Animal language

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Animal language are those forms of animal communication that show similarities to human language. Animal communication may be considered complex enough to be called a form of language if: the inventory of signs is large, the signs are relatively arbitrary, and the animals produce them with a degree of volition (as opposed to conditioned instincts). Animal communication can also be evidenced through the use of lexigrams (as used by chimpanzees and bonobos) in addition to signs. While the term "animal language" is widely used, researchers agree that animal languages are not as complex or expressive as human language.

Some researchers, including the linguist Charles Hockett, argue that there are significant differences separating human language from animal communication even at its most complex, and that the underlying principles are not related.[1] Accordingly, linguist Thomas A. Sebeok has proposed to not use the term "language" for animal sign systems.[2]

Marc Hauser, Norm Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch assert an evolutionary continuum exists between the communication methods of animal and human language.[3]

Aspects of human language[edit]

Human and chimp, in this case Claudine Andre with a bonobo.

The following properties of human language have been argued to separate it from animal communication:[4]

Research with apes, like that of Francine Patterson with Koko[6] (gorilla) or Allen and Beatrix Gardner with Washoe[7][8] (chimpanzee), suggested that apes are capable of using language that meets some of these requirements such as arbitrariness, discreteness, and productivity.[9]

In the wild chimpanzees have been seen "talking" to each other, when warning about approaching danger. For example, if one chimpanzee sees a snake, he makes a low, rumbling noise, signalling for all the other chimps to climb into nearby trees. In this case, the chimpanzees' communication is entirely contained to an observable event, demonstrating a lack of displacement.

Arbitrariness has been noted in meerkat calls; bee dances show elements of spatial displacement; and cultural transmission has possibly occurred between the celebrated bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha.[10]

Human language may not be completely "arbitrary". Some research has shown that almost all humans naturally demonstrate limited crossmodal perception (e.g. synesthesia) and multisensory integration, as illustrated by the Kiki and Booba study.[11][12] Other recent research has tried to explain how the structure of human language emerged, comparing two different aspects of hierarchical structure present in animal communication and proposing that human language arose out of these two separate systems [13]

Claims that animals have language skills akin to humans however, are extremely controversial. As Pinker illustrates in his book the "The Language Instinct", claims that chimpanzees can acquire language are exaggerated and rest on very limited or specious data.[14]

The American linguist Charles Hockett theorized that there are 16 features of human language that distinguished human communication from that of animals. He called these the design features of language. The features mentioned below have so far been found in all spoken human languages and each is missing from at least one animal communication system.

Primate: studied examples[edit]

Non-primates: studied examples[edit]

Among the most studied examples of animal languages are:




Aquatic mammals[edit]

National Geographic has an article outlining the successes of a mother dolphin communicating with her baby using a telephone. Researchers noted that it appeared that both dolphins knew who they were speaking with and what they were speaking about. Nowadays, scientists are intrigued by the dolphins’ language and are attempting to “crack the code.” Not only do dolphins communicate via nonverbal cues, but they also seem to chatter and respond to other dolphin’s vocalizations.[26]

Spectrogram of Humpback Whale vocalizations. Detail is shown for the first 24 seconds of the 37 second recording Humpback Whale "Song". The ethereal whale "songs" and echolocation "clicks" are visible as horizontal striations and vertical sweeps respectively.
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Recording of Humpback Whales singing and Clicking.

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The effects of learning on auditory signaling in these animals is of special interest. Several investigators have pointed out that some marine mammals appear to have an extraordinary capacity to alter both the contextual and structural features of their vocalizations as a result of experience. Janik and Slater (2000) have stated that learning can modify the emission of vocalizations in one of two ways: (1) by influencing the context in which a particular signal is used and/or (2) by altering the acoustic structure of the call itself.[32] Male California sea lions can learn to inhibit their barking in the presence of any male dominant to them, but vocalize normally when dominant males are absent.[33] Recent work on Gray seals show different call types can be selectively conditioned and placed under biased control of different cues[34] (Schusterman, in press) and the use of food reinforcement can also modify vocal emissions. “Hoover”, a captive male harbor seal demonstrated a convincing case of vocal mimicry. However similar observations have not been reported since. Still shows under the right circumstances pinnipeds may use auditory experience, in addition to environmental consequences such as food reinforcement and social feedback to modify their vocal emissions.

In a 1992 study, Robert Gisiner and Ronald J. Schusterman conducted experiments in which they attempted to teach Rocky, a female California sea lion, syntax.[29] Rocky was taught signed words, then she was asked to perform various tasks dependent on word order after viewing a signed instruction.It was found that Rocky was able to determine relations between signs and words, and form a basic form of syntax.[29] A 1993 study by Ronald J Schusterman and David Kastak found that the California sea lion was capable of understanding abstract concepts such as symmetry, sameness and transitivity. This provides a strong backing to the theory that Equivalence relations can form without language.

The distinctive sound of sea lions is produced both above and below water. To mark territory, sea lions “bark”, with non-alpha males making more noise than alphas. Although females also bark, they do so less frequently and most often in connection with birthing pups or caring for their young. Females produce a highly directional bawling vocalization, the pup attraction call which helps mother and pup locate one another. As noted in Animal Behavior, their amphibious life style has made them need acoustic communication for social organization while on land.

