Animals Talking.

We’ve discussed it before (e.g., Mole-Rat Dialects, Whale Talk), but animal communication is a perennially interesting topic, and Sonia Shah’s NY Times Magazine article (archived) has plenty of good stuff in it. After an intro about mouse songs, Shah continues:

Inside these murine skills lay clues to a puzzle many have called “the hardest problem in science”: the origins of language. In humans, “vocal learning” is understood as a skill critical to spoken language. Researchers had already discovered the capacity for vocal learning in species other than humans, including in songbirds, hummingbirds, parrots, cetaceans such as dolphins and whales, pinnipeds such as seals, elephants and bats. But given the centuries-old idea that a deep chasm separated human language from animal communications, most scientists understood the vocal learning abilities of other species as unrelated to our own — as evolutionarily divergent as the wing of a bat is to that of a bee. The apparent absence of intermediate forms of language — say, a talking animal — left the question of how language evolved resistant to empirical inquiry.

When the Duke researchers dissected the brains of the hearing and deafened mice, they found a rudimentary version of the neural circuitry that allows the forebrains of vocal learners such as humans and songbirds to directly control their vocal organs. Mice don’t seem to have the vocal flexibility of elephants; they cannot, like the 10-year-old female African elephant in Tsavo, Kenya, mimic the sound of trucks on the nearby Nairobi-Mombasa highway. Or the gift for mimicry of seals; an orphaned harbor seal at the New England Aquarium could utter English phrases in a perfect Maine accent (“Hoover, get over here,” he said. “Come on, come on!”).

But the rudimentary skills of mice suggested that the language-critical capacity might exist on a continuum, much like a submerged land bridge might indicate that two now-isolated continents were once connected. In recent years, an array of findings have also revealed an expansive nonhuman soundscape, including: turtles that produce and respond to sounds to coordinate the timing of their birth from inside their eggs; coral larvae that can hear the sounds of healthy reefs; and plants that can detect the sound of running water and the munching of insect predators. Researchers have found intention and meaning in this cacophony, such as the purposeful use of different sounds to convey information. They’ve theorized that one of the most confounding aspects of language, its rules-based internal structure, emerged from social drives common across a range of species.

With each discovery, the cognitive and moral divide between humanity and the rest of the animal world has eroded. For centuries, the linguistic utterances of Homo sapiens have been positioned as unique in nature, justifying our dominion over other species and shrouding the evolution of language in mystery. Now, experts in linguistics, biology and cognitive science suspect that components of language might be shared across species, illuminating the inner lives of animals in ways that could help stitch language into their evolutionary history — and our own. […]

Squabbles continued over which components of language were shared with other species and which, if any, were exclusive to humans. Those included, among others, language’s intentionality, its system of combining signals, its ability to refer to external concepts and things separated by time and space and its power to generate an infinite number of expressions from a finite number of signals. But reflexive belief in language as an evolutionary anomaly started to dissolve. “For the biologists,” recalled Fitch, “it was like, ‘Oh, good, finally the linguists are being reasonable.’”

Evidence of continuities between animal communication and human language continued to mount. The sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 suggested that we hadn’t significantly diverged from that lineage, as the theory of a “human revolution” posited. On the contrary, Neanderthal genes and those of other ancient hominins persisted in the modern human genome, evidence of how intimately we were entangled. In 2014, Jarvis found that the neural circuits that allowed songbirds to learn and produce novel sounds matched those in humans, and that the genes that regulated those circuits evolved in similar ways. The accumulating evidence left “little room for doubt,” Cedric Boeckx, a theoretical linguist at the University of Barcelona, noted in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. “There was no ‘great leap forward.’” […]

At the University of Edinburgh, [cognitive scientist Simon] Kirby hit upon a process that might explain how language’s internal structure evolved. That structure, in which simple elements such as sounds and words are arranged into phrases and nested hierarchically within one another, gives language the power to generate an infinite number of meanings; it is a key feature of language as well as of mathematics and music. But its origins were hazy. Because children intuit the rules that govern linguistic structure with little if any explicit instruction, philosophers and linguists argued that it must be a product of some uniquely human cognitive process. But researchers who scrutinized the fossil record to determine when and how that process evolved were stumped: The first sentences uttered left no trace behind.

Kirby designed an experiment to simulate the evolution of language inside his lab. First, he developed made-up codes to serve as proxies for the disordered collections of words widely believed to have preceded the emergence of structured language, such as random sequences of colored lights or a series of pantomimes. Then he recruited subjects to use the code under a variety of conditions and studied how the code changed. He asked subjects to use the code to solve communication tasks, for example, or to pass the code on to one another as in a game of telephone. He ran the experiment hundreds of times using different parameters on a variety of subjects, including on a colony of baboons living in a seminaturalistic enclosure equipped with a bank of computers on which they could choose to play his experimental games.

What he found was striking: Regardless of the native tongue of the subjects, or whether they were baboons, college students or robots, the results were the same. When individuals passed the code on to one another, the code became simpler but also less precise. But when they passed it on to one another and also used it to communicate, the code developed a distinct architecture. Random sequences of colored lights turned into richly patterned ones; convoluted, pantomimic gestures for words such as “church” or “police officer” became abstract, efficient signs. “We just saw, spontaneously emerging out of this experiment, the language structures we were waiting for,” Kirby says. His findings suggest that language’s mystical power — its ability to turn the noise of random signals into intelligible formulations — may have emerged from a humble trade-off: between simplicity, for ease of learning, and what Kirby called “expressiveness,” for unambiguous communication.

