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Prairie Dogs Are Cute, But Can They Talk?

Michael Egnor

prairie dog

In a New York Times Magazine article noted earlier here, the author claims that prairie dogs have language. The short answer is “They’re cute, but they can’t talk.” The long answer follows.

From the article:

[Con] Slobodchikoff [is] an emeritus professor of biology at Northern Arizona University, [and he] has been analyzing the sounds of prairie dogs for more than 30 years. Not long after he started, he learned that prairie dogs had distinct alarm calls for different predators. Around the same time, separate researchers found that a few other species had similar vocabularies of danger. What Slobodchikoff claimed to discover in the following decades, however, was extraordinary: Beyond identifying the type of predator, prairie-dog calls also specified its size, shape, color and speed; the animals could even combine the structural elements of their calls in novel ways to describe something they had never seen before. No scientist had ever put forward such a thorough guide to the native tongue of a wild species or discovered one so intricate. Prairie-dog communication is so complex, Slobodchikoff says — so expressive and rich in information — that it constitutes nothing less than language.

That would be an audacious claim to make about even the most overtly intelligent species — say, a chimpanzee or a dolphin — let alone some kind of dirt hamster with a brain that barely weighs more than a grape. The majority of linguists and animal-communication experts maintain that language is restricted to a single species: ourselves.

The author, journalist Ferris Jabrmay, explains the importance of the issue of animal language:

Perhaps because it is so ostensibly entwined with thought, with consciousness and our sense of self, language is the last bastion encircling human exceptionalism. To concede that we share language with other species is to finally and fully admit that we are different from other animals only in degrees not in kind. In many people’s minds, language is the “cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff,” as Tom Wolfe argues in his book “The Kingdom of Speech,” published last year.

Slobodchikoff thinks that dividing line is an illusion. To him, the idea that a human might have a two-way conversation with another species, even a humble prairie dog, is not a pretense; it’s an inevitability. And the notion that animals of all kinds routinely engage in sophisticated discourse with one another — that the world’s ecosystems reverberate with elaborate animal idioms just waiting to be translated — is not Doctor Dolittle-inspired nonsense; it is fact.

It’s a great article, and the prairie dogs are fascinating (and adorable) little creatures, but with all due respect to Doctor Dolittle, the assertion that non-human animals have language is indeed nonsense.

Animals have no language, despite the occasional complexity of their communication. The error these scientists and journalists make in attributing language to animals is an easy error to make, but it is an error nonetheless. The error lies in the failure to distinguish between designators and signals.

There is no doubt that prairie dogs (and many animals) are quite clever. In some ways, animals can be cleverer than men. A horse can respond to subtle movements of his rider that the man isn’t even aware of. But cleverness is not language.

Let’s go back to the basics of communication. Communication is the employment of signs — which are sounds or gestures or images that point to something beyond themselves. There are (for our purposes) two kinds of signs — signals and designators. Signals are “concrete” signs that point to things that are in proximity, either in location or in time. Pointing to a dog is a signal that young pre-verbal children often use. A cross or a Star of David on a house of worship is a signal. It identifies the place as a church or a synagogue. A traffic light is a signal — it uses colored lights to tell us to stop or go.

The key to a signal is that it points to particular proximate things, either objects or ideas. Signals are concrete, not abstract. The signal is connected in a physical way to that which is signifies. All animal communication is by signals. Note that signals can be complex, and animal communication can be complex. But animal communication is concrete, not abstract.

The other kind of sign — designator — is an abstract sign. Designators point to things (objects or ideas) in an abstract way. “C-A-T” is a designator for a particular kind of household pet. CAT is, in itself, merely electrons on a screen or ink on paper, and CAT doesn’t point in any direct or proximate way to any particular animal. While you are reading CAT, there is (probably) no actual cat in the vicinity and no particular cat is evoked even in memory. CAT is an abstract sign, and it is abstraction — the removal of the sign from any specific particular thing — that makes CAT a designator rather than a signal.

What would a signal for a cat be? For example, a signal for a cat would be the bells on your pet cat’s collar that ring when your cat approaches. A signal for a cat might be a picture of a cat drawn on your cat’s little bed. It is even possible for the image CAT to be a signal, rather than a designator, if a sign were attached to your pet with CAT drawn in it, and your pet came to be associated with the sign CAT.

But words, as used in abstract language, are designators. They point to things abstractly, not concretely. Their “pointing” is intellectual, not in any way physical. “CAT” doesn’t look like a cat, and CAT is not attached to a cat in any physical or temporal way. CAT, when used as a word in a language, is an abstract sign that points to a cat or cats in an abstract — an intellectual — way.

Words (designators) are language, and signals are not. Words are arranged syntactically, to enhance meaning. Some words are nouns, which designate things, and some words are verbs, which designate change or states of being. Proper names designate particular things, and general names designate universals. You will notice that the structure of genuine language, as contrasted with a set of signals, has a metaphysical structure — it uses signs that point to particulars and universals and change and states of being. Signals lack this metaphysical structure.

Signals point to specific things, albeit sometimes (as with these prairie dogs) with unexpected complexity. But complexity is not the same as abstraction, and it is abstraction that is the hallmark of language.

Prairie dogs and other non-human animals are capable of using signals — signs that point to particular things in a concrete way — in order to communicate.

Human beings are rational animals, and we are the only animals capable of abstract thought, which is thought that entails contemplation of universals. We are the only animals capable of using abstract signs – designators — to communicate, and we are the only animals capable of genuine language.

Photo: A prairie dog, by skeeze via Pixabay.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



communicationCon Slobodchikoffdesignatorlanguageprairie dogssignsignalTom Wolfe