At this very moment, you’re doing something remarkable. Something no other species can do, and you’re doing it so easily you are barely noticing it. Have you figured it out yet?
Yes, you are reading. You are using Language. Language is arguably man’s greatest invention; it is the tool that created all tools.
Do animals use language?
All animals can communicate. Communication is crucial for hunting, breeding, defending territory, etc. Prairie dogs have many different alarm calls that refer to specific threats, like coyotes and eagles1. But the prairie dogs do not combine the calls to create new meanings. Apes can learn to communicate with humans by the use of sign language or by pointing to symbols. But their messages are still not considered Language2.
With the invention of language, humans took communication to a different level. Our communication system is so complex we can communicate not only on things that are currently happening but also on past, and future events, even circumstances that are completely fictional. Language is often defined as an open-ended communication system. In other words, when we are using Language there is no limit for the complexity of the messages that we can convey. This is one of the features that define the difference between human language and the ways other animals communicate. It is this complexity and open-ended features of Language which enable us to transfer knowledge. But that’s not all.
The mystery of language
Language actively affects the way we think and perceive the world. For example, it determines how we categorize colors3 or understand directions4. This is why in modern linguistics Language is referred to as an internal component of the mind2. So, the better we understand our language, the better we understand ourselves.
So how can dogs help us?
The first step in deciphering the mystery is understanding from what language might have evolved. Everything in nature is a modification of an earlier trait, for example, our hands evolved from flippers, and our eyes from light sensors. But what did our Language evolve from? One of the most common evolutionary theories views Language as “a new machine built out of old parts”5. This theory suggests that Language evolved from the combination of different cognitive capacities. If this is the case, we should find similarities between us and other animals in certain aspects of Language comprehension, such as the ability to create categories and understand symbols. Dogs are an especially good comparison model as they are raised in human households and are exposed to Language on a daily basis.
1Kiriazis J., Slobodchikoff C. N., (2006) Perceptual specificity in the alarm calls of Gunnison’s prairie dogs. Behavioral processes; 71, 29-35.
2Hauser M. D., Chomsky N., Fitch W. T., (2002) The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science; 298, 14-42.
3Athanasopoulos P., Wiggett A., Dering B., Kuipers JR., Thierry G., (2009) The Whorfian mind. Communicative & Integrative Biology; 2:4, 332-334.
4Gunetr S., (2017) Absolute frames of spatial reference in Austronesian languages. Russian Journal of linguistics; 21, 686-705.5Bates E. A., Goodman J. C., (1997) On the inseparability of grammar and the lexicon: Evidence from acquisition, aphasia, and real-time processing. Language & Cognitive Processes;12, 507–584.