Animal Languages:
Fact or Fantasy?

Terri Wadsworth

In the movie Star Trek: The Voyage Home an alien probe has entered our solar system and is creating terrible, damaging storms on earth with a mysterious message. Captain Kirk and his crew attempt to decode the message. The Captain is forced to consider a wider range of possibilities when Mr. Spock points out that "only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man." The message is discovered to be the song of humpback whales. Captain Kirk asks "Could the humpbacks' answer to this call be simulated?" To which Mr. Spock responds, "The sounds but not the language. We would be responding in gibberish." The movie producers presumed that whales are capable of communicating with alien beings through a language which we do not yet comprehend.

And so it has been since the beginning of the Bible. Man has spoken with or desired to speak with the non-human species with which we share this planet. With the technology explosion of the last century, man has indulged this desire through fantasy and research. Literature, movies, and television have given us Dr. Doolittle, Tolkien's Ents, Francis, the Talking Mule, and Mr. Ed. While it is agreed that these examples are fanciful flights of imagination and are in no way factual, they speak for many humans by asking "What if we could talk to the animals?" Perhaps it is because we humans are alone and have no else to talk to or that we're convinced that communicating with non-human species will give insight into the human condition or we're simply curious about non-human species that has spurred research into whether our fellow non-human inhabitants possess language. Whatever the reason, linguists, scientists, animal behaviorists, and animal lovers are caught up in a controversy that is likely to go on until our non-human neighbors can speak for themselves.

Before one can describe non-human communication systems as language, we must attempt to define what constitutes language. During the first class of this course we attempted to define language. Our definition included three main points. Language is a system of arbitrary signs and symbols that stand for the reality around us. It is the relationship among the sounds that are acceptable and it is the relationships among ideas. As the discussion progressed the elements of creativity and the uniqueness of language to man were also emphasized. Noam Chomsky, a linguist, says:

"...there have been numerous efforts to teach other organisms (for example, chimpanzees and gorillas) some of the rudiments of human language, but these efforts have failed." (Chomsky, 1988)

Mr. Chomsky finds it unlikely that if any species possessed the "language faculty" that it would not be used until humans taught them to use it. The authors of our textbook agreed with Chomsky in their assessment of the experiments to teach human language to chimpanzees and other animals.

According to them:

"A careful examination of the utterances in ASL of these chimps show that unlike children, their language exhibits little spontaneity, is highly imitative (echoic), and reveals little syntactic structure." (Fromkin and Rodman, 1998)

In my opinion, there are a couple of reasons why linguists and scientists cling to the view that only humans possess language. First, non-humans having language threatens human "superiority" in the natural world. Researchers like to single out language as the human characteristic which sets us above all other species. By acknowledging language in non-human species, humans are no longer unique. We are no longer "superior" and other species are "equal" to humans. It seems narrow-minded and insecure to pin the proof of human superiority on one aspect of human existence.

A second reason for the discrediting of language experiments with non-humans is that the results of these studies are often based on one individual or small group of individuals. Scientists will believe results that are of sufficient quantity and can be extended to even larger populations. The results of language acquisition experiments with cetaceans, great apes, monkeys, and birds have largely been based on individuals and very small groups of test subjects.

In my mind, there exists a basic problem with this the idea that language is exclusive to the human species. How can we apply human standards to that which is non-human? Fromkin and Rodman acknowledge there is a difference between human language and bird calls. They say:

"Despite certain superficial similarities to human language, bird calls and songs are fundamentally different kinds of communicative systems." (Fromkin and Rodman, 1998)

It's not logical to apply human standards to that which is "fundamentally different." Why must we insist that in order to have language non-humans must be able to use the lexicon and syntax of human language and be creative with it? Non-humans have no need to communicate with humans. Their survival doesn't depend on being able to communicate their deepest thoughts and feelings to us. Their communication systems or languages are perfectly suited to their needs and purpose. Creativity is a characteristic of human language but it shouldn't be used to define what language is. For that matter, can anyone really define what language is? It can be dissected down to the smallest phoneme. It can be ordered by "rules." It can be described by listing its characteristics but can it truly be defined?

