Do Animals Have Language?

Topics: Linguistics, Language, Semiotics Pages: 5 (1417 words) Published: January 29, 2013
To what extent we can say animals have language?
Are animals capable of language?

It is in the opinion of the author that animals do not have the capability of language; this essay will focus and put forward the evidence as to why this opinion takes place. Language is a form of communication; it can be visual, audio or sensory. In humans the vocal language provides only 10 per cent of how we communicate, body language plays a much higher role, however, both verbal and non verbal language in humans is intentional, communicating about past, present and future, thus defining it as language, whereas in animals this is not always the case, their communication is immediate and relates to issues of immediate importance. Research suggests communication in the animal species is for survival, there are many functions of this (Grier & Burk, 1992) suggested, many pet owners probably like to think they talk with their pets and these if not response, at least understand. But whether this is true and pets or animals in general are capable of understanding language. Furthermore, whether they are capable of meaningfully communicating between themselves remains without a clear answer. The question whether humans are or are not the only species capable of language can be answered only after deeper analysis, which can be carried out by taking into account and comparing main characteristics of language. Firstly, a definition of language, there are many attempts to define language but the one that is the closest to the full definition of language is that of Charles Hockett. Over ten years Hockett tried to define language by determining the main properties of human language. The longest list consist of 16 design features or essential characteristics (Aitchinson, 1989)

There is the use of vocal-auditory channel, which is one of the most obvious features of language and simply means that vocal organs generate communication and hearing mechanism receives it. This design feature is not unique to humans and it is relatively widespread in the world of animals. But also, since the linguistic communication can be transmitted via writing or sign language it is not a defining feature of human language.

Another feature is arbitrariness, which suggests that the concept and the meaning are not connected; hence the symbols used in language are neutral. For example there is no natural connection between word “rabbit” and the fury animal it symbolizes. This is generally a rule although there are some exceptions – onomatopoeic words such as “crunch” or “bang” but there are only a few in each language.

The fact there is an arbitrary relationship between linguistic signs and the object they represent can be considered a defining feature of language and therefore it can be examined in more detail whether arbitrariness is also present in communication system of animals. The first impression might be that there is a strong link between the message conveyed and the signal used to convey it (Yule, 1985). However, this is not supported when taking into consideration an experiment carried out on chimpanzee Sarah.

Sarah was rewarded an apple if she managed to select the right plastic shape. Apple was represented by blue plastic triangle and therefore it is possible to say that the feature of arbitrariness is present in animal communication since there is no obvious relationship between the blue plastic triangle and an apple (Aitchison, 1989).

Another aspect of language is semantically, which is according to Dobrovolsky the use of symbols that convey meaning “through set of fixed relationships among signifiers, referents and meanings”(Dobrovolsky, 1996). It is argued that semantically is unique to humans since animals do convey a meaning but in a very restricted form e.g. bird songs or calls. However, there is certain evidence suggesting that semantically is present in animal’s speech. This was shown in the experiment with chimpanzee Washoe when she...

References: Aitchison, J. (1989) The articulate mammal – An introduction to Psycholinguistics. London: Hutchinson.
Dobrovolsky, M. (1996) Animal communication. London: Longman.
Hockett, C. F. (1959). Animal "languages" and human language. Human Biology, 31, 32-39.
Yule, G. (1985) The study of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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