Animals Don’t Have Speech. Does That Mean They Don’t Have Language?

AS I WAS SAYING …

I am suffering from Covid, Trump, and Johnson fatigue — so here’s something different. Linguistics academics keep insisting that as animals can’t speak, they don’t have language. This is just wrong.

Why am I so exercised about this? Because just yesterday I heard a prominent wild-life TV presenter (no name to avoid trouble) say, in terms that could not be misunderstood, that animals have no language and that, therefore, their means of communication is very basic and that they cannot convey complex information. I don’t buy this and nor should you. In fact, the doyen of all linguists, Naom Chomsky, was once heard to say that without words, there is no language. I am a great respecter of Chomsky, but it is comforting to know that even such a great man with such a great mind, can be way off the mark.

I suppose it comes down to how one defines “language” and if that definition is based on being etymologically correct, it is from the Latin for “tongue” which is “lingua”. The implication is that humans have tongues and animals don’t — and that is just so obviously, physiologically wrong as to be not worth considering. True, some animals, and it is confined to insects and crustaceans, do not have tongues, but every other kind of animal does. So the further implication is that speech is not about the presence or absence of tongues — it is about the brain-mouth connection which is highly developed in humans and less so in other animals. So far so good. But does even that give us leave to assume that animals do not have language? Or must we avoid using “language” and use some more general terms such as non-linguistic communication? Clumsy. Unsatisfactory.

So I will go out on a limb and say that animals (all of them) have languages — just not language as we humans understand it. Their languages may be less involved than ours, but perhaps that is because their lives are a lot less complicated. Some linguists claim that human language with all its variety and complexity came about precisely because human life evolved and developed along complex lines, and with that complexity of existence, came the need for complex communication.

What is wonderful to watch is not that animals cannot communicate in the form of conversation, but that they can, and they do. What we don’t know is how much complex communication is going on beyond what we hear as grunts and squeaks because all we can observe is behaviour and we are left assuming that they are reacting to something more than we can see or hear. Intercommunication between dolphins and other Cetacea. Chimps on the hunt. Birds of kinds. Dogs. Cats. Elephants — in particular. Lots and lots more.

And this is not only about these animals making sounds which are beyond the human ear’s ability. That happens, but observation of wildlife makes it clear enough that, at least in my opinion, animals are using some other form of communication which borders on ESP, and while that does include body-communication some of which we can observe and some of which we can’t, it cannot be the whole story.

As you may remember from my piece about zoos (and I could have included circuses) I am deeply passionate about animals and their lives. I draw the line at snakes because I have snakophobia (ophidiophobia) but very happy to do whatever I can to get humans off the backs of all species and leave them alone. But I can’t help wondering what animals are saying to themselves and one another, about us, using their versions of language. Can’t be very complimentary.

Now you must excuse me while I ask my dog and my dog tells me about his adventures on today’s walk.

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Broadcaster, academic, journalist, columnist, humorist. Show- off contrarian. Seriously centrist politics junkie. British Americanophile.

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Dr John Grierson

Dr John Grierson

Broadcaster, academic, journalist, columnist, humorist. Show- off contrarian. Seriously centrist politics junkie. British Americanophile.

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