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Talking Animals and Human Exceptionalism

Whether in Warner Bros. cartoons, in old jokes, or on Twitter, a good deal of humor has been derived from supposing that animals could talk. Equipped with language, what would they say?

The Internet, bless its heart, has added the further question: Equipped with four-letter words, how would animals curse? But of course the humor is dependent on our shared understanding that animals don’t talk, and could never talk. Yes, they communicate. “Both animals and humans use signs,” neuroscientist Michael Egnor writes at Mind Matters. The difference lies in the types of sign they, and we, employ.

Signals and Designators

From “How Is Human Language Different from Animal Signals?”:

There are (for our purposes) two kinds of signs — signals and designators. A signal is a concrete sign that has a physical relationship with the object it signifies. Pointing at a tree is a signal (direction). Making a noise to ward off an intruder is a signal (warning). It is the concreteness that characterizes the communication as a signal. A signal points to or represents, in a physical way, what it signifies. That can include aiming (with a gesture) and implying (by a frightening noise). Other signals might include imitation (for example, saying “meow” to a cat, to indicate friendliness by sounding like a cat). Both animals and humans use signals. A paw or hand motion, a grunt, a shout or a roar, are all signals. Signals can be quite complex — consider the complex songs of birds or the dance of insects in a hive.

A designator, however, is a kind of sign that differs in a very important way from a signal. A designator points to an object, but it does so abstractly, not concretely. The spoken or written word “cat” has nothing physically to do with a cat. Unlike a gesture (pointing to a cat) or making the sound “meow”, the letters C-A-T feature nothing that concretely links the word to the animal. You only know what “cat” designates if you understand the word as used in English. By contrast, you could understand a signal like pointing to a cat or saying “meow” even if you spoke no English. Designators differ from signals in that they point to objects — things or concepts — abstractly.

Language is the systematic use of designators — the rule-based use of abstract signs. That is why a lion’s roar, an ape’s gesture, or a bird’s song are not really language. They are signals. A signal is not rule-based (signals have no grammar) and signals are concrete, not abstract.

Only humans have language because only humans are capable of rule-based abstract signing. Animals can often employ complex signals but no animal uses rule-based designators. Animals that can be trained to communicate using “language” (such as parrots or apes) are using words as signals, not as designators. For example, you can train your dog to go fetch the leash when you say “Do you want to go for a walk?” because he has learned to fetch the leash in response to those sounds, which he hears as a signal. He does not understand them as a grammatical construction and will certainly not go on to discuss the weather forecast with you. His communication is concrete, not abstract.

Abstract Language, Abstract Thought

That’s an important point about what is really happening when you speak to your dog and are understood. It’s the sounds the dog is hearing, not the words per se. What the dog hears is no different from what happens when you’re out on a walk and make kissy noises at passing dogs, which they almost universally seem to appreciate as indicating that you are warmly disposed and would enjoy petting them. As Dr. Egnor points out, abstract language is uniquely suited for abstract thought. That is something of which only humans are capable.

Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny would not be as funny if they were represented as humans. The culture seeks to impress on us that humans are no more than a kind of animal. Yet our laughter at the thought of animals using language is an acknowledgement of human exceptionalism.