I am not a scientist, linguist or animal behaviorist. But after many personal experiences with non-humans and after spending some time reading about what other researchers have done, I am convinced that non-humans do possess language. To say that their languages are not as rich or complex as human language is to once again apply human standards to that which is non-human. As a friend of mine pointed out though, "What other standards do we have?" We're stuck with being human. We can't change that. But the "human arrogance" which characterizes scientific and linguistic theories must be put aside. A few forward thinking individuals have been able to open their minds to the possibility of interspecies communication. Many of these individuals have devoted their efforts to specific species. The experiments and experiences of some of these researchers will be explored in the rest of this paper. I want to show that in spite of claims to the contrary, interspecies communication is possible.


Aristotle observed:

"The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulty with the consonants."

Two of the most fascinating individuals involved in communicating with cetaceans are John C. Lilly and Jim Nollman. John C. Lilly is a respected scientist. Jim Nollman, a musician, is the founder of Interspecies Communication, Inc. Both men are convinced that it is possible for man to communicate with whales and dolphins. John Lilly's research into communicating with dolphins influenced Mr. Nollman's experiences and so I will start with Mr. Lilly's work.

John Lilly defines communication as:

"the creation of information in one mind by means of signals from another mind...In order to communicate there must be an agreed-upon simulation of the information and rules for construction of the information from the signals. Language, as we know it, results from an agreement among many individuals about the meaning of the signals." (Lilly, 1978)

His research has attempted to discover a way to create information in the mind of the dolphin and allow the dolphin to create information in the mind of a man.

Mr. Lilly has researched the critical brain size needed for language. A human's brain weighs approximately 900-1800 grams and is predominantly associational cerebral cortex. An ape's brain weighs 350-400 grams, considerably less than a human. In contrast, the dolphin brain weighs 1000-6000 grams and is predominantly associational cerebral cortex. Mr. Lilly came to the conclusion that "even within the human species. there is a critical mammalian brain size below which language as we know it is not possible." (Lilly, 1978) Because a dolphin's brain is larger and has more cerebral cortex, a dolphin should possess language. In 1957, Mr. Lilly founded the Communications Research Institute in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands and Miami, Florida. The Institute conducted research into dolphin/human interspecies communication.

One of the most fascinating experiments conducted at the Institute involved a woman named Margaret Rowe and a dolphin named Peter. In 1965, John Lilly asked Margaret to live continuously with dolphins and teach them to make "humanoid" sounds. A special room was constructed for Margaret and the dolphins to live together. The floor of the room was flooded with water deep enough for the dolphins to swim around in. It was not so deep that Margaret couldn't walk though walking in the water proved very tiring as her weekly report shows. There was also a flooded balcony outside. Margaret lived with Peter Dolphin.

Living with a dolphin proved to have its own unique problems. Peter would nip at Margaret's toes, so she carried a broom to ward him off. Her bed apparently got wet everyday as she talks about getting some polyethylene sheeting to protect it.

Margaret's goal was to mold Peter's natural inclination for "humanoid" sounds into recognizable human words. They worked on basic vocabulary for pronunciation and comprehension in the categories of numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), personal names (Margaret, Peter), greetings (hello, bye-bye), objects (ball, toy, fish, bucket, bobo clown, kinipopo, baby block) and actions (speak, listen, come, go, give me). In a preliminary report Margaret outlines the methods she will use to teach Peter to "say" words. They are a combination of traditional and formal repetition lessons. Margaret soon finds out that Peter has his own ideas about how "lessons" should proceed. She very wisely decides to use his playfulness and appetite for games to teach him. At the beginning of the experiment Margaret reports that Peter is able to pronounce "ball" clearly but he doesn't pronounce other words distinctly. In later attempts he does pick up the cadence and sometimes the pitch of Margaret's voice. His attempts to "say" the names of the vowels (long sounds of vowels) come closer to the actual pronunciation. Pictures of Margaret and Peter as well as samples of Peter's early attempts to pronounce words and later attempts after Margaret has worked with him can be found at

Peter's words would never be intelligible to another human being who didn't know what he was supposed to be saying. And I question the validity of trying to teach a non-human to speak like a human. What is remarkable is that Peter did eventually understand that he was to repeat what Margaret said and tried! I'm assuming that the experiment ended or no more significant progress was made after the tenth week as Margaret's reports stop there. Margaret comments in her report of the eighth through tenth weeks that she and Peter had learned to trust each other completely but she doesn't make any reference to Peter's progress in pronouncing words. She does say that he would string together "humanoid" sounds. The experiment ran from June 15,1965 to August 18, 1965.

