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Animal Language
Posted: 11 December 2011 09:11 AM   [ Ignore ]
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So if the house cat “asks” to go outside, is that language? I understand what she’s saying given the context.

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Posted: 11 December 2011 01:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’d say that’s language.

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Posted: 11 December 2011 01:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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No, it’s not language in any meaningful sense; there’s a reason why “language” and “communication” are two different words, and it serves no good purpose to use the first when the second is meant.  “Language” is best reserved for a complex, arbitrary system of communication such as we know exists only among humans (though of course it is not impossible it exists in other species).

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Posted: 12 December 2011 01:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I made my suggestion after reading what several on-line dictionaries say, about what the word “language” means to people:

Webster’s Revised Unabridged (1913):
5. The inarticulate sounds by which animals inferior to man express their feelings or their wants.

It might be argued that this dictionary reflects the usage of 100 years ago, not necessarily that of today. So -

Merriam-Webster :
b(3): the suggestion by objects, actions or conditions of associated ideas or feelings; language in their very gesture - Shakespeare
b(4): the means by which animals communicate.

Compact OED
: 1 (sub-heading): a non-verbal method of expression or communication: body language.

The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, on the other hand, confines its definition of language, as languagehat does, to the systems used by humans.

Wikipedia (may its tribe increase!) has a very interesting article on “Animal Language” which touches both the subject of non-human animals communicating with each other, and the degree to which such animals might be capable of using language in the way humans do. It distinguishes, as lh does, between “language” and “communication”. (Let me recommend another fascinating Wikipedia article, “Bee learning and communication"). One gets the feeling that we are still some way from hearing the last word on this subject.

Language hat’s definition of “language” is a rigorous one, as befits a professional linguist. It looks, however, as though popular usage is (as usual) a lot less rigorous, and people will continue to speak of “the language of bees”, “the language of whales”, “the language of cats”, and “body language”, whatever linguists may say.

I recall that we had a discussion some time ago about “tsunami”, the upshot of which was that while no seismologist or marine scientist would dream of calling a tsunami a tidal wave ( because strictly speaking, it isn’t), ordinary people with less care for technical nicety will continue to do so regardless. Such is language.

Many thanks, Iron Pyrite and languagehat, for your very stimulating posts!

As an interesting sidelight: I learned from this look-up session that there are “animals inferior to man” - a fact of which I was not previously aware ;-). Some of them, actually, have a much nicer smell......

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Posted: 12 December 2011 01:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Well Lionello, doesn’t that phrasing imply that there are also animals superior to man? So pay hommage to your cat and give it a hug.

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Posted: 12 December 2011 03:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Language hat’s definition of “language” is a rigorous one, as befits a professional linguist. It looks, however, as though popular usage is (as usual) a lot less rigorous, and people will continue to speak of “the language of bees”, “the language of whales”, “the language of cats”, and “body language”, whatever linguists may say.

Yes. Dictionaries are descriptive and will include popular definitions that are often at odds with technical ones. But that puts the onus on the user to select the correct sense for a given context. In the question is: “does my cat have language?” the questioner is using the technical definition. The response should also use the same sense.

If someone asks, “my clothes are wrinkled, could I borrow an iron,” you don’t hand them a golf club.

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Posted: 12 December 2011 05:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Language hat’s definition of “language” is a rigorous one, as befits a professional linguist. It looks, however, as though popular usage is (as usual) a lot less rigorous, and people will continue to speak of “the language of bees”, “the language of whales”, “the language of cats”, and “body language”, whatever linguists may say.

---

Of course there are those who opine or at least suspect that the language of whales might really be language.

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Posted: 12 December 2011 07:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Language hat’s definition of “language” is a rigorous one, as befits a professional linguist. It looks, however, as though popular usage is (as usual) a lot less rigorous, and people will continue to speak of “the language of bees”, “the language of whales”, “the language of cats”, and “body language”, whatever linguists may say.

