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Animal communication and language Cheat Sheet (DRAFT) by

Do animals have a language? Hockett's design features and more

This is a draft cheat sheet. It is a work in progress and is not finished yet.


- describe some systems of commun­ication used in the animal world
- evaluate the extent to which natural animal commun­ica­tions satisfy the design features of human language
- discuss the ability of members of other species to learn human language
- introduce some theories on the origins of human language

Tutorial Questions

a. In each of the pairs below, one statement is typical of human language (HL) while the other is more charac­ter­istic of animal commun­ication (AC). Mark them HL and AC respec­tively.

i. The system produces an unlimited number of novel uttera­nces. HL
ii. There is a closed repertory of distin­ctive uttera­nces.AC
iii. The topic of commun­ication is present in the immediate enviro­nment of the utterance. AC
iv. The system is acquired by learning. HL
v. The system is transm­itted through genetic inheri­tance. AC
vi. The connection between signal and its meaning is arbitrary and conven­tional. HL
vii. The connection between signal and its meaning is iconic and natural.aC

b. Wolves express subtle emotions by different positions of ears, lips and tail. There are 11 postures of the tail expressing things like self-c­onf­idence, lack of tension, depres­sion, defens­ive­ness, active submission etc. This is a complex system! Suppose there were a thousand different emotion wolves could express in this way. Do they have language similar to humans? If not, why not?

- NO No: emotion does not have a grammar or syntax, or a linear aspect as language does. It is not analytic -- it does not break down concepts into smaller pieces for combin­ation and re-com­bin­ation in different forms.
- emotion is something we use to commun­icate key experi­ences with others. We do this through many non-li­ngu­istic means, including facial expres­sion, touch, and tone
- but forcing emotion to fit into a linear, time-s­equ­enced, gramma­tical linguistic format betrays the quality of the emotional experience itself, which is why linguistic names for emotions never quite capture them

Natural Commun­ication Systems

- If animals have the capacity to acquire human language this would count as evidence that language is not a peculi­arity of human beings.
- It would argue that language is not encoded in a module in the brain entirely separated from general intell­igence, or that it is stored and processed separately in the brain.
- It could only be concluded that animals lack the necessary genetic or neurol­ogical requir­ements.

- If we can show that non-human animal commun­ication systems exist that share the features of human language, and that our closest relative have systems that most resemble human language,
- this would count in favor of the evolution of language from animal commun­ication systems, and that language differs in degree rather than kind from these other systems.
- not finding such evidence does not, however, argue against an evolut­ionary story: it may be that no living species are suffic­iently close to us biolog­ically to reveal the continuity