In his book, Communication Between Man and Dolphin, John Lilly discusses the use of various specially designed machines that would allow humans and dolphins to communicate with each other without relying on the dolphins' understanding of human language. A "vocoder" would change the frequencies of the human voice accurately into the frequency domain of dolphins and vice versa. He also proposes the use of a high-speed minicomputer that would simulate the vocoder. He dreams of another device that would pick up sonar signals from the dolphins and transform them into pictures that a human could see. Conversely, the device would transform human visual signals in the air into the equivalent underwater sonar signals for the dolphins. As I read about these devices I couldn't help but think of Star Trek's concept of a "Universal Translator."

Mr. Lilly's dreams were given reality in Project Janus and Project Delphis. Project Janus was conducted at Marine World/Africa from the late 1978 to 1985 in Redwood City. Redwood City is located on the shore of San Francisco Bay. Burgess Meredith, the actor, was instrumental in procuring funds to acquire a pair of young dolphins from the Gulf coast. Joe and Rosie were brought to Marine World and Project Janus began.

JANUS stands for Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System. The project attempted to use computers to match the "channels of communication of each species." Humans used a keyboard and computer screen while Joe and Rosie were given underwater loudspeakers and microphones. Humans, via the computer screen, manipulated visual symbols translated into high-pitched digital signals that the dolphins could hear. Mr. Lilly had found that intensive personal interaction facilitated communication and learning between dolphins and man so college aged men and women were recruited to work with the dolphins. Unfortunately, the project lacked a great deal to make it successful. The physical environment in which the humans and dolphins worked was far from ideal. The men and women recruited to work with the dolphins, although energetic, were not scientifically trained. The program struggled to secure funding. In addition, the computers being used in the project became outdated but sophisticated software to use in more powerful computers was not yet available. The project ended in 1985 with minimal success. Joe and Rosie were returned to the area where they were caught.

There were some positive results from the project. By the end of the project Joe and Rosie knew computerized versions of 50 human words and the syntax to go with them. They reproduced these high-pitched sounds to convey the same meaning that humans attached to them. They also understood that a specific sequence of sounds carried meaning. Another positive result of Project Janus was the idea that computers could be used as an interface between humans and dolphins.

An ongoing project which is using computers to interface with dolphins is Project Delphis. John Lilly's team and the scientists of Earthtrust hooked up in 1997 though the project itself was created in 1985. Dr. Ken Marten is the chief scientist in charge of the project. He has been credited with proving self-awareness in dolphins. More sophisticated computers and software are available now making it easier to realize Mr. Lilly's dream of using computers to create a human/dolphin interface. The dolphins use an underwater touchscreen and hydrophones pick up the whistles and clicks emitted by the dolphins. Specially designed software is able to recognize specific dolphin whistles and label them with English nouns. When the whistles are played back for the dolphins, they respond appropriately. They are also generalizing the noun concepts. For example, if different types of balls are shown, the dolphin will emit the whistle for "ball." for any picture. The plans are to solidify the whistle/object vocabulary and then expand the vocabulary to include adjectives. One presumes that eventually other parts of speech and syntax will be added if the project continues.

Mr. Lilly and Earthtrust hope to educate people about the intelligence and sentience of dolphins. They want laws enacted to protect the dolphins in the ocean from the slaughter that continues today.

As I read about Mr. Lilly's experiments and theories I came to believe he is on the right track with using computers to decode dolphin language. Hopefully one the day the dolphins will be able to speak for themselves via a computer interface with humans. Project Delphis looks promising!