There’s a study of octopuses:

The researchers hoped to replicate the method by outfitting an octopus tank with an interactive platform of some kind and observing how the octopus engaged with it. But it was unclear whether such a device might interest the lone cephalopod. An earlier episode of displeasure led her to discharge enough ink to turn her tank water so black that she couldn’t be seen. Unlocking her communicative abilities might require that she consider the scientists as fascinating as they did her.

And there’s this on intentionality:

Toshitaka Suzuki, an ethologist at the University of Tokyo who describes himself as an animal linguist, struck upon a method to disambiguate intentional calls from involuntary ones while soaking in a bath one day. When we spoke over Zoom, he showed me an image of a fluffy cloud. “If you hear the word ‘dog,’ you might see a dog,” he pointed out, as I gazed at the white mass. “If you hear the word ‘cat,’ you might see a cat.” That, he said, marks the difference between a word and a sound. “Words influence how we see objects,” he said. “Sounds do not.” Using playback studies, Suzuki determined that Japanese tits, songbirds that live in East Asian forests and that he has studied for more than 15 years, emit a special vocalization when they encounter snakes. When other Japanese tits heard a recording of the vocalization, which Suzuki dubbed the “jar jar” call, they searched the ground, as if looking for a snake. To determine whether “jar jar” meant “snake” in Japanese tit, he added another element to his experiments: an eight-inch stick, which he dragged along the surface of a tree using hidden strings. Usually, Suzuki found, the birds ignored the stick. It was, by his analogy, a passing cloud. But then he played a recording of the “jar jar” call. In that case, the stick seemed to take on new significance: The birds approached the stick, as if examining whether it was, in fact, a snake. Like a word, the “jar jar” call had changed their perception.

This paragraph is a useful summary:

The emerging research might seem to suggest that there’s nothing very special about human language. Other species use intentional wordlike signals just as we do. Some, such as Japanese tits and pied babblers, have been known to combine different signals to make new meanings. Many species are social and practice cultural transmission, satisfying what might be prerequisite for a structured communication system like language. And yet a stubborn fact remains. The species that use features of language in their communications have few obvious geographical or phylogenetic similarities. And despite years of searching, no one has discovered a communication system with all the properties of language in any species other than our own.

Much more at the link, of course. Thanks, Eric!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The emerging research might seem to suggest that there’s nothing very special about human language

    … which is absurd. QED.*

    It does all tend to undermine the Chomskyan imaginary-language-gene theory, but then that is even absurderer.

    * I was just thinking about “Effective Altruism”, which functions as a neat reductio of Utilitarianism as a moral Theory of Everything; unfortunately. its self-obsessed and self-deluded fanboys get to the absurdity, and instead of taking it as a refutation, interpret it as a revelation.

  2. Michael Hendry says

    Does the article ever mention syntax? Years ago, friends were all excited about chimps using sign language to say (well, sign) ‘Me want banana’. As I recall, they were just as likely to say ‘Banana want me’ or ‘Want banana me’ or whatever, with absolutely no concern that the banana might eat them. Putting together three pertinent vocabulary words to make a complete message is certainly a part of language, but doing so in random order, not having any syntax (significant word-order or case-endings) to remove ambiguities, still seems to leave apes on one side of a huge linguistic divide, with all humans on the other.

    Something I didn’t think to look into at the time (30+ years ago?): do apes use repetition and word-order for emphasis? I suspect they do. That is, if a researcher holds up one banana in front of two apes in separate cages, I imagine they’d say “Me me me me banana, me want, banana, me me!” or something like that, and if a researcher holds up a banana and an apple in front of one monkey in a cage, it would say “Banana banana banana, want banana banana, me banana!”.

    So what do the actual linguistics people here (linguisticians?) know or think about this?

  3. It’s all bananas, no me want.

  4. You discussed interspecies communication here and here.

  5. Progress has been slow. I had not been factoring context in. Now I know that wau-wau in the middle of the night means “I have to pee”, whereas during the day it’s merely a bid for attention. No bananas were involved.

  6. I knew it all along. I’ve been talking to my dogs – and they to me for more than 30 years. And yes, there is syntax, repetition, and some soliloquy too. My current one, a Newf, is also a master of tricolon, especially at tea time.
    Lately, I’ve started learning Barn Owl, and not getting enough sleep. I’d prefer Finch or Siskin but vocalisation is out of my range.

  7. as i’ve said before, equally crankily, i’m sure: the main reason for the persistent fantasy of human exceptionalism (as opposed to specificity, applying to any species) is the translation of christian theological premises into scientific axioms; it’s not borne out by evidence in any field once you remove them. and one of main barriers to understanding language (and all other phenomena having to do with thought) is the reductionist “one function one organ” fantasy that restricts the focus of attention to the brain.

  8. it’s not borne out by evidence in any field once you remove them

    As I have said before with equal and opposite crankiness, not even the most intelligent gorilla can tell the most absurd story of why her people build a new nest every night.

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