|It is easy to think of a lions roar or a chimps
chatter as words in an animal language. But what do these sounds mean, and
do animals really use them to communicate with one another? Animals communicate
in many ways. Some spray scent, others perform startling visual displays,
and still more use gestures to convey a wide variety of messages. But it
is the use of sound which provides the most immediate and flexible means
True Language: Language is any method by which information is exchanged. But true language is the means by which a range of information is conveyed, including the expression of abstract ideas and past and future thoughts and actions. Most animals communicate, not through language, but by instinctual behaviors that convey messages to others.
Talking Animals: Animals make a wide variety of sounds, from the musical song of a bird to the howl of the wolf, to the contented purr of a cat. While they are unable to talk in the sense that humans do, they do communicate with sound in a way that is understood only by other members of their own species. Still, researchers have been unable to translate individual animal sounds in a framework that can be called true language.
Vocal Vervet Monkeys: The vervet monkey is one of the most vocal of all animals. It has developed three or four distinct sounds that it uses to identify different predators to fellow members of a troop. If a monkey spots an eagle, it gives the appropriate warning call, which makes the monkeys in the trees drop to the ground. A different sound is used to communicate the presence of a leopard. It is believed that the distinct sounds the vervet monkeys make are learned, rather than instinctual. Young vervets often make the wrong calls, and different troops use their own sounds for the same predator.
Vocabularies: Although humans often attribute subtle and complicated meanings to the various sounds animals make, most animal communication is actually simple in context. Animal communication is most often used in situations where the attraction of a male or the defense of territory or food from rivals is involved. Furthermore, such communication is an instinctive form of behavior rather than a learned skill, and not a sign of the use of true language.
So, although every dog makes a different sound when it barks, the bark is simply used to announce its presence to a mate or as a warning to a rival or intruder. The message is uncomplicated, and the ability to bark is inherited. A few animals do show signs of sophistication in their use of language. Some birds use a whistle as a warning that a predatory hawk is near, but use a remarkably different series of chirps to rally a group to defend itself against less dangerous predators.
Other researchers have used new artificial languages in similar studies. Two chimps, Austin and Sherman, were taught to use Yerkish – a language substitutes symbols for words. When given suitable linguistic tools, then, chimpanzees demonstrate that they can express ideas and even grasp some concept of grammar. While they may not possess a language in the wild, it does appear that chimpanzees can learn to communicate through language.
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