Jim Nollman, a musician, has taken a completely different approach to communicating with cetaceans. He believes the common ground for establishing communication with whales lies in music. His experiments and experiences playing music for whales and other non-humans began in the 1970s. He tells his story in his book: The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet. Nollman doesn't call his experiments scientific and indeed researchers are adamant about NOT calling his work science. Nevertheless, Jim Nollman's observations may be a critical factor in determining the ultimate fate of whales and dolphins in the wild.

In the chapter titled "Six Honest Serving Men of Learning" Nollman discusses species communication and language. He quotes a wide range of scientific literary data to support non-human languages including those of whales and dolphins. He interprets the honeybees' dance as complex. He claims it contains elements of art, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, syntax, and can help with thermodynamic engineering when the bee communicates a water source that can be used to cool the hive when it gets too hot. He compares the scientific view that the bees' dance is instinctual to a human child being born not only prepared to acquire language (discrediting Chomsky's "language acquisition device" perhaps) but possessing also the syntax and vocabulary of a specific language that relates to specific tasks. He argues that the idea "against acquired behavior in social insects is mostly a presumption based on what biologists expect, given the insects' tiny brains." Once again we see human standards being stamped on that which is not human by well-meaning but self-absorbed scientists.

Mr. Nollman has emphasized collaboration with the whales rather than having them mimic humans. He believes that the complex vocalizations might actually be closer to music than language, akin to the whistling language of Basque shepherds. He also believes that creativity is not measurable by scientific means. When he discusses the case of Hans, the clever horse, he wonders if it's better to have a companion that can give the square root of a number or one that watches closely and picks up subtle cues from its handler. He cites several research projects that are attempting to discover the vocabulary of orca. He relates how one researcher is recording orca vocalizations when they are in the intersection of a channel. The researcher is hoping to discover which vocalizations stand for left, right, forward and back by observing the direction the whales take after vocalizing.

For nine years, Jim Nollman camped on an island off the west coast of Canada during the summer. He named the camp Orcananda. The camp was sponsored by Interspecies Communication, Inc. of which he is the founder. It is from his experiences in this camp during successive summers that Mr. Nollman has learned a great deal about orcas. Each summer he invited a few families including children to camp with him. The mission of the camp was to communicate with migrating whales through music. A boat equipped with a special underwater sound system was anchored off the shore of the camp. Mr. Nollman had rules for interacting with the whales. First and foremost, the whales were never chased down. They participated voluntarily by coming to the anchored boat. Second, music was only played to the whales after dark. This was the best time to catch the interest of migrating whales. The noise pollution created by human endeavors was much less at night. Third, recorded whale song or recorded music was never allowed to be played for the whales. All music had to be "live." Recording apparatus preserved those special times when the whales did come to the boat and participate. Mr. Nollman describes two regular visitors to the boat from "A" pod. A mother and her son came regularly each summer to the boat. They would vocalize with the music. The kind of music played usually had musical pauses that allowed the whales to join in. Mr. Nollman feels that "A" pod whales were the most musical. He allowed Tibetan monks, children, and scientists access to the sound system. Perhaps most endearing were his stories of the children trying to communicate with the whales. Their "banging" didn't attract whales but they learned to persevere and accept the results. Perhaps the most important lesson the children learned was respect for the whales that Mr. Nollman insisted on. Toward the end of the experiment, the whales stopped coming to the boat simply because they weren't there to come. Mr. Nollman concludes that the noise pollution in the water drove the whales to seek a quieter environment somewhere else.

There is so much that rings true and is thought provoking in The Charged Border that it is impossible to do the book justice. It must be read. Mr. Nollman is obviously intelligent and knowledgeable of his subject, has a sense of humor and is persuasive in his enthusiasm for communicating with other species. He relates personal experiences of communicating with whales and dolphins that are serious and humorous at the same time. He tells stories of early encounters with a turkey and a raven that helped shaped his own beliefs about non-human languages. By relating his experiences, Mr. Lilly hopes his "art" will help change the attitudes of people who would prefer to slaughter the whales and dolphins.

The work of John Lilly and Jim Nollman is a step in the right direction for reshaping our perceptions, scientific and otherwise, about non-humans and their languages.

