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Human vs. Animal Communication IDB 157

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Human vs. Animal Communication IDB 157. Overview : What are the properties of human language? What is the difference between communication and language? What is cultural transmission? What is instinct and is it transmitted? Can other species acquire language?

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  • What are the properties of human language?
  • What is the difference between communication and language?
  • What is cultural transmission?
  • What is instinct and is it transmitted?
  • Can other species acquire language?
  • Can animals be taught to use human language or are they simply mimicking?
design features of language
“Design Features” of Language
  • Defined by the linguist Charles Hockett (1916-2000)

From a 1966 article:

“The design features listed below are found in every language on which we have reliable information, and each seems to be lacking in at least one known animal communicative system.”

design features of language1
“Design Features” of Language
  • All communication systems have the following features:
  • A mode of communication(a medium)
    • Audio-visual for most humans
    • Visual-spatial for sign language users
    • Chemical-olfactory for some plants and animals
    • Electric current for telephones, computers, etc.

2. Semanticity

    • Communication signals have meaning

3. Interchangeability

    • Participants can be transmitters and receivers.
  • 4. Cultural Transmission
    • System gets passed along through interaction with users of the system.
cultural transmission in birds
Cultural Transmission in Birds

The Ortolan Bunting (found in Germany) exhibits various regional song dialects.



  • No logical relationship between signals (signs) and what they represent (their meaning)






Arbitrary signs may be contrasted with iconic signs

    • …which bear some resemblance to whatever it is that they signify.
  • Examples:
  • Note: sign languages tend to be highly iconic
    • although they can display abritrariness, too.

6. Displacement

  • Human language refers to the past, present and future- last night, at school, I’m flying to Paris next week
  • Thingsthat do not exist in real life, e.g. superman, batman, Santa Claus
  • Animal communication- immediate moment
  • Bee language: dance routine to communicate the location of nectar

7. Productivity

  • Humans are capable of creating new expressions for new objects- infinite
  • a language user can manipulate his linguistic resources open endedness
  • Animals have limited set of signals to choose from- fixed reference
  • Cannot produce any new signals to describe novel experiences.

8. Cultural transmission

  • We acquire language with other speakers  not from parental genes
  • The first language is acquired in a culture
    • A Korean child living in USA.
  • Animal communicative signals are produced instinctively.

9. Duality

  • Two levels: distinct sound & distinct meaning
    • Physical level at which we can produce individual sounds e.g. n, b, i.
    • Meaning level: when we produce sounds in combination e.g.: nib, bin
  • Economical feature
  • Animal communicative signals are fixed and cannot be broken into parts- meow is not m+e+o+w

10. Reflexivity

Humans are able to reflect. They are able to talk about, or reflect on language itself. Without this ability, we could not even talk about the other properties of language.Dogs are able to bark at each other, but they are probably not barking about barking itself!

other properties
Other properties
  • Vocal-auditory channel
  • Specialization
  • Non-directionality
  • Rapid fade
  • Reciprocity
  • Prevarication

Animal communicative sounds are closely correlated with their meanings:Think of a cat: grrrhissss meow screech! purrrr…. It doesn’t use a variety of sounds to express these conditions. These sounds always mean the one thing they mean.Vervet monkeys have 36 cries of warning for different predators, but…An animal’s “vocabulary” is finite. Limited.


Honey Bee Dance LanguageBees use intricate combinations of dance movements and tail waggling to communicate the location of nectar (food) sources to other bees in the hive.The dance is a figure eight with movements of the tail to indicate location in relation to the azimuth of the sun. Speed of waggle indicates distance.Has been studied by Janda (1973) to have linguistic (syntactic) properties.HOWEVER the language is finite – can’t create new moves or waggles to indicate “up” for example.

talking to animals
Talking to animals
  • Is language the exclusive property of human beings?
  • Are the communication systems used by other creatures at all like human linguistic knowledge?

Some researchers devoted their time to teach a chimpanzee how to use human language- not successful

  • 1930s Gua- was able to understand 100 words but did not produce any.
  • 1940sViki- produced poorly articulated versions of mama, papa, and cup
  • Result  non-human primates lack a physically structured vocal tract needed to produce sounds


    • Used a version of the American Sign Language
    • Raised like a human
    • After 3 and half years  came to use more than 100 words
      • Airplane, baby, banana
    • Combine them to produce sentences
      • More fruit

Sarah and Lana

    • They both use word symbols
    • used a set of plastic shapes that represent words to communicate with humans
    • were trained to associate shapes with objects or actions
    • were capable of producing sentences
      • Mary give chocolate Sarah
the controversy
The controversy:
  • Can animals speak human-like languages? NO.
  • Animals produce a particular behavior in response to a particular stimulus or ‘noise’, but do not actually understand what the sentences mean.
-Animals use their five senses to acquire information about their environment (taste, touch, vision, hearing, olfaction (smell)). So they communicate by:

The sound of a well-trained parakeet saying the words "good morning" may sound barely discernible from a human, but parakeets do not talk in the same way humans do. Parakeets do not have vocal chords. Instead, they speak by directing the airflow to go through the muscles in their throat, recreating pitches and sounds that they hear in everyday life. Although parakeets may be considered intelligent birds because they can speak, they are only mimicking phrases they have previously heard, and do not know the meaning of these phrases. A very well-trained parakeet can be taught to say specific sounds or phrases prompted by a hand motion or vocal cue. Parakeets do not have real conversations and usually can only repeat a handful of sounds or phrases.