Animal speech, or an attempt at an interspecies translation

It’s almost unbelievable how many foreign languages we can translate. Even for the most exotic language combinations, it is usually possible to find someone who understands and can even translate the foreign languages. Geographic distances in the modern world mean nothing, and people are able to communicate with one another as if they grew up in the same village. 

But what about the language of the animals that surround us? Is it another foreign language that we try to understand, or is it a completely different communication system? And how is it different from human communication?

The first major difference is the (in)ability to refer to a moment other than the present

Our pets are perhaps just as good as us at expressing hunger, albeit in a different (frequently much louder) way. But what our dachshund can’t do is whine that he was starving when we came home from work very late the day before yesterday. People, on the other hand, have no problem talking about the past and future or even expressing themselves abstractly, whereas animal signals are mostly very pragmatic (and who has never wanted to swap places with their pet to enjoy their carefree life?).

The “language” of animals also consists of only a limited number of signals that have a clear meaning and are used in recurring situations. And it is precisely because of this ‘predictability’ that we are usually able to ‘translate’ the message and respond appropriately (e.g. by feeding our dog, letting him out or, in the case of dangerous displays, by escaping). In contrast, human language is made up of random (“arbitrary”) forms that we can combine to derive further meaning. The syllable ‘mon’ serves an entirely different purpose in the words ‘Monday’ and ‘money’, despite sounding exactly the same in both words. But we can hardly imagine that our dog would wag their tail and growl to tell us they want a piece of meat (unless, of course, they do so while we are making goulash, in which case the message is clear).


Have you ever wondered if your child would have learned to talk even if she had been raised by wolves?

It may have worked out well for Romulus and Remus, but don’t try this experiment at home – human speech is not innate and genetics has nothing to do with it: a Czech child raised in an American family will, of course, speak English as a native speaker, and vice versa. On the other hand, a kitten will meow and a sparrow will peep even if they grow up in isolation (despite the fact that research has shown that even in animals communication is influenced to a certain extent by learning). However, the cultural transmission of language is key for humans, as they cannot learn any “instinctive language” on their own.


And can animals learn human language?

If, for example, a horse slows on the command “steady”, does it mean it understands us? Of course not. Obeying a command is understood as a reaction to a stimulus, not as a language skill. Although the animal’s understanding of human speech is merely an illusion, some scientists have gone further and attempted to prove that the animal is capable of producing human language.


Several teams of researchers decided to raise a young chimpanzee along with a child and teach them the same things. It was soon determined that chimpanzees are unable to imitate human speech, so experiments with sign language began. Some apes achieved remarkable results and were able to creatively combine the signs. These conclusions, however, were not universally accepted, and many scientists believe that chimpanzees, although very clever, only fulfil the tasks assigned in anticipation of rewards and do not perceive the sense of language in depth.


As such, human and animal languages are in many ways incomparable and a perfect understanding of one another will probably remain a matter of fairy tales (Paddington, Mr. Ed, etc.).
But even if we can’t use a CAT tool to decipher the language of cats, it’s often easier to communicate with them than with other members of our family.


Author: Marie Hamšíková



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