Contrasting Human Language With Animal Communication

Human language differs from animal communication in many ways.  While humans use language to produce an infinite number of unique sentences as a form of communication, animals lack this ability.  Animals communicate by signal codes, which means they have a limited number of statements, generally as simple responses to certain situations.  As one researcher says, “…the natural sounds and gestures produced by all nonhuman primates show their signals to be highly stereotyped and limited in the type and number of messages they convey.”  Human language, on the other hand, is a true language – a system of arbitrary signs which allows us to convey unlimited interactions.

For one, human language differs because it has form and meaning, which means it has a structure which combines sounds, gestures, letters, and written words which when put together have a certain significance or meaning.  Secondly, human language differs because it is creative, meaning that we can (with language) produce (and understand) an infinite number of new sentences which have never before been spoken; we can lie and joke and even talk about things that don’t make any sense.  Thirdly, human language differs because it has displacement, which basically means that we as humans can talk about things in the past and future, and things that are either right in front of us or miles away.  While some animals, like bees, have shown signs of limited displacement, and while certain apes have been able to acquire a number of sign language messages, animal communication is restricted to very simple messages like “look out” or “danger!”  Animals cannot say “look out, I saw a snake in that tree yesterday” or make jokes, lie, and talk about the imaginary (which linguists refer to as the ability to use tropes).

Many researches have tried to teach primates language, and while some chimps and apes have been more successful than others in language acquisition, the end result has always shown that primates can only learn language to a certain extent, and usually only things related to stimulus-controlled phenomena like eating and drinking.  Language was only rarely spontaneous with these animals, they usually displayed redundancy and imitation, and no research shows them to have the same ability of language learning like a human child.  Gua was a chimp in the 1930s that was raised as a child along with the researcher’s own baby son.  Gua understood more words than the human boy at sixteen months, but never learned any more than that, while the boy of course did.  Among other things, primates have a different vocal apparatus than ours which prevents them from producing spoken language.  Research has simply shown that primates are not capable of learning human language.

Non-primates have shown an even lesser chance of acquiring human language.  Dolphins have shown the ability to understand and act on certain commands, but they have not displayed understanding for “novel utterances, metaphors, jokes, and lies.”  Not to mention the fact that producing spoken human language is simply impossible for these animals.

Like other animals, dolphins also have a limited number of messages which they produce amongst each other.  Dolphins, as well as apes and other animals have no way of communicating about the past, expressing their feelings, lying to each other, and among other things, talking smack about their enemies.  Human language, however, differs because it gives us the ability to do all of those things and more.

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