Popular usage here isn’t necessarily in opposition to technical usage. I think most people who use such phrases at would, if called on to analyse them, say that they employ the word language in a figurative, even metaphorical sense, and that when they speak of “the language of bees”, they aren’t ‘really’ saying that bees have language.  A man who works with deaf people once said to me “Sign language is a real language” (meaning that it has grammar, etc.) and while we both appreciated that that sounded a bit paradoxical, neither of us thought it actually pleonastic.

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Posted: 12 December 2011 08:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Of course there are those who opine or at least suspect that the language of whales might really be language.

I don’t know of any evidence that strongly indicates this is the case among marine mammals. There are hints, of course, but dolphin communication has been extensively studied and little hard evidence of language in the technical sense has resulted. Communication among large whales, like humpbacks, is more difficult to study rigorously.

Language work among non-human primates has been seriously contaminated by some really, really poorly designed and conducted experiments in earlier years. Most of what has been produced is crap. Only now are scientists starting to dig themselves out of the steaming pile of what early researchers left them.

The most interesting work to date has been with birds. But there is nothing conclusive yet.

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Posted: 12 December 2011 10:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I think most people who use such phrases at would, if called on to analyse them, say that they employ the word language in a figurative, even metaphorical sense, and that when they speak of “the language of bees”, they aren’t ‘really’ saying that bees have language.

If I were sure of that, I’d be a lot more willing to countenance such metaphorical use; the problem is that these days the “news” media are filled with stories alleging that so-and-so has “proved” that apes, or whales, or whatever actually have real language with real grammar—cut to clip of dog choosing a particular toy from among a large pile, or chimp grooming human pal.  (I’m not a professional linguist, by the way, I’m a professional editor, but I was trained in linguistics by professionals at a tender age.)

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Posted: 12 December 2011 09:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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there’s a reason why “language” and “communication” are two different words

This seems like a pretty important and fundamental distinction, one that I had not quite identified till now. Behavior, for example, can communicate but still not be “language” per se. It’s a tricky distinction: is there conscious intent and is there a structure to the medium.

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Posted: 13 December 2011 08:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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We need to enlist an animal psychic here.

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Posted: 13 December 2011 10:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I’ll volunteer my cat Pushkin… oh wait, you said “psychic,” not “psycho.”

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Posted: 13 December 2011 12:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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There are a number of characteristics that separate language from mere communication. There are probably several, similar lists. This one is from Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 2nd ed., 400–01:

(I’m assuming speech, but you can substitute different words for other media.)

Interchangeability: language can represent any message the speaker can understand

Feedback: the speaker hears and can reflect on the entire message (unlike body signals, which the signaler cannot see)

Specialization: the sounds do not serve another biological purpose

Semanticity: the sounds have stable associations with meaning

Arbitrariness: the meaning of a sound is not dependent on its nature

Discreteness: the sounds used can be clearly distinguished from one another (unlike a dog growling)

Displacement: it is possible to talk about events remote in space and time, or even contrary to fact

Productivity: elements can be combined to produce an infinite range of meaning

Duality of patterning: sound elements can be combined to form new sound elements with different meaning

My dog lets me know when its time for dinner or when he needs to go out, but this communication doesn’t have any of these elements.

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Posted: 13 December 2011 12:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Interchangeability: language can represent any message the speaker can understand

Seems bold. Can English represent every message you can understand? :-)

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Posted: 13 December 2011 05:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Hockett’s criteria of language are very nice, but the reality of the situation is that in most cases we lack the experimental evidence to say whether or not these criteria are present, so we make the assumption that they are not. For example, dog growls all sound alike to us, but experimental evidence now shows that dogs can tell the difference between an aggressive growl and a play growl (this is semantics). No one has looked at whether some of the other of Hockett’s criteria, such as productivity or duality, are found in dog growls, because this is not easy to do, and it is much easier to simply assume that they are absent. In fact, some linguists prefer to define language as something that is uniquely human, and then, by definition, language is found only in humans and no one needs to look any further. But definitions do not always reflect reality: remember Korzybski’s “The Map Is Not The Territory.” We now have abundant evidence that there are some animals who can choose to produce arbitrary signals that have semantic value, that are understood by other animals that then have appropriate behavioral responses. As an example, look at the YouTube video of prairie dog language: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1kXCh496U0

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