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What is Language? Human vs. Animal Communication

Two outlines of heads with speech bubbles

In the last post, you read that children learn their culture as they grow up, in a process called enculturation. During enculturation, children learn an important part of their culture—language. But what is language? We all know what it is, but how do you define it? And, how is human language different from animal communication?

According to James Peoples and Garrick Bailey (in their 2018 textbook, Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology), language is the “shared knowledge of sounds, words, meanings, and grammatical rules that people use to send and receive messages.” (See pg. 46) So, language is our system of communication, and it includes both sounds and gestures. It is part of what makes us human— we are the only organisms on Earth that have language.

“Well,” you might ask, “Don’t other animals communicate? What about dolphins? Or chimpanzees?” Yes, they communicate, along with ants, bees, and other organisms. But they do not speak. And their communication system is not as complex as ours. 

Language: Human vs. Animal Communication. Image of several thought and speech bubbles, all different colors.

Here’s an example. Other primates communicate through what’s called call systems. There are only a certain number of sounds they can make, and these sounds are not combined like words are combined into sentences. So, if there is danger, the primate makes the call (sound) for danger, and when there is food, the primate makes the call for food. But if both food and danger are in the same environment, the primate can’t combine the two sounds to express both being present. So, this is a closed system of communication—the primate can’t create new “words” by putting together some existing “words.” In contrast, human language is an open system of communication, which means we can create new messages out of existing sounds. This ability to create new messages by combining other messages is called productivity, and it is a characteristic of language.

Also, primate call systems are stimuli-dependent, meaning a certain call is only made when there is a certain stimulus. For example, the food call is only made when there actually is food. In contrast, human language has something called linguistic displacement. This means that we can talk about things that are not present—we can talk about events that happened in the past and events that will happen in the future. 

So, the systems of communication of other primates are not as complex as ours. Other primates have closed systems of communication, and do not have the language characteristics of productivity and displacement.

Language: Human vs Animal Communication. Image of a gorilla and her child, laying on straw.

But don’t some primates know sign language? What about that? The first chimpanzee who learned sign language was called “Washoe.” She was taught over 130 signs. Probably the most famous primate who learned sign language was a gorilla named Koko, who learned over 1,000 signs! You can learn more about Koko in this article from National Geographic

But primates don’t learn sign language on their own—they are taught it in intensive training sessions through human intervention. And, even though some primates can use sign language, they don’t use the complex sign language that humans do. So, some other primates do show some capacity for language, but they don’t have such a system in the wild. 

The more we study other primates, the more complicated things become. For example, language involves cultural transmission, meaning language is transmitted through learning. And, chimps who have been taught American Sign Language have tried to teach the sign language to other animals, which shows that they are capable of cultural transmission of language. Also, Koko understood the concepts of past and future, showing that she was capable of linguistic displacement. In addition, Washoe was able to put together signs she knew to make a new word—for example, she called a duck a “water-bird.” This shows she was capable of the language characteristic of productivity. And, studies on primate communication have suggested that other primates can develop the language skills of a 2 or 3-year-old human. So, perhaps other primates have more language ability than we think!  Still, these primates are not using language in the wild, and their communication is not as complex as ours, so they don’t have actual language in the same way humans do.

To learn more about displacement and productivity, check out this article from The Great Courses Daily, called, “Features That Distinguish Human Language from Animal Communication.” To learn more about primate communication, check out the Discover article, “What Studying Primate Communication Tells Us About the Evolution of Human Language.” 

Thanks for reading!