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Do Animals Have Language?

Updated on September 24, 2014

Do animals have language?

This is a great question that is still in debate by linguists today. Many people would say yes. They hear their dog bark at another dog and they think that it has to mean something. Some type of a message has to be communicating from their dog to the other dog. That means that they have to have language, right? Maybe, but maybe not. They're definitely communicating, but does communication infer language? When a baseball catcher communicates is that language? I think most everybody would say no, so what is the difference between language and communication?

Charles Hockett
Charles Hockett

Hockett's design features

To answer this question a famous linguist named Charles Hockett began to study language and find the differences between communicating and actually having language. He believed that there were universal rules that applied to all languages. He was determined to find these rules and apply them to language. What he came up with and what he is most famous for are called Hockett's thirteen design features of language.

His Thirteen design features

These are the thirteen design features that Hockett was able to come up with: Vocal-auditory channel. This is the idea that language is spoken vocally and perceived through auditory. This has since been modified to include tactile-visually. Broadcast transmission and direct reception. All language can be heard if one is within the range of voice. The listener can also determine where the sound originated from. Transitoriness. language will dissipate and won't persist through time. Interchangeability. The ability to both hear and speak the same signal. Total feedback. The ability to hear and internalize what one is saying. Semanticity. This means that specific signals are matched with specific meaning. Arbitrariness: Means that there is no limitation to what can be communicated about and that there is no specific or necessary connection between the sound made and the message that it sends. Example is that the word whale has no connection with the actual animal even though that is the message that it sends. Discreteness. Language can be broken down into smaller units that can be combined to have have meaning. Displacement. Language can be used to talk about things in the past and future and about things that aren't present or don't exist at all. Productivity. The ability to create new utterances or words from previously existing sounds and utterances. Also the ability to describe something that they listener has never seen before. Traditional transmission. Even though we have an innate ability to learn language we must actually learn language from social settings. Duality of patterning. Meaningless segments or sounds are combined to form meaningful words which are combined to create sentences.

The Thirteen Design Features

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Now back to animals

So now the question remains, does animal communication use these design features? While research is still being done on certain animals to answer this question the answer so far is no. Some animal communication has come close but in the end there are certain design features that animal communication seems to lack. One of these is displacement. Animals are able to communicate about things that are in front of there faces, but there hasn't been evidence to suggest that they can talk about that same object when it isn't in front of them.

Can animals learn language?

In the mind of scientists the only animals that have the chance to learn language would be those that are the closest in intelligence and likeliness of humans. The apes that have been studied for this are called Bonobos. They are believed to be the most intelligent of all apes. One of these apes that was studied was named Kanzi. Kanzi seems to be proof that animals can indeed learn language. This video shows how intelligent he is and how great his understanding is of the English language

What do you think?

I would love to hear what you think. Do animals have language? Is it possible for animals to learn language? Comment below!


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