CH 6: Do Animals Have Language?
• Koko the gorilla and the bee dance are examples used by biologists, to show that animals have
• Big issue in this question: Determining exactly what language is.
o The passing of information cannot be sufficient grounds for calling an event an instance of
o Communication as a sense of purpose—communication in which the source intends to
send a message—is not sufficient either. Language can be a type of purposeful
communication, but we have myriad ways to communicate, many of which do not involve
o Sound is neither necessary nor sufficient for an event of language to occur: Spoken
language does involve sound, but we write to each other, and we sign to each other as well,
so not all language instances involve sounds. We can make many sounds that aren’t part of
• The description of a language, what linguists call a grammar, involves the explicit statement of
many rules. There are various types of rules—rules about sound and word formation, as well
as sentence structure and meaning—and we apply them without conscious knowledge that we
are doing so.
o However, we easily recognize when the rules are violated, whether or not you can state
precisely which rules are involved.
• A grammar is a collection of rules that describes a language, and a grammar is a definitional
part of what makes something a language.
• We have the ability to acquire language without anyone explicitly teaching you. We have the
ability to acquire it without any formal instruction. We are set up, hard-wired, to learn it. This is
another definitional part of language—its innateness (ch 1)
• Both displacement and the ability to refer to abstractions are common to all human languages
o Displacement = The ability to refer to things that are not physically present (objects here,
• Under normal conditions, humans associate meaning with words and sentences and show this
by reacting in ways that are typically neither random nor simply reflexes. Instructions to
prepare pesto: a person will go shopping for the ingredients at a grocery store and we would
not expect the person to head for the hardware store or go outside and dig a fishpond.
• Human language is creative; it allows us to express novel ideas rather than simply repeating a
closed set of utterances.
o Following morphological rules, we can recombine the meaningful units of words
(morphemes) and create new words (ex. Demousify if you need to rid your house of
mice), and following syntactic rules, we can recombine words and create new sentences
(ex. The sentence you’re reading right this moment).
• These 6 features of language are enough to help us determine whether the following instances
of animal behavior are evidence of language of the type found among humans. So we’ll be
looking for evidence of:
1. Rules that might constitute a grammar
4. The ability to refer to abstractions
5. The existence of meaningful units (such as words) as evidenced by appropriate behavior on the
part of listeners
6. The ability to create novel language expressions.
• Description of the honeybee dance – p79-80
• The bee dance: has rules (1), exhibits displacement in referring to food sources that aren’t
present (3), and gives evidence of having meaningful units as evidenced by appropriate
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reactions by the bees who witness the dances (5). IF the quality of the food source can be
considered an abstraction, then these dances have the ability to refer to abstractions (4).
o It’s innateness is often assumed, but creativity seems lacking. Although bees can indicate
a range of location and quality, the parameters of what they can express are extremely
limited. They cannot stray even slightly from these parameters. They lack the ability to
recombine the meaningful units of their dance in order to create novel ideas (as in 6), like
we do when we play with morphemes to form new words and make use of some of the
infinite possible ways of grouping words into constituents to form new sentences.
o Certainly communication takes place among bees, but are these three (or four) features of
human language enough for us to call bee dances an instance of language, as we
understand that notion for humans?
• Birdsong: It is undisputed that birdsong transmits information. Messages such as…
o Here I am/ Let’s mate/ There’s a predator nearby/ I found food/ I found water/ The nest is
over here … have been observed and documented.
o Bird species can have song dialects = songs differ from species to species, and within
species songs can vary somewhat by the territory the bird occupies
o Birds can learn dialects, and in fact they can learn a second song (analogous to a second
language). They can even become polyglots, those who speak many languages,
mimicking the songs of other species & sometimes even non-bird sounds (eg. noises of
chainsaws or car alarms).
o Newly hatched birds immediately begin to acquire song, so they must be hard-wired for
o Birds have a critical period for acquiring song, just as humans have a critical period for
acquiring language. Young males (white crown sparrows) who do not hear adult males’
songs within the first several months of life never develop a typical courtship-territorial
o The structure of song also observes rules: Robins; song have several motifs that can
repeated in varying degrees, but these motifs must occur in a certain order or other birds
will find the song unintelligible.
o Improvisation is observed: The birds can express things like mood When many kinds of
birds confront each other for the first time, they generally stop and face each other and
make a variety of noises. Then they might attack, go in diff directions, or feed side by side
Given the range of reactions, it seems that birds are able to convey a variety of
information and that the responses are not programmed but, instead, appropriate to the
• Bird song is similar to human language in that it follows rules, innate, and has meaningful units
that result in appropriate responsive behavior. ~ It doesn’t seem to have displacement, as birds
don’t have songs about predators that passed yesterday; they are able to refer only to those
that are present. Songs can refer to abstractions in a limited way (danger/happiness).
• As with bees, birdsong can convey many things. The parameters of that information are not
obvious with birds as they are with bees. Birds can’t tell each other about what just happened
to them on the other side of the barn. They simply don’t have the necessary linguistic creativity
to do so. Their communication system doesn’t allow recombination of meaningful units in an
infinite number of ways.
• Some argue that since birds can learn human language, they must have the capacity for
o Alex, an African grey parrot had an extensive vocabulary, supposedly comparable to that
of a 4 or 5-year-old child. He could identify objects verbally, with English words, by their
material, colour, shape, and number. He could distinguish btw objects according to any of
these criteria. He knew the names of certain foods, and he asked for them even when
they were not present, exhibiting displacement. He used words that express emotions
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correctly and even apologized when he misbehaved, exhibiting the ability to refer to
o He learned to manipulate vocal tokens to give and get desired responses, and this facility
would be explained if birds had a brain mechanism similar to the human language
o Dr. Pepperberg maintains that Alex did not talk as humans do – His verbal behavior was
erratic, and she does not claim that he had language
• Whales and dolphins are the most studied sea mammals with regard to language.
• During mating season, male humpback whales sing a complex song consisting of up to ten
melodic themes, which are sometimes repeated all day long. All male humpbacks in the