Great Apes

Experiments teaching the great apes to communicate with sign language and electronic devices have perhaps stirred the most controversy among scientists, linguists, animal behaviorists and animal lovers. Chomsky and the authors of our textbook have called these experiments trained circus acts and operant conditioning. It leads me to believe that they haven't really read the literature or investigated for themselves the validity of the claims of the researchers working with these primates. Jane Goodall and Diane Fosse are two of the more famous names that come to mind as respected researchers in the field. The work of Allen and Beatrix Gardner and Roger Fouts is truly amazing.

I was overwhelmed at the scholarship and dedication Roger Fouts showed toward his research with chimpanzees. His special friend and collaborator was a chimpanzee named Washoe. He describes their lifelong relationship in his book, Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees.

Dr. Fouts begins his tale with the details of how he came to be baby-sitting a chimpanzee and teaching her American Sign Language. His need for a job to put himself through school led him to Allen and Beatrix Gardner and Washoe. The Gardners theorized that the chimpanzee might have an innate ability to communicate. The believed that this capacity would emerge naturally if the chimp was raised as a human child. The technique is called cross-fostering.

So Roger Fouts was hired to take care of the baby chimpanzee and teach her American Sign Language. This was done mainly through immersion. Washoe's caretakers were not allowed to use their voices around the baby. They used sign language to communicate with each other and Washoe. The Gardners wanted Washoe to learn to make signs for food, water, and toys. They also wanted her to ask questions, to comment on what the humans did and to stimulate conversation. Dr. Fouts reports that baby Washoe's sign language developed stage for stage like a human child's. First she developed single signs, then she put 2 signs together and then began making sentences with 3 signs. He questions the existence of Mr. Chomsky's "language acquisition device" by saying there is no physical evidence to prove its existence nor has anyone found it in the left side of the brain where it is supposed to reside.

One of the most compelling indications that Washoe truly possessed language was her "hand chatter." She would sign to herself as she looked through magazines. Jane Goodall has proven that chimpanzees use a gestural language in the wild. After many adventures together, Roger and Washoe settled in Washington with four other chimpanzees rescued from research labs. One of the chimps was Washoe's adopted son who learned sign language from his mother. The chimps were observed with video cameras and they were seen to use sign language with one another. When speakers of American Sign Language were shown the tapes of the chimpanzees signing to one another, there was over 80% agreement among the signers as to what signs were being used. The chimps weren't just wiggling their fingers in meaningless gestures.

Dr. Fouts sees language as something that must be taken in context. Linguists believe that 75% of meaning is communicated through body language and intonation. If this is true then syntax is a less important factor in determining meaning than it was thought to be. He believes "Universal Grammar" to be necessary for determining shades of meaning in written language. Language is a continuum with varying degrees of development in non-humans according the their place in the continuum.

Dr. Fouts has fallen out of favor with the scientific world by taking a stand against medical research on chimpanzees. He has become a champion of chimpanzee rights. He finds it incongruous that scientists experiment on chimpanzees because they are a close relative to humans and then turn around and treat them inhumanely. 98% of the DNA of a chimp and human is identical. And a chimpanzee's capacity for language is similar but not exactly the same as a human's.

Another "inculturated" great ape that we heard about was Chantek, an orangutan. He was taught sign language by Ms. H. Lyn Miles. With Ms. Miles as his teacher, Chantek learned approximately 150 signs. Ms. Miles believed that it wasn't the quantity of words that mattered but how Chantek used those words in relationship to other words and his reality. She claims he invented signs to mean "balloon," "viewmaster," and contact lens solution. His name for contact lens solution was "eye drink." He invented "car water" for bottled water when he had seen Ms. Miles with it in her car. When Chantek was moved to a zoo because he became too big to live with humans, his first request to Ms. Miles was to go home. He asked her to get the key to unlock the door so that he could get out. This hardly seems like the request of an operantly conditioned ape. He was aware of his surroundings and knew that it wasn't his home. The language that he acquired was sufficient to allow him to ask to go home. It met his needs as does the sign language used by Washoe and her family.


