June 26, 2008

Can animals talk?

One of the most interesting questions in language is whether animals can talk or at least be taught to talk. Clearly animals can communicate in some rudimentary ways, some more so than others. Some researchers are convinced that animals can talk and have spent considerable efforts to try and do so but with very limited results. In the comments to an earlier post, Greg referred to the efforts by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (and Duane Rumbaugh) to train the bonobo chimpanzee Kanzi to speak, and Lenen referred to the development of spontaneous language in children who had been kept in a dungeon. There have been other attempts with chimps and gorillas named Washoe, Koko, Lana, and Sarah.

One thing that is clear is that humans seem to have an instinctive ability to create and use language. By instinctive, I mean that evolution has produced in us the kinds of bodies and brains that make learning language easy, especially at a young age. It is argued that all humans are born possessing the neural wiring that contains the rules for a universal grammar. The five thousand different languages that exist today, although seeming to differ widely, all have an underlying grammatical similarity that is suggestive of this fact. For example, this grammar affects things like the subject-verb-object ordering in sentences. In English, we would say "I went home" (subject-verb-object) while in Tamil it would be "I home went" (subject-object-verb).

What is interesting is that of all the grammars that are theoretically possible, only a very limited set is actually found in existence. We do not find, for example, languages where people say "Home went I" (object-verb-subject). What early exposure to language does is turn certain switches on and off in the universal grammar wiring in our brains, so that we end up using the particular form of grammar of the community we grow up in. This suggests that language structures are restricted and not infinitely flexible, indicating a biological limitation.

The instinctive nature of language can be seen in a natural experiment that occurred in Nicaragua. There used to be no sign language at all in that country because the children were isolated from one another. When the Sandinistas took over in 1979, they created schools for the deaf. Their efforts to formally teach the children lip reading and speech failed dismally. But because the deaf children were now thrown together in the school buses and playgrounds, the children spontaneously developed their own sign language that developed and grew more sophisticated and is now officially a language that follows the same underlying grammatical rules as other spoken and sign languages. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 24)

What about animals? Many of us, especially those of us who have pets, would love to think that animals can communicate. As a result, we are far more credulous than we should be of claims (reported in the media) by researchers that they have taught animals to speak. But others, like linguist Steven Pinker, are highly skeptical. When looked at closely, the more spectacular elements of the claims disappear, leaving just rudimentary communication using symbols. The idea that some chimps can be taught to identify and use some symbols or follow some simple spoken commands does not imply that they possess underlying language abilities comparable to humans. The suggestion that animals use sign 'language' mistakenly conflates the sophisticated and complex grammatical structures of American Sign Language and other sign languages with that of a few suggestive gestures.

The belief that animals can, or should be able to, communicate using language seems to stem from two sources. One lies in a mistaken image of evolution as a linear process in which existing life forms can be arranged from lower to higher and more evolved forms. One sees this in posters in which evolution is shown as a sequence: amoebas→ sponges→ jellyfish→ flatworms→ trout→ frogs→ lizards→ dinosaurs→ anteaters→ monkeys→ chimpanzees→ Homo sapiens. (Pinker, p. 352) In this model, humans are the most evolved and it makes sense to think that perhaps chimpanzees have a slightly less evolved linguistic ability than we do but that it can be nudged along with some human help. Some people are also convinced that to think that animals cannot speak is a sign of a deplorable species superiority on our part.

But that linear model of evolution is wrong. Evolution is a branching theory, more like a spreading bush. Starting from some primitive form, it branched out into other forms, and these in turn branched out into yet more forms and so on, until we had a vast number of branches at the periphery. All the species I listed in the previous paragraph are like the tips of the twigs on the canopy of the bush, except that some (like the dinosaurs) are now extinct. Although all existing species have evolved from some earlier and more primitive forms, none of the existing species is more evolved than any other. All existing species have the same evolutionary status. They are merely different.

