Animal Behaviorist: We'll Soon Have Devices That Let Us Talk With Our Pets

As for other animals, a lot of them either have clear-cut language, or at least are pointing to the possibility that they have language. So at this point, it's premature to say that all animals have language, because we simply don't have that information. But I can say that a lot of animals have language.

Why, then, have we resisted that idea so strongly? Why do we talk about "animal communication," but not "animal language"?

Slobodchikoff: If you talk to most biologists, philosophers, and linguists, they will tell you that we humans are the only ones who are capable of language. And all the other animals are incapable of that -- all they can do is communicate. So we have that kind of bias, generally speaking. It's not an accepted thing to talk about in biological and philosophical and linguistic circles.

So the bias comes from a kind of possessiveness when it comes to language -- the claim that language is a fundamental part of what makes humans, ultimately, human?

Slobodchikoff: Right. I think that, for the most part, there is the thought that we humans have to be really special -- and language is part of what makes us special. Back when I was a graduate student, people used to talk about (at that time, quaintly) "man" as a tool-user -- the only one who was capable of using tools. Well, then we found that lots of animals could make tools, as well. So then the story shifted: humans were the only ones with culture. And then we found that lots of other animals have culture. So then we had language as the only other thing that distinguishes us from other animals. And now we're finding out that lots of other animals have language.

So the idea of animal language rocks the world of people who would like there to be a big gulf between humans and the rest of the animals, and who would like humans to be completely special.

But, you know, I tell people: We are special. You don't see whales and dolphins having conversations about nuclear physics.

Right. (That we know of, at least!) And these ideas -- talking to animals, and thinking of them as capable of talking in the first place -- would seem to be liberating from a scientific perspective, too. There's so much to learn: To what extent, for example, do animals experience emotion? Obviously they do ... but how can we actually understand the nuances of that from our human perspective?

Slobodchikoff: Absolutely. In my book, I present a new theory called the "discourse system theory" -- where I suggest that we've kind of been barking up the wrong tree. We've been looking at the signals that humans put out and that other animals put out, and think that that's language. But what we really should be looking at is the whole biological system that's involved in language production, language reception, language interpretation.

So in humans, for example, we have all of these specialized structures for language: we have vocal cords, we have a larynx, we have specialized structures in our brain, our lungs are adapted for manipulating air in certain ways. And when you look at other animals, they have similar kinds of structures that are adapted for producing these signals. And once we look at that, language makes more sense from a neurobiological and anatomical evolutionary standpoint. Once we start looking at the continuity of these systems, we can see the evolutionary continuity. And we can see that we're not alone there.

It does seem productive, science-wise and otherwise, to frame things in terms of a connective continuity between animals and humans. When it comes to communication, it's Darwin, all the way down.

Slobodchikoff: Yeah. For example, one of the things that we humans do is use body language. And studies have shown that when spoken language and body language conflict, the listeners pay attention to the body language, not to what's actually being said. So there are a lot of parallels between what we do and what other animals do. We just, for the most part, have been ignoring that because we make the assumption that other animals can't have language. So we don't look for it. 

But actually, it's there, in the scientific literature. The authors of the papers I refer to didn't call it language -- but when you look at it from a language perspective, it really is about language. And we have a lot of information about it.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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