June 27, 2008

The difference between human and other animal communication

In his book The Language Instinct (1994) Steven Pinker pointed out two fundamental facts about human language that were used by linguist Noam Chomsky to develop his theory about how we learn language. The first is that each one of us is capable of producing brand new sentences never before uttered in the history of the universe. This means that:

[A] language cannot be a repertoire of responses; the brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words. That program may be called a mental grammar (not to be confused with pedagogical or stylistic "grammars," which are just guides to the etiquette of written prose.)

The second fundamental fact is that children develop these complex grammars rapidly and without formal instruction and grow up to give consistent interpretations to novel sentence constructions that they have never before encountered. Therefore, [Chomsky] argued, children must be innately equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages, a Universal Grammar, that tells them how to distill the syntactic patters out of speech of their parents. (Pinker, p. 9)

Children have the ability to produce much greater language output than they receive as input but it is not done idiosyncratically. The language they produce follows the same generalized grammatical rules as others. This leads Chomsky to conclude that (quoted in Pinker, p. 10):

The language each person acquires is a rich and complex construction hopelessly underdetermined by the fragmentary evidence available [to the child]. Nevertheless individuals in a speech community have developed essentially the same language. This fact can be explained only on the assumption that these individuals employ highly restrictive principles that guide the construction of grammar.

The more we understand how human language works, the more we begin to realize how different human speech is from the communication systems of other animals.

Language is obviously as different from other animals' communication systems as the elephant's truck is different from other animals' nostrils. Nonhuman communication systems are based on one of three designs: a finite repertory of calls (one for warnings of predators, one for claims of territory, and so on), a continuous analog signal that registers the magnitude of some state (the livelier the dance of the bee, the richer the food source that it is telling its hivemates about), or a series of random variations on a theme (a birdsong repeated with a new twist each time: Charlie Parker with feathers). As we have seen, human language has a very different design. The discrete combinatorial system called "grammar" makes human language infinite (there is no limit to the number of complex words or sentence in a language), digital (this infinity is achieved by rearranging discrete elements in particular orders and combinations, not by varying some signal along a continuum like the mercury in a thermometer), and compositional (each of the finite combinations has a different meaning predictable from the meanings of its parts and the rules and principles arranging them). (Pinker, p. 342)

This difference between human and nonhuman communication is also reflected in the role that different parts of the brain plays in language as opposed to other forms of vocalization.

Even the seat of human language in the brain is special. The vocal calls of primates are controlled not by their cerebral cortex but by phylogenetically older neural structures in the brain stem and limbic systems, structures that are heavily involved in emotion. Human vocalizations other than language, like sobbing, laughing, moaning, and shouting in pain, are also controlled subcortically. Subcortical structures even control the swearing that follows the arrival of a hammer on a thumb, that emerges as an involuntary tic in Tourette's syndrome, and that can survive as Broca's aphasic's only speech. Genuine language . . . is seated in the cerebral cortex, primarily in the left perisylvian region. (Pinker, p. 342)

Rather than view the different forms of communication found in animals as a hierarchy, it is better to view them as adaptations that arose from the necessity to occupy certain evolutionary niches. Chimpanzees did not develop the language ability because they did not need to. Their lifestyles did not require the ability. Humans, on the other hand, even in the hunter-gatherer stage, would have benefited enormously from being able to share kind of detailed information about plants and animals and the like, and thus there could have been an evolutionary pressure that drove the development of language.

Human language was related to the evolution of the physical apparatus that enabled complex sound production along with the associated brain adaptations, though the causal links between them is not fully understood. Did the brain increase in size to cope with rising language ability or did the increasing use of language drive brain development? We really don't know yet.

The argument against a linguistic hierarchy in animals can be seen in the fact that different aspects of language can be found to be best developed in different animals.

The most receptive trainee for an artificial language with a syntax and semantics has been a parrot; the species with the best claim to recursive structure in its signaling has been the starling; the best vocal imitators are birds and dolphins; and when it comes to reading human intentions, chimps are bested by man's best friend, Canis familiaris. (Pinker, PS20)

It seems clear that we are unlikely to ever fully communicate with other species the way we do with each other. But the inability of other animals to speak the way we do is no more a sign of their evolutionary backwardness than our nose's lack of versatility compared to the elephant's trunk, or our inability to use our hands to fly the way bats can, are signs that we are evolutionarily inferior compared to them

We just occupy different end points on the evolutionary bush.

POST SCRIPT: But isn't everyone deeply interested in golf?

If you want yet more reasons why TV news is not worth watching . . .


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Have you done any reading on studies of feral children (children raised with little or no interaction with other humans)? It's interesting that once these children reach a certain age (early teens) and have not yet had any human interaction, it becomes near impossible for them to learn language from that point forward. Trying to teach them is similar to trying to teach a chimp. There are also instances similar to the ones you mentioned where an isolated group of children developed their own primitive language. These studies show an interesting correlation between the development of the brain throughout the human growth process and the ability to understand the complexities of language and grammar.

Posted by Josh Friedman on June 27, 2008 12:02 PM


What you are saying is very true.

What seems to be emerging from the research is that the language (and accent) acquisition wiring in our brains stays strong until the age of six, then starts deteriorating and almost completely disappears by the early teens. This is true even for deaf children learning sign language. If you haven't learned at least one language early on, you are sunk.

Once we have learned one language, we can learn new languages after that but that it is by a far more laborious process, distinct from the way we learned the first, that now uses the first language as a referent.

Posted by Mano on June 27, 2008 01:15 PM

I have to say that I think this sketch would have been the perfect postscript for today's post.

Posted by Nicole Sharp on June 27, 2008 02:26 PM


You are right, it would have been appropriate. I had seen that sketch a long time ago when I was browsing the Fry-Laurie archives but completely forgot about it.

Posted by Mano on June 27, 2008 03:18 PM

send me on weekly bases on the update on language.
I love your contribution.

Posted by iga a on November 26, 2008 05:09 AM

I have a question and the question goes like this, it is an assignment from my lecturer: what is the difference between animal and human language

Posted by Kehinde Blessing on March 26, 2009 07:30 AM


That is a huge question. I suggest that you take a look at Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct as a start.

Posted by Mano on March 26, 2009 11:35 AM

Why might a researcher want to try to teach a Chimpanzee to use human language?

Posted by Jien Yes Panjaitan on August 13, 2009 11:40 PM

"the brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words." That's a very interesting statement. I like that a lot.

Posted by Ben on August 19, 2009 06:05 PM

Guess I don't get the post script about golf, but the language and kids part was interesting. I am amazed that todays kids are commonly growing up learning two or more languages due to the bilingual households of todays world.

Posted by Retta on August 31, 2010 12:51 AM

There are animals out there with a very complicated language. For example dolphins or whales. Besides those there are also chimps who learn how to do sign language.

We have no idea what they are saying to each other so it is hard to make assumptions about that. I do agree that humans have a much better control center and ability to output signals. We can mimic alot of animal noises for example while a chimp would never be able to speak because his vocal cords would not allow it.

Posted by JT on April 14, 2011 06:58 AM