Sea Lions can hear frequencies as low as 100 Hz and as high as 40,000 Hz and vocalize between the ranges of 100 to 10,000 Hz.[35]


Comparison of the term with "animal communication"[edit]

It is worth distinguishing "animal language" from "animal communication", no matter how complex the latter may be. In general the term "animal language" is reserved for the modeling of human language in animal systems;[citation needed] though there is some comparative interchange in certain cases (e.g. Cheney & Seyfarth's vervet monkey call studies).[39] Thus "animal language" typically does not include bee dancing, bird song, whale song, dolphin signature whistles, prairie dogs, nor the communicative systems found in most social mammals.[citation needed] The features of language as listed above are a dated formulation by Hockett in 1960. Through this formulation Hockett made one of the earliest attempts to break down features of human language for the purpose of applying Darwinian gradualism. Although an influence on early animal language efforts (see below), is today not considered the key architecture at the core of "animal language" research.[citation needed]

"Clever Hans", an Orlov Trotter horse that was claimed to have been able to perform arithmetic and other intellectual tasks.

Animal Language results are controversial for several reasons. (For a related controversy, see also Clever Hans.) In the 1970s John Lilly was attempting to "break the code": to fully communicate ideas and concepts with wild populations of dolphins so that we could "speak" to them, and share our cultures, histories, and more. This effort failed. Early chimpanzee work was with chimpanzee infants raised as if they were human; a test of the nature vs. nurture hypothesis.[citation needed] Chimpanzees have a laryngeal structure very different from that of humans, as well as no voluntary control of their breathing. This combination made it very difficult for the chimpanzees to reproduce the vocal intonations required for human language. Researchers eventually moved towards a gestural (sign language) modality, as well as "keyboard" devices laden with buttons adorned with symbols (known as "lexigrams") that the animals could press to produce artificial language. Other chimpanzees learned by observing human subjects performing the task.[citation needed] This latter group of researchers studying chimpanzee communication through symbol recognition (keyboard) as well as through the use of sign language (gestural), are on the forefront of communicative breakthroughs in the study of animal language, and they are familiar with their subjects on a first name basis: Sarah, Lana, Kanzi, Koko, Sherman, Austin and Chantek.[citation needed]

Perhaps the best known critic of "Animal Language" is Herbert Terrace. Terrace's 1979 criticism using his own research with the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky[40][41] was scathing and basically spelled the end of animal language research in that era, most of which emphasized the production of language by animals. In short, he accused researchers of over-interpreting their results, especially as it is rarely parsimonious to ascribe true intentional "language production" when other simpler explanations for the behaviors (gestural hand signs) could be put forth. Also, his animals failed to show generalization of the concept of reference between the modalities of comprehension and production; this generalization is one of many fundamental ones that are trivial for human language use. The simpler explanation according to Terrace was that the animals had learned a sophisticated series of context-based behavioral strategies to obtain either primary (food) or social reinforcement, behaviors that could be over-interpreted as language use.

In 1984 during this anti-Animal Language backlash, Louis Herman published an account of artificial language in the bottlenosed dolphin in the journal Cognition.[42] A major difference between Herman's work and previous research was his emphasis on a method of studying language comprehension only (rather than language comprehension and production by the animal(s)), which enabled rigorous controls and statistical tests, largely because he was limiting his researchers to evaluating the animals' physical behaviors (in response to sentences) with blinded observers, rather than attempting to interpret possible language utterances or productions. The dolphins' names here were Akeakamai and Phoenix.[42] Irene Pepperberg used the vocal modality for language production and comprehension in an African Grey Parrot named Alex in the verbal mode,[43][44][45][46] and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh continues to study Bonobos[47][48] such as Kanzi and Panbanisha. R. Schusterman duplicated many of the dolphin results in his California Sea Lions ("Rocky"), and came from a more behaviorist tradition than Herman's cognitive approach. Schusterman's emphasis is on the importance on a learning structure known as "equivalence classes."[49][50]

However, overall, there has not been any meaningful dialog between the linguistics and animal language spheres, despite capturing the public's imagination in the popular press. Also, the growing field of language evolution is another source of future interchange between these disciplines. Most primate researchers tend to show a bias toward a shared pre-linguistic ability between humans and chimpanzees, dating back to a common ancestor, while dolphin and parrot researchers stress the general cognitive principles underlying these abilities. More recent related controversies regarding animal abilities include the closely linked areas of Theory of mind, Imitation (e.g. Nehaniv & Dautenhahn, 2002),[51] Animal Culture (e.g. Rendell & Whitehead, 2001),[52] and Language Evolution (e.g. Christiansen & Kirby, 2003).[53]

There has been a recent emergence in animal language research which has contested the idea that animal communication is less sophisticated than human communication. Denise Herzing has done research on dolphins in the Bahamas whereby she created a two-way conversation via a submerged keyboard. The keyboard allows divers to communicate with wild dolphins. By using sounds and symbols on each key the dolphins could either press the key with their nose or mimic the whistling sound emitted in order to ask humans for a specific prop. This ongoing experiment has shown that in non-linguistic creatures brilliant and rapid thinking does occur despite our previous conceptions of animal communication. Further research done with Kanzi using lexigrams has strengthened the idea that animal communication is much more complex then we once thought.[54]

See also[edit]




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