What Idea Should Die: Human Language is Unique


The scientific idea that needs to be put to rest is the notion that human language is far more unique than animal language. Scientists find human language unique because it includes many means of communication such as weaving together phonological patterns, body language, and facial expressions. Of all the design features used to define language, the only ones absent in the animal kingdom are those of displacement or recursion. The ideas of Universal Grammar have long segregated the ideas of human language and the possibility of animal languages. One idea in particular that has recently been debunked is the necessity of a language to be recursive. This lack of recursion in the Piraha language of South America has opened the door to our defining of language. It shows us how culture plays a role in language and if culture can play a role then perhaps evolutions can too. The idea that language requires a design feature such as displacement needs to be put to rest because animals communicate in very similar ways that are efficient to their species. Humans communicate the way they do because it is most efficient to their evolution. In a similar way, animals communicate in ways that are most efficient to their evolution. Humans as well as animals have critical periods in their language development in which they must hit in order to produce language properly. Therefore, human language is not unique; it is evolutionarily efficient.

Songbirds Songs that birds create are a complex learned behavior, which have similarities to human speech. Songbirds have song acquisition, like speech acquisition in humans that occur early on in their life and are critically dependent on their auditory experience and feedback. The clearest link between humans and birds is the ability to learn new sounds from others. Songbirds have two characteristic phases, the first is a period of sensory learning, where the birds hear and memorize their parent’s songs or templates. The second characteristic is sensorimotor learning, which is when the bird sings and gradually refines their song until it matches their parent’s template. Songbirds can also learn the calls of other species, which can make them bilingual or even trilingual. These specialized genes are connected to “the language gene” or FOXP2. Birds and humans share more than fifty genes connected to speech and vocal learning.

Dolphins Like humans, dolphins have multiple ways of communication. They use whistling noises, clicking, and body language to communicate with one another and with other species. Scientists believe that every bottlenose dolphin has its own signature whistle, which serves the same purpose for them that a name would for a human. They also use different tones of whistling to communicate to their pod when there is a threat or prey. When dolphins are in distress their signature whistle becomes very loud which then alerts their pod members. Dolphins respond to whistles by whistling back or by moving towards the dolphin in distress. When dolphins find food their frequency of whistling increases. This then attracts more dolphins to the area so they can assist in rounding up the fish to allow for a larger meal. Along with whistling, dolphins utilize body language when they are close to one another. They roll their eyes, hold hands (swim with pectoral fins overlapping), and even push one another when agitated.

Bees In contrast to Cartesian automata, the honey bee dance language serves as a model of animal communication. Based off of work done by Karl Von Frisch (1967) the worker bee uses the dance language to recruit and direct other workers in gathering pollen and nectar. Communicating the distance and direction of a food source there are 3 types of bee dances: the round dance, the sickle dance, and the waggle dance. At least to us humans, it even communicates the polar coordinates of a valuable field location enabling the colony to direct and coordinate foraging activities. In the round dance a forager runs around in small circles before precipitously reversing directions to her original path. Once one dance is finished the bee will distribute food then repeat it or do another dance. The round dance is the forager’s way of telling the worker bees where the food is in close distance range (50 meters). The sickle dance is like the round dance because it tells distance but a crest shape is made instead of a circle because it’s only communicated intermediate distances (50-150 meters). Unlike both the round and the sickle dance the waggle dance communicates both distance and direction of a food source. A bee that performs a waggle dance runs straight ahead for a short distance, returns in a semicircle to the starting point, runs again through the straight course, then makes a semicircle in the opposite direction to complete a full figure-eight circuit. While running the straight-line course of the dance, the bee throws its abdomen from side to side in a pendulum like motion. From the straight line run both distance and direction can be communicated, the way the dancer is facing communicates the direction the food is in and the amount of time in seconds of the straight line run tells the distance of the food. The bees system of communication is capable of yielding an infinite number of different messages, like human language. Bees communicate the location and nature of sources of food; they adjust their foraging to the times at which food is available. These dances may seem like some sort of simplistic ritual, but it’s a tremendously sophisticated system of communication that hints at some pretty high intelligence, with the combination of memory, processing, and symbolic information transfer (Srour, 2013). Research done by Robert Berwick has concluded through extensive research that point out that bees and humans learn languages at the same phase of life, using the same part of the brain, and employ “a finite number of stress patterns” in speech (Dizikes, 2013).

Ants Ants use three different kinds of signals to communicate tactile, acoustical and chemical. The most prevalent method of communication amongst ants is the chemical or pheromone method which occurs when workers or other drones mark surfaces with certain pheromones or by spraying them (for example in case of danger spraying the scent spreads the message more quickly). Ants also use tactile or touch communication amongst each other. With the slight touch of an antenna ants can distinguish between enemies and other members of the same colony as every colony has it's own unique scent. This touch also plays a role within colonies and one major action ants perform during the day is sharing food (trophallaxis). In case a hungry worker encounters a worker who has some food she will start drumming against her sister's head with her antennas or even the front feet to beg for food. Notice how even during trophallaxis, the ants keep touching each other constantly. This is not too different from how human infants and children communicate with their parents. Children will pull on a pant leg indicating they want to be picked up or requesting attention. Children will also hug to show affection or to indicate fear and elicit a protective response from the adult. Most recently, researchers found that some species of ants made noise. These types of ants have a specialized spike along their abdomen that they stroke with one of their hind legs, similar to dragging the teeth of a comb along the edge of a table. Preliminary studies seemed to indicate that this noise served primarily as an emergency beacon, allowing the ants to shout for help when being threatened by a predator.


According to researchers, the development of language by the human species was made possible by the evolution of our brains. The functional expansion of the human cerebellum is a consequence of specific cerebellar structural changes that evolved during hominid evolution and that could have been a prerequisite for the evolution of human language (Leiner, Leiner & Dow, 1993). As we physically evolved as a species, our minds also cognitively evolved to give us the tools to communicate. Given what we now know of the evolution of life on the planet, is it really so far-fetched of an idea that other species have also evolved similar methods of communication amongst themselves?

Animals communicate in ways that are most efficient to their evolution. This makes human communication not nearly as special as people tend to make it out to be.


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