Animal communication

by Assif Am David, Frankfurt a.M.

It is commonly assumed in linguistics that language is a phenomenon unique to humans. It is normally associated with the Great Leap Forward, an anthropological revolution which took place about 50,000 years ago and gave rise to the behavioural modernity. Language is considered a core factor in this revolution which resulted in a more complex, abstract thought and in larger intricate social organization, possibly by allowing social constructivism, which is a conventional postulation of abstract social entities.

The study of language in animals, often referred to as biolinguistics, attempts to refute this idea. No-one claims animals other than humans can accomplish the same linguistic abilities like humans, however, it is assumed some animals can provide evidence of some linguistic competence. This line of research clearly divides into two subbranches: the study of natural animal communication and animal experiments with human language.

Animals can clearly communicate efficiently to suit their natural needs. This is not only true for species internal communication, but also to communication between animals belonging to different species. Every pet owner can testify her pet can deliver many messages regarding its needs and feelings. We can also see how animals react to communicative signs by other animals. Dogs for example can not only react to dogs or humans, but can also learn to react to cats. A cat wagging its tail is a sign of distress, unlike a dog taking the same action. Yet a dog used to living with a cat can learn to correctly interpret this communicative sign.

Some natural animal communication seems to be especially complex. Such well known examples are birds, dolphins and whales. Despite their exotic nature, studies of natural animal communication remain limited in both scope and results. Our knowledge of animal communication has not grown significantly during the last century. The main problem with these studies is that natural communication typically occurs in natural setting that are both difficult and expensive to observe. Moreover, it is difficult to interpret the patterns that are observed, an action requiring bridging over interspecies gaps. Additionally, linguists show little to no interests in this sort of studies which is typically conducted by biologists with no linguistic background.
The second not less exotic field of study is the animal experiments with human language. These are typically include an attempt to teach some animals a form of human language: so far English, Hawaiian, American Sign Language or some specifically constructed language (e.g. lexigrams). Such experiments have been so far carried out in apes (Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangutans), parrots, dolphins and seals. The results have only been partially acknowledged and the progress has been slow. There are several reasons for the limited accomplishments. Firstly, as underlined above, these are experiments in human language that are foreign to the animals. In these experiments we try to bridge the interspecies gap in the opposite way than in the first sort of studies, namely we try and make an animal understand human communication. Animals have species specific needs which are greatly different from ours and their motivation to learn human communication is by best limited. This leads to the second problem: If an animal has to be rewarded for its language achievements, how can we observers be sure that it truly makes use of language and not merely conditionally reacting in an imitative manner? Again this calls for interspecies bridging; the researcher has to establish the state of mind of the animal, something we do not know how to achieve. A third problem is that animals usually suffer in laboratories which significantly differ from their natural habitats. This leads to diminished mental capacities than what one could observe in the wild. A last problem is that such studies require long and tedious training of the animal that is both expensive and morally debatable. No wonder, therefore, that the number of such researches in the last 50 years lies between 10 and 20, most of which carried out by biologists and psychologists rather than linguists.

Despite the shortcomings discussed above, it is interesting to point out what has been achieved, although further confirmations are still called for.

  • Iconicity – symbolic use of language has been clearly demonstrated by apes, parrots and dolphins. These intelligent animals can attribute semantic content to a sign. This content can also be abstract (spatial relations, emotions, colours and numbers).
  • Syntax – Apes and dolphins show understanding of arbitrary structures indicative of relations. They can properly react to two different expressions, where the same symbols are used in different orders.
  • Displacement – Apes can refer to past events and to objects that are sensuously out of reach.
  • Discreteness – Apes, parrots and dolphins show understanding of the linear and discrete use of language.
  • Productivity – Apes can be productive, creating new words and utterances never heard before. They use language to communicate new ideas.
  • Recursiveness – No animal has so far been shown to understand recursive grammar.

To sum up, animals will probably never hold a proper conversation with any of us, but at least some animals show aspects of communication that either exist in human language or are akin to it. The study of both animal communication and human language in animals can teach us a lot about how language evolved, what its underlying properties are and about animal cognition. These researches are, therefore, not only exotically interesting, but can also prove influential in linguistic theory.

Selected bibliography


  • Savage-Rumbough and Lewin (1996). Kanzi: the ape at the brink of human mind. Hoboken: Wiley and Sons.
  • Gardner and Gardner (1989). Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. Albany: SUNY.
  • Famous case: Koko (Homepage of the Koko Foundation)



  • Herman, L.M., Kuczaj, S. III, & Holder, M. D. (1993). Responses to anomalous gestural sequences by a language-trained dolphin: Evidence for processing of semantic relations and syntactic information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 122, 184-194.


  • Schusterman, R. J. & Krieger, K. (1984). California sea lions are capable of semantic comprehension. The Psychological Record 38, 311-348.