How do animals communicate among themselves? Do they have a language we don't understand or just basic communication? What roles do motions, scents and colors play? And why can't they use human language?
In Disney's latest movie Zootropolis, animals walk on two legs, wear clothes, ride the train, work different jobs, and of course, talk to each other in English. Obviously, the world portrayed in the film does not exist in reality - the world on which it is based, ours, would be completely different if we were not able to communicate effectively with each other. Of course, even animals communicate with each other - as any person who witnessed an encounter between two dogs, for example. Nevertheless, our language is very different from the cries of animals. So what makes human language so special?
Humans and other animals
Human language is based on two principles. One of them is of course vocabulary - a list of combinations of sounds and syllables agreed upon by all the speakers that represent a particular object or idea. The other is grammar and syntax - algorithms are built in the mind of every language speaker allowing them to attach words to each other in infinite ways to express any idea that comes to them. This allows people to tell each other what happened a year ago, to plan something together to do in a month, to transmit information discovered by a third person in another country, the examples are endless – they may even speculate on how the language they are using has developed.
Most animal communication, however, is based on the demonstration of mood or intention of the parties. A cat purrs when it is pleased, hisses when it is about to attack and makes a wailing when in the vicinity of a female who is in heat. None of these calls are expressed in other situations, unlike human language where the same word, like "cat" for example, carries a similar meaning in different contexts; "My sister has two cats" or "my sister’s cat scratched me."
But maybe among our relatives, monkeys and apes, there is something similar to the beginning of language - sounds they make express not only the situation, but can refer to objects or certain animals. The first evidence of this came from the vervet monkey that is found in East and Southern Africa. Already some 35 years ago, researchers discovered these monkeys make different warning calls whether they see a tiger, an eagle or a snake. While a general warning call, may stem simply from fear (and is therefore not different from a cat hiss). The monkeys also react differently when they hear the different calls: they run up the trees in response to the call for "tiger", they look up when they hear the "eagle" call, and look down in response to the "snake" call.
Since then, many studies have been published that show different species of monkeys and apes making sounds relating to particular concepts: the Tamarin monkey shouts different warnings when it notices various predators, the capuchin monkey and chimpanzees call different sounds in response to different kinds of foods, and the list goes on. Similar studies were also conducted on birds, and it was argued that crows and even chickens use calls relating to certain food types. In rare cases, it has been identified that animals also make a combination of several calls in a certain order - some researchers believe that this is the beginning of syntax. Campbell's monkeys, little monkeys living in West Africa, use only six basic calls but they can put them together in different ways that could be "sentences" of sorts, which they call in certain situations. New research on songbirds published in March 2016 suggested that Japanese great tits not only make specific calls with certain meanings, but also combine them to make meaningful sequences. The meaning of "call A, followed by call B " is different from "call B, followed by call A".
Is this really a language?
Along with the release of more and more such studies, also comes the increased response of skeptics who claim there is no real link between animal calls and words from the human language, even if the calls relate to an object or an animal. One of the notable comments is the arbitrary nature of words. There is no connection between the word "cat" and animals with whiskers, aside from the arbitrary decision made by English speakers. And therefore the word "cat" has other names in other languages; "gato" in Spanish and "biralo "in Nepali. In addition, babies do not know which sounds go with which concepts, they are learning from the adults around them. It is not clear at all if this is also relative to the “words” of animals. The vervet monkeys, for example, live all across Africa, and yet the calls for an eagle, a tiger or a snake from the Ethiopian population are the same as those used by the South African population. Even the young monkeys, apparently, do not learn the calls from their parents, but know straight from birth the suitable calls for some predator. There are other calls, such as those of songbirds and whales that the young do learn from the adults in their group, so in different populations, we do find different calls. But in actual fact, these voices, apparently, do not indicate a particular concept.
Also, it is not clear how the animal controls their calls or if they are able to decide when to make a sound. Even humans make sounds of this nature, innate and uncontrollable. When we get hit, for example, it is very difficult to stifle one’s scream. Even those who have tried to force themselves to stop laughing know how lost this battle can be. In the opinion of some researchers, animal calls, even those related to certain concepts, actually belong to this category, and thus must differ substantially from human language. Catherine Hobaiter illustrated this claim; in the chimpanzees she followed there was a female who wanted to eat the meat that another male had put aside a short time ago, but the male refused to share his food. The female waited for the male to fall asleep, silently approached him and tried to steal some meat. She came right up next to him without the male waking up, and reached out her hand. Then she was overcome with her natural tendency to make a call for food. The male woke up and the starving female was expelled in disgrace. This story illustrates that at least some of the calls of the animals are instinctive reactions rather than planned acts of communication.