Language can be considered the major characteristic which separates man from other living creatures. For Descartes ‘it is a very remarkable thing that there are no men so dull and stupid, not even lunatics, that they cannot arrange various words and form a sentence to make their thoughts understood; but no other animal, however perfect or well bred can do the like’.
The presence of a language in a non-human species would clearly be inconceivable a philosopher such as Descartes. Whilst it cannot be argued that the human languages are very complex systems with many rules and infinite possibilities of utterances, there are some methods of communication of animals that are comparable to human language, which thus casts some degree of doubt on this supposed human-specificity of language. Semanticity is a suggested test for the language ability of any species. It is the use of symbols to ‘mean’ or refer to objects and actions. Some writers have claimed that semanticity is exclusively human. Whilst it is possible that animals may only be able to communicate about a total situation, it is difficult to be certain; as is shown by the calls of the velvet monkey. I am therefore going to consider several examples of non-human animal communications, both vocalizations and other methods, and test them for semanticity.
Gibbons are several species of our closest surviving non-human kin. Like humans, they communicate in various ways, including posturing and gesturing, but the most language-like of their communication is their system of calls. Investigations of the gibbons of northern Thailand have shown that these gibbons have a stock of at least nine different calls. One of these is emitted typically when the group is surprised by a possible enemy and takes the form of a high pitched shout; it is often repeated by those who hear it and all act accordingly in order to avoid the danger of the enemy. An entirely different sort of call occurs in connection with friendly approaches among young gibbons, and reinforces the notion of play.
A third call seems to serve to keep the members of a group close enough together as they move through the woods in search of food. The most important property of this system of communication is its lack of flexibility. Whatever the exact number of calls is, it is finite and small. Whilst any one of the calls can be varied in loudness or in the number of repetitions, no matter what situation a gibbon may encounter, its vocal reaction is constrained to be one of this small finite number: a gibbon does not react to a new situation by producing a new call or putting together two or more of the calls already available.
It has been suggested that language grew out of a primate call system, like the ones used by apes today and the one I have described that is used by gibbons. It is assumed that humans started out with a simple set of cries in which each one meant something different, such as, “Danger!" or “Follow me!". These cries gradually became more elaborate and eventually evolved into language. A possible intermediate stage is seen in the cries of the vervet monkey. This monkey has several alarm calls which distinguish between different types of danger. According to some, it is a very short step from an alarm call warning of a poisonous snake to using the chutter as a ‘word’ signifying a poisonous snake. However, another interpretation of these signals is possible; a distinguishing between the intensity of different types of danger. However an experiment in which a concealed loudspeaker plated recordings of the alarm calls showed that when each sound was heard, a specific response was seen.
For example, when they heard the chutter, the vervets stood on their hind legs and looked around for a snake. This implies that the monkeys clearly have a special signal for each type of enemy; each signal has semantic properties.
It is perhaps unfair to concentrate on primates. Compared with these, bees and dolphins have extremely sophisticated communication systems. Whilst the majority of bee communication is achieved through dance rather a system of sound signals, I feel that there is some evidence in this example that casts some degree of doubt on the supposed human-specificity of language. When a worker bee finds a source of nectar, it returns to the hive and performs a dance. It has been shown that certain features of the dance transmit information about the location of the source of nectar: one feature specifies the direction of the source from the hive in relation to the position of the sun, another specifies its distance.
It has been decided that these dances are performed and understood on the basis of instinct: the semantic conventions of the system are innate, and do not have to be learned or taught. Using this system, a worker can report on a source of nectar at a location to which none of the colony has ever previously been. To a certain extent, therefore, the system is flexible. Whilst it appears that bees cannot communicate about anything except nectar - or, if they do, it is via other equally specialised small systems, the claim that bee dancing possesses creativity does not appear to be exaggerated since, at least in theory, an infinite amount of unpredictable and appropriate information relating to the parameters of direction and distance can be transmitted. However, the idea of verticality, for instance, expressed by the English word ‘up’ cannot be expressed, nor can complex thoughts and feelings present in human philosophy, literature and science. The difference in the creativity of the ‘language’ of the bee and human language is an important one, yet despite his claim for the exclusiveness of language creativity to humans, Chomsky explicitly recognizes the possibility that certain ideas, concepts and feeling may well be inexpressible in human language. This situation mirrors the fact that there are many things which cannot be expressed in the ‘language’ of the bee.
Like bees, dolphins do not have a ‘creative’ communication system in the human sense - even though they make underwater ‘clicks’ which are surprisingly sophisticated. These clicks are intermittent bursts of sound, each of which lasts less than a thousandth of a second, in frequencies beyond the range of human hearing. By listening for their echoes, a dolphin can find a tiny eel in a bed of mud or a tiny fish seventy meters away. The dolphin first sends out a very general click, and then progressively modifies it as it gets echoes back, so allowing it to get more and more accurate information. As far as we know, a dolphin's communication is restricted to the size and location of shapes, though a possibility is that a progressively modified click might end up being the ‘name’ for the object finally pinpointed; semantic properties for dolphin communication may evolve.
Human language is a signaling system which uses sounds and this is a characteristic shared by a large number of animal systems. Animals that use vocal signals have a stock of basic sounds which vary according to their species. A cow has fewer than ten, a chicken has around twenty, dolphins and apes have between twenty and thirty and the impressive vervet monkey has thirty-six. In animal communication, there is frequently a connection, arguably semantic, between the signal and the message sent. Whilst most animals can use each basic sound only once or in very few simple combinations, human language works differently. Each language has a stock of phonemes which are similar in number to the basic sounds possessed by animals; usually between thirty and forty. The difference is that normally these phonemes are meaningless in isolation and only gain meaning when they are combined with other phonemes.
So, whilst Chomsky's concept of creativity, the ability to produce novel utterances, seems not to be present in any natural communication system possessed by animals, all systems of communication, human or otherwise, appear to be innately guided. That is, a frog will inevitably croak, cows will inevitably moo and humans will inevitably talk. The important thing to realize is that, whilst there are many species for which vocalizations seem to have no solid semantic properties - a cat will purr to express happiness, there are some animal systems of communication, such as that of vervet monkeys, which arguably share with human the arbitrary nature of the connection between the signified and the signifier, developed by Saussure, and thus can be argued to have semantic properties.
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