Is This Form Of Animal Communication A Language?

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The drive to discover, or find a parallel, between animal communication and human language has long been a popular endeavor. The following paper critiques the article by Wade featured in the New York Times which explored a study of communication in primate communication by Klaus Zuberbühler. To these ends the following paper critiques this article in questioning whether this form of animal communication is a language; in specific reference to the design features of human language respectively: namely; semanticity, dual articulation, displacement, productivity and arbitrariness. Furthermore this paper questions the larger implications in assessing animal communication as human language.

Wade article in the New York Times focuses on the work of Dr. Zuberbühler who has been engaged with a long study in deciphering the meanings behind the sounds of primates in the Tai forest of Ivory Coast. In contrast to the numerous endeavors to ‘teach’ animals how to speak, or communicate, in human language, Dr. Zuberbühler approach has been one of observation and recording; trying to work out the hidden meaning behind the sounds of the forest. The article itself covers a number of observations concerning the types of communication used within different specifies; citing many different examples which have been slowly decoded over extensive periods of study.

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Prior to assessing the merits of this particular study it is worth keeping in mind the distinction between communication and language. Animal communication is clearly a phenomenon which can, and has, been observed for a long time. The leap between language and mere communication is, however, a much larger hurdle to cross. The following discussion will now focus on five design features of language in relation to the article by Wade.

In Hockett’s design features, Semanticity represents one of the fundamental building blocks to any language (and indeed any form of communication); essentially it is when specific idiosyncratic sounds are related to a physical ‘thing’ in the real world. This design feature of language is met within the article by Wade, as Zuberbühler has identified a number of sounds that relate to specific objects; for example “Campbell’s monkeys give a “krak” alarm call when they see a leopard. But adding an “-oo” changes it to a generic warning of predators.” (Wade).

Interestingly in the article by Wade, there are signs that can be described, to a small extent, as categorized as being a design feature of dual articulation. The above example is a short step towards double articulation; ‘krack’ equates to leopard, adding –oo represents a generic predator. Deconstructing this, if –oo related to nothing there would be a small portion of dual articulation. The basic formation of word being observed in Wades article. Similarly in the article, Dr. Zuberbühler’s observation that putty-nosed Monkeys have combined two differing sounds in the development of new form of communication, specifically, “‘pyow” call (warning of a leopard) with their “hack” call” (Wade).

Within linguistics, displacement is the ability in language to discuss, or communication about a certain object which is not immediately present, either (or) temporarily or physically. This represents a high water mark for linguistics as it demonstrates the difference between communication and creatures that operate on the level of language. In the article by Wade there is no evidence of the primates using displacement; instead, all the examples of communication is directed to the ‘immediate’ threat, or other physical object.

In linguistics, productivity is related to the grammatical process that is used by a speaker. Specifically, this is concerned with the development of word formulation; usually in relation to extensions and developments within language. Interestingly the article by Wade does illustrate some form of productivity to a certain degree; Zuberbühler noted that Campbell monkeys “changes a verb’s present tense to past by adding an ‘-ed.’” (Wade).

Arbitrariness is one of the hardest tests when it comes to animal communication and is vested in the difference between signifier and signified. The main crux of this specific type of design feature highlights, to an extent at least, that language is the ‘thing’ that gives meaning to a particular sign; there is no reason a table, a physical object, should correlate to the word table; the connection between the sign and the language is, essentially, based on arbitrariness. In regards to the article by Wade there is little evidence to either support or negate a claim to arbitrariness; while it would seem likely that this design feature of communication is not apparent in the articles subject matter; it is not, or has not been, adequately tested.

In conclusion, while there are certain design features in the report on the study by Zuberbühler, more often than not the type and range of communication that has been reported seems to represent a clear use of communication; but a considerable lack of language. Indeed, furthermore the analysis of the article calls into question the desire to trace the roots of language back to a primeval stage of development. Humans are distinct from animals not only in the use of language, but furthermore the fact that language and linguistics constitutes there entire being. A person is ‘born into language’, given a name, a certain language in terms of geographic location and then has to operate within the sphere on language. In contrast, animal communication does have some elements of human language; but the abstract notions, thoughts and ideas coupled with being, beings of language clearly separates human language from animal communication.

  • Wade, Nicholas. ‘Deciphering the Chatter of Monkeys and Chimps’ The New York Times. Published: January 11, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/
  • Napoli, Donna Jo. Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions About Language: A Guide to Everyday Questions About Language. Oxford University Press, 2003.

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