People have kept domesticated animals like cats and dogs for centuries. They have become our companions and protectors. Because they've been in our households so long, it seems illogical to assume that cats don't have language. At the beginning of the this paper I suggested that non-humans don't depend on humans for survival. Perhaps that should be modified to read that they don't depend on humans for survival except when they choose to live with humans.

According to an article in "Healthy Cat" magazine, a cat can produce at least 20 distinct sounds, what linguist would call a lexicon. They can be divided into 3 basic groups: murmurs and purring sounds, vowels and meows, and strained intensity sounds such as hisses and screams. Cats are basically silent creatures in the wild, probably because if they were too vocal they would alert dinner to their presence and then have to miss a meal. Cats become vocal when they are mating, having kittens or when they move in with humans. They learn that "talking" gets their needs met by humans much faster. The article theorizes that cats who have been socialized early are more talkative than cats who have not been exposed to people. My cat, Cookie, was a feral barn cat that I caught when he was about 8 weeks old. He vocalizes mostly in the kitchen. I usually interpret his meow as wanting me to pick him up since that's what I've been doing each time he's asked and he seems to like it. The article also states that though a cat's vocabulary is limited to meow it can say "words" by changing the tone, volume and inflection.

Cookie provided me with a perfect example of his ability to create a new word through volume, tone and inflection not too long after I started this research. He is an indoor cat and doesn't go outside at all. He accidentally got out the back door one day into the back yard. At the time I hadn't been able to mow my backyard for some time and the mustard weed was quite tall and thick. He jumped down beside the house and I could hear the rustling as he made his way along the house. Not wanting to scare him, I stopped and called his name. He let out the loudest, most terrified meow I'd ever heard! I called him again and he came running toward my voice. I interpreted that terrified meow to mean "MAMA, HELP!" I consider that meow creative and semantic. Cookie had never been in that situation before and he created a meow that definitely got my attention. He has not used that volume, tone or inflection again.

Patricia Moyes has written a book entitled, How to Talk to Your Cat. In Chapter 4 she discusses the different sounds a cat makes. She divides them into twelve much more detailed categories instead of three. Cat sounds consist of the purr, the welcome, the informative mew, the demand meow, the complaint, panic, the protest, the indignant meow, the angry meow, the active threat, courtship sounds, the personal call and finally the silent miaow. For each category of sounds she described the pitch, tone and inflection. For example, "The Demand" is a high-pitched, sustained, incessantly repeated meow. "The Welcome" consists of a series of short chirruping mews, that have a high to low intensity. She goes on the list situations in which you might hear these particular cat sounds. These are general categories of cat sounds but she says that each cat has its own vocabulary. As I read the descriptions of the various sounds I thought of personal instances when I've heard cats using those particular words. I also thought of sounds that I've heard but don't seem to fit into any category. My parents' cat, Nabby, used to walk through the house continuously meowing. It was almost as if he was talking to himself. At other times the meowing would get louder and would only stop if my mom or dad called to him. Ms. Moyes didn't have a category that fit Nabby's talking to himself but I'm sure the other times his vocalizations would fit into the demand category. They wouldn't fit into the panic category because he seemed to know that mom and dad were somewhere and if he just got loud enough to let them know he was looking for them, they would call and he would find them.

Since cats are basically silent creatures except when they live with humans, a large part of their language is body language. Ms. Moyes describes the different body postures and her interpretation of their meaning. "The Lick" is an expression of love and affection. We all know what an angry cat looks like. It's hard not to interpret the rhythmic lashing of the tail, the ears flattened to the sides, and the fluffing of the coat and tail as anything but an angry feline about to do something to that which has provoked him. One of the most endearing actions I have experienced is the paw on the nose. It is a gentle gesture of love and affection from the cat to its person. I've experienced the paw on the nose many times and each time both the cat and I become more relaxed and in tune with each other. Not scientific but I don't think emotional responses should be subjected to the rigors of scientific measurement. If it feels good to the cat and me then so be it. Ms. Moyes also talks about a cat's "smile." It is a relaxed upward tilting of the corners of the mouth. The eyes, whiskers and ears are all part of the head and face and are capable of many expressions. A relaxed, happy cat will often close his eyes until they're almost shut and smile.