In the bush image, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that one branch (species) may possess a unique feature (speech) that is not possessed by the others, just like the elephant possesses a highly useful organ (the trunk) possessed by no other species. All that this signifies is that that feature evolved after that branch separated from the rest of the bush and hence is not shared by others. The fact that nonhuman animals cannot speak despite extensive efforts at tutoring them is not a sign that they are somehow inferior or less evolved than us.

Some efforts to teach animals language skills seem to stem from a sense of misguided solidarity. It is as if the more features we share with animals, the closer we feel we are to them and the better we are likely to treat them. It is undoubtedly true that the closer we identify with some other living thing, the more empathy we have for it. But the solution to that is to have empathy for all living creatures, and not try to convince ourselves that we are alike in some specific ways.

As Pinker says:

What an irony it is that the supposed attempt to bring Homo sapiens down a few notches in the natural order has taken the form of us humans hectoring another species into emulating our instinctive form of communication, or some artificial form we have invented, as if that were a measure of biological worth. The chimpanzees' resistance is no shame to them; a human would surely do no better if trained to hoot and shriek like a chimp, a symmetrical project that makes about as much scientific sense. In fact, the idea that some species needs our intervention before its members can display a useful skill, like some bird that could not fly until given a human education, is far from humble! (p. 351)

While any animal lover would dearly love to think that they can talk with animals, we may have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that it just cannot happen, because they lack the physical and perhaps cognitive apparatus to do so.

Next: The differences between animal and human communication.

POST SCRIPT: Superstitions

One of the negative consequences of religious beliefs is that it leads to more general magical thinking, one form of which is superstitions. Steve Benen lists all the superstitions that John McCain believes in.

It bothers me when political leaders are superstitious. Decision-makers should not be influenced by factors that have no bearing whatsoever on events.


Trackback URL for this entry is:


Mano, great post.

Do you think that some of the efforts to look more closely at animal communication have to do with lack of data available in the fossil record? For example, we can learn a lot from bones, but they can't tell us very much in terms of behavior. Do you think some of these efforts provide insight into behaviors of early ancestors, some of the conditions the that lead to language acquisition in humans, and/or some other factors associated with language development?

I look foward to reading your follow up,


Posted by Joshua Terchek on June 26, 2008 11:49 AM


I think the study of the origins of language serves many purposes. It can tell us something about the way societies functioned and what they needed. The relationships between languages tell us something about the relationships between peoples too. But I think that what we can learn about early, pre-writing language is dependent on what we can learn about humans from other evidence, so it will always be a secondary phenomenon.

Posted by Mano on June 27, 2008 01:20 PM

Great article. It is an interesting topic to be sure. I am not sure if it is indeed possible for animals to speak (especially the human language), but it doesn't seem to be likely to happen any time soon. Language is complex and would likely be above most animals abilities.

Posted by Japanese Words on March 27, 2009 10:48 AM

Hmmm...interesting. Don't know that animals will ever actually talk (or be trained to talk) in an audible and understandable human language... but they surely communicate...and on a level that we as humans struggle to understand too.

Thanks for the post.

Posted by Trout Fishing Flies Guy on August 4, 2010 04:00 AM

Maybe animals cannot verbalize,but they can difinately express themselves to you. Our dog can answer by noding and her eye movements. Thanks Sara at

Posted by Sara on December 13, 2010 07:23 PM

It does seem like animals try to communicate through expression and it makes sense that it's needed for evolution. I never thought about it from an empathy perspective, living things all want to express their thoughts.

Posted by James Fisher on July 12, 2011 03:49 PM

Couldn't agree more, our dogs and cats definitely understand what we are saying, from something as simple as calling there name it shows recognition and understanding, this will only evolve in my opinion.

Looking forward to a follow up post!

Posted by Danny C on November 16, 2011 05:21 AM

I dont know. I mean there noises I believe are a language just not as in depth as humans. Like I feel they can only express a few thoughts such as "im hugnry" "im angry" "im happy" and so on.

Posted by Trent on November 21, 2011 08:06 PM