How complex are animal “languages”?

Animal Language

In animals, a tremendous variety of intelligence and alternately, cleverness is seen. This often translates directly to the complexity of their language.

It’s important to realize that language is not limited to vocal elements. Body language, smell, and dances are also counted as a source of communication between animals. However, in the light of available research, it appears that no form of animal communication comes anywhere near the complexity of human language.

Communication in Insects

Most insects don’t communicate beyond the instinctual level. It’s just automatic with no actual thought behind it. But, a more sophisticated communication is seen in bees in which they dance in the direction of fields after they arrive in their hives.

Communication in Reptiles

Reptiles and amphibians have vocalizations that they mostly use to announce their presence. Although, frogs can get into some pretty intense duels during summer nights in order to mark their territory.

Communication in Fish

Fish are mostly instinctual communicators. Some use visual signals and water pressure changes to coordinate their movement. But a few vocalize too.  Squid and Octopi send visual signals to each other by changing the color of their skin.

Communication in Aves

Birds come at the top of the list, with highly intelligent gray parrots on the very top. These birds can learn huge vocabularies of human words to the point where they can even make their sentences. With superb mimicry, they have the advantage of shaping their communications to match our language exactly.

Many other species have a more limited vocabulary that they use among themselves. Their word count ranges from a few basic calls for nighthawks to a number of different coordinating communications for crows.

Communication in Mammals

Most of the mammals just use basic words. Like wolf howls or barks to communicate. But surprisingly, with wolves, communication is not only vocal. They use body language too. For example, if their leader wants to say “go hunting,” they will gather and then cast their votes by sneezing.

Interspecies Communication

Some mammals can communicate with crossing species. For example, cat meows at humans but not in their absence. Cetaceans like dolphins, orcas, and whales have songs. Through these unique songs, complex communication goes on between them.

On the other hand, chimp tribes use non-verbal communication.

Human Language

All of the above are sophisticated forms of communication. But human language still knocks it out clean. From the abstract material to things happening in different places, we can talk about anything. We can even discuss stuff that hasn’t happened yet.

Another feature of human language is that it is “open-ended” and “productive.” This means that although we only have a finite number of symbols, we can talk about an infinite number of things, including things nobody has ever talked about before.

Can Animals Learn Human Language?

There are claims that primates can be taught to communicate with humans in ways that mimic human language. The most famous example is Koko the gorilla, who got trained to use American Sign Language.

The researchers working with her claim that she can not only talk about things that happened in the past, but she can also even make up her phrases (for example, signing “dirty bad toilet” as an insult). But some linguists are skeptical of these claims. They say that the signs Koko produces are vague and poorly executed.