation to find objects and prey (Acevedo-Guiterrez & Steinessen 2004).

Echolocation is when dolphins produce various sounds with their blow hole, and the sounds then bounce off of objects and return to the dolphins which relay signals to the dolphins’ brains about the position of objects (Caldwell & Caldwell 1965). Different types of clicks and whistles are thought to be associated with commands, emotions, and communication. Researchers determined that dolphins each have a signature whistle that is unique to every individual dolphin which is possibly used like names to call out to another dolphin or to keep track of where other dolphins are located. Dolphins are also capable of imitating another dolphin’s signature whistle which could be used like humans would do to call out another’s name (Caldwell & Caldwell 1965). Dolphins are able to make a wide variety of clicks and sounds at various frequencies ranging from 0.25 to 200 kHz. After studying dolphins’ whistles and unique sounds, scientists observed that dolphins use higher frequencies for echolocation, and lower frequencies to communicate amongst each other because close-range communication generally works best when it is less than 40 kHz (Herman 1990).

Since dolphins are so intelligent, they are often used in theme parks for entertainment, and they are popular for research opportunities because of their intellectual capacity to be trained. When dolphins were first introduced to training parks such as SeaWorld, dolphin trainers came up with a unique system of hand signals and high-pitched whistles to train the dolphins to respond to commands. Eventually, the trainers worked up to complex expressions dealing with five or more words, and then reversed the words’ orders to see if the dolphins could comprehend the signals (Caldwell & Caldwell 1965). In all reality, the dolphins were being given commands in sentence form, and the dolphins were able to associate the commands with actions, even when the words were out of order, which also meant that individual words had individual meanings to the dolphins. Dolphin training was the first type of animal research that showed an animal’s ability to understand semantics and syntax, two basic components of any human language (Caldwell & Caldwell 1965).

Since dolphins are so easily trained, scientists began to research and look into the meaning of individual whistles and clicks from dolphins. Results from the scientists’ studies showed that there are specific whistles for both groups and individuals, including the signature whistle of all dolphins which shows that dolphins do communicate with one another, which is a basic element of language(Snowdon 1997). Scientists also determined that whistles most likely depend on the social activity of the dolphin pod, although dolphins can continue learning new sounds throughout their entire life (Janik & Slater 1997). Because dolphins have such large brains and are very intelligent creatures, dolphin communication was suspected to be very complex before research was ever done on the subject (Janik 2000).

Dolphins hunt in groups called pods, and observations of wild dolphins in pursuit of fish or other prey clearly shows coordinated movements of members of the pod along with communication through clicks and whistles that notify when a particular dolphin goes in for the prey (Acevedo-Guiterrez & Steinessen 2004). Sometimes dolphins create bubble nets by releasing air through their blow hole, and the bubbles surround fish in a net-like environment. The dolphins practicing this behavior then communicate with each other to take turns continuing the bubbles and going inside the bubble net to capture their prey. When hunting, dolphins generally click and whistle continuously, possibly alerting other dolphins to the area to join in the hunt. The greater number of dolphins also acts as an added safety factor from predators (Acevedo-Guiterrez & Steinessen 2004).

Although dolphins’ hunting techniques are great examples where dolphins rely on other dolphins with communication, it is not the only noticeable method of communicating and relaying messages. On countless occasions, researchers have noted that stray or lone dolphins will imitate another dolphin’s signature whistle that’s far different from their own to get the attention of other dolphins. On almost all occasions, other dolphins eventually responded to the lone dolphin’s cries for help (Defran 1980). Researchers have also attempted to recognize many different individual clicks and whistles to associate them with words or obvious commands. Scientist Dr. Liz Hawkins from the Whale Research Centre at Southern Cross University in New South Wales, Australia, performed a 3-year study on wild dolphins off the coast of Australia in hope that she would be able to identify individual clicks and whistles from spotted dolphins (Young 2007).

Off the coast of Byron Bay in New South Wales, Dr. Liz Hawkins and her team from Southern Cross University recorded over 1,647 whistles from approximately 51 different pods of spotted dolphins. After listening to the recordings extensively and comprehending what the recordings meant, Dr. Hawkins and her team were able to identify a total of 186 individual whistles and clicks of the spotted dolphins. To determine the individual sounds, Hawkins and her group looked for the length and pitch of each sound to compare it to other distinct sounds. Out of the total 186 different whistles that Dr. Liz Hawkins and her team were able to identify, around a dozen of those were linked to specific dolphin behaviors and certain actions. Some were identified as exclaiming joy, loneliness, and hunger, and others were simply acts of playfulness (Young 2007).

Dr. Liz Hawkins and her team from Southern Cross University made extraordinary observations and leaps into the research of dolphin communication. Although Hawkins’ discoveries were astonishing, she barely scratched the surface into the understanding of the complexities of dolphin communication and language. At the present time, there is an extreme lack of sufficient supplies and technology that enables scientists to accurately know how a dolphin’s language and system of communication truly work. There is still a great amount of research left to be done to discover more about the complex and extensive world of dolphins and their methods of language and communication (Janik 2000).

Although Noam Chomsky and Dr. John Searle developed extensive and intricate definitions of language which influenced the entire perception of linguistics, most biologists will agree that language is simply a method of communication. If a being is able to accurately relay a message to another being, and have that being receive the message and act upon requests, the technique then can be referred to as a language is present. This would put intelligent social animals next to humans in the category of language-bearing animals. In the case of dolphins, they do not have vocal cords which enable them to physically talk, but they do have an efficient and effective system of clicks and whistles that they use to communicate to one another. The dolphins’ system of sounds is practically indifferent from the Khoi language called Nama which has approximately 20 different sounds with variations in articulation branching off from those 20 individual clicks. The Nama language does not have any written language, neither does it have an alphabet, so therefore it is no different from the complexities of communication of intelligent animals such as chimpanzees and particularly dolphins. Although Chomsky and Searle believed that language had to deal with grammar, an alphabet, and sentence structure, the true definition of language overall should simply be the transmission of a signal or message from one being to the next, whether it be a verbal or auditory command, or simply an action, if communication is present on a complex level, there is obviously some sort of language present, meaning that intelligent, complex animals compare to humans in that they both share the basic aspects of language.


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