Ask a Scientist: Are humans the only animals that communicate by written or verbal language, and if so, why?

By: Kylia Goodner

Before we delve in to this intriguing question, we need to first understand the difference between communication and language. Communication, by definition, is the transmission of a signal between the sender and receiver. This signal could be language, but it could also be smells, movements, or postures. Obviously, all animals communicate, but do they do it through language? Defining language is actually a complex and highly debated area of research, but most scientists would agree that language is a structured form of communication, containing words and grammar that can be combined in infinite ways to create new combinations.  So a chimpanzee can communicate by having a specific yelp which means “predator” or “safe”, but unless that chimp can combine those yelps into a new sentence which means “No predator here! It’s safe,” we cannot claim that the chimp has language.

Due to the difficulty of studying animal communication in the wild, most research has focused on the ability of animals to learn human languages. This has been done in the past by teaching dolphins, apes, and even parrots a sound or symbol representing a specific object or action. Then the scientists reorder these symbols into new combinations and assess whether the animal can understand and perform the task. For example, scientists can teach dolphins the words for “Frisbee” “left” and “Fetch,” then they can re-order them into the sentence “Fetch left Frisbee,” and the dolphins would be able to understand and perform that task. This suggests that dolphins (as well as apes, and even animals like parrots and prairie dogs) have the ability to comprehend a structured language. Unfortunately, very little progress has been made in determining whether animals in the wild have a structured language.

As for written language, there is no evidence to suggest that animals possess this truly unique facet of human nature. This isn’t terribly surprising, as humans did not develop a written language that was not based on pictures until around 3200 BCE, which is 200,000 years after modern humans evolved.  This suggests that in order to develop a written language, a species needs an extremely long period of using complex spoken language. This long period of spoken language is, to our knowledge, unique to humans. Further, some external factor must drive the creation of a written language, because writing is a skill that takes time to create and learn, and animals aren’t going to create it just for fun. For humans, this drive was the development of agriculture. Humans had to keep track of the seasons, their crops, and food allotments for their citizens. All of this is extremely hard to remember, and can get confused if only conveyed through verbal language. Therefore, humans needed to develop a written language, but, as far as we know, this pressure does not currently exist in animal populations.

So, we aren’t the only animals to communicate, and we may not be the only animals to have language, but we are the only ones with the ability to write it down. Moving forward, research identifying different animal communication systems in the wild is a major focus of scientists in this field.  Unfortunately though, the basis of what these languages could entail is unknown, making it extremely difficult for scientists to “translate” potential animal languages into a human form. But, difficulty never stopped a scientist before, so keep your eyes peeled for the “Elephant to English pocket dictionary”