At the beginning of this research on animal languages, I asked the people on my e-mail lists for anecdotes of their experiences talking with their pets or their pets talking to them. By and large the responses were about cats! One of the most fascinating responses came from Tom. He told me about a kitten he found in a restaurant parking lot. He said he told her what he wanted to do with her and she jumped in his truck very willingly. He also said that this cat (he didn't name her) has a special word for him that she makes only when she greets him. "In her tongue, I am "MeROOWdddlROOOW." I'm still working on the pronunciation but Tom obviously hears the different cat phonemes she strings together. Other responses told about conversations cats had with different people. A cat named TC was walking with the writer's brother. As they walked, the brother talked to TC. According to Tim, TC meowed back at his brother at the appropriate pauses in his brother's speech.

Jean reported that her cat, Kitty, has conversations with other cats outside the windows of their house. Kitty sits in the window and will converse with his father or the cat across the street. When he converses with the cat across the street, sometimes Kitty meows in a series. To Jean it sounds like a sentence. At other times the meows are short "like one word or syllable."

My parents wrote of their part Siamese, Nabby. I know this cat and I know for certain that he communicates very effectively to my folks. When I see how well my dad responds to Nabby's vocalizations, it makes me wonder who's "training" whom in my parents' house. For example, one day when my dad was in our den where Nabby sleeps, Nabby came in and was obviously distressed. He meowed constantly at my dad. My dad decided to turn on the light (it keeps Nabby warm) that was over the box Nabby sleeps in. When my dad turned the light on, Nabby hopped in his box and promptly went to sleep satisfied that my dad had finally gotten the message.


Dogs are another domesticated animal that has chosen to live with humans but could probably survive without humans. Stanley Coren has made a study of dog language. He's written about his theories and dog language in a book entitled, How To Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication.

Like Roger Fouts, Mr. Coren takes an evolutionary view of language development in mammals. The DNA sequence codes of dogs and humans have better than a 90% agreement with each other. Mr. Coren suggest that non-humans and humans are on the same evolutionary "highway." This idea is similar to Dr. Fouts's "language continuum." Mammals are all at different places on the evolutionary "highway" which accounts for the different amounts of complexity in their languages. Mr. Coren doesn't believe that an ability that gives humans such a great survival advantage would not exist in some form in other species that have been shown to be so close to humans at a molecular level.

If we accept language as being part of the evolutionary continuum, it is hard to dismiss Mr. Coren's theory that dogs were in part responsible for the development of speech in humans. He claims that when dogs and humans teamed up, dogs took over the duties of sniffing out and hunting for prey. Humans no longer needed protruding for their survival. Human faces flattened and the physical features that produce speech sounds were allowed to develop.

In Chapter 4, a dog's ability to comprehend human language is discussed. Language is not only the ability to produce meaning that is understood by others but the ability to comprehend the meaning produced by others as well. Mr. Coren witnessed the performance of several dogs that were thought to comprehend complex human sentences. Upon further observation, Mr. Coren shows that the dogs were responding like "Clever Hans," the horse that was thought to be able to do complex math problems and to respond to human language. The dogs were actually responding to subtle changes in their trainers' body language just as "Clever Hans" was discovered to be doing. But as Mr. Nollman pointed out maybe it's more intelligent to be able to pick up on subtle cues in body language than it is to be able to do math problems. Mr. Coren acknowledges that dogs have the ability to comprehend as many as 200 different human words. There are others who believe that dogs might be able to understand even more. The second largest number of respondents to my e-mail inquiry told stories of their dogs. The common thread in all of the stories was that the people talked to their dogs in a normal conversational tone. The dogs reactions to this discourse was almost always appropriate. One person talked about her dog Ram. "He UNDERSTOOD so many things and that the same word in different circumstances meant something totally different." A Siberian Husky named King seemed to understand when his owner complained that he was cold. King pulled a blanket off the sofa and put in his owner's lap. I was also amused at King's sense of propriety. Visitors to his doorstep were not allowed to stand in the doorway for too long before King would take their hand gently in his mouth and lead them into the living room to sit down and visit properly.

In Chapter 6, Mr. Coren makes the case for a "universal language code" of non-humans. The rules for understanding this of this code include three elements: the pitch of the sound, the duration of the sound, and the frequency or repetition of the sound. Sounds of aggression or defense are low-pitched. Sounds of friendliness and submission are high-pitched. Sounds that are shorter in duration indicate higher degrees of fear, pain or need. The longer the sound lasts, the more likely it is that the dog is considering his next move. Repetition at a fast rate is equated with excitement and urgency. The language of many non-human species, including canines, can be interpreted with these rules. Mr. Coren is interviewed in the A&E program "When Animals Talk." In the interview he talks about syntax being a characteristic of language. He claims that dogs will never mix a growl and whine. If we apply the "international language code" of non-humans we discover that a growl is a low-pitched sound used in defensive situations whereas a whine is high-pitched and indicates submission. It is logical to assume that a dog will never be defensive and submissive at the same time. Could these rules then be a rudimentary form of syntax?

Sonya Fitzpatrick takes a completely different approach to understanding and communicating with non-humans. She claims to be able to talk with non-humans through mental telepathy. She gives many personal anecdotes of her success in her book, What the Animals Tell Me. It's hard to believe that the problem of communicating with non-humans can be solved by learning to mentally communicate pictures to them and "tuning in" to their minds to hear what they have to say. I learned of Ms. Fitzpatrick's method several years and was skeptical then. However, after learning "how" she communicated by projecting mental pictures into the minds of her animals, I decided to try it one afternoon on my horse, Skipper. I was at a friend's barn and needed to load him in my trailer to take him home. It was late and he often had a habit of taking off just as we got up to the trailer. He wasn't scared of the trailer. It seemed to be more of a game to him. I mentally projected a pictured of him walking straight into the trailer without a fuss toward him. I attached a sense of urgency to the picture. Amazingly, Skipper walked straight up to the trailer and walked right in without stopping. It may have been just a coincidence but it does make one wonder. Tom told of a similar experience with one of his cats. He had named the cat "Devil." The cat wouldn't respond consistently when he called her by that name. One night, he claims, the cat came to him in a dream and told him her real name was "Dawn Gilson." The next morning the cat was sitting in the yard with her back to Tom. He called her by the name she had given him in the dream. He claims she turned and looked at him with a very surprised look on her face. I'm sure Ms. Fitzpatrick would claim the cat deliberately communicated telepathically with Tom in order to be called by her right name. It's hard to believe but I'm willing to keep an open mind that there are other ways of communicating with non-humans.


Mimicry of human speech is a talent possessed by members of the parrot family. But do they possess language? Irene Pepperberg would say yes. She has worked with an African Gray parrot named Alex. Alex has shown an amazing ability not just to mimic words but to use his lexicon in cognitive tasks. He can label concrete objects, has a refined concept of same and different and can answer questions about the color, shape and texture of objects. His trainers did not appear to be giving him unconscious signals but it has been shown that non-humans can pick up very subtle cues from humans. Alex would seem to disprove Mr. Lilly's theory of a critical brain size necessary to have language since a bird's brain is much smaller that a human's.

As I researched I found another remarkable bird on the internet. Buba (pronounced bub[schwa]) is another African Gray parrot with an amazing vocabulary. He is described on his website ( as knowing over 200 words and phrases, some of which are in Hawaiian. He often hooks several phrases together and will talk to himself. The website writer relates how one day he, the writer, decided to lay down for nap. Buba began to make a snoring noise just as the writer was about to fall asleep. In the .wav file of Buba singing jingle bells he responds appropriately to the prompter's requests. It is impossible to tell from a .wav file though if the prompter was giving Buba any subtle body cues. From the information given at the website Buba doesn't sound like he's being used in research. He sounds like he's a family pet that keeps the entire family on their toes.

Crows are another bird that is being studied for its language capabilities. The crow is capable of a wide range of sounds including mimicry of other species and elements of human speech. Researchers have found that crows use specific caws in specific situations. They have alarm calls, assembly calls, and distress calls. It has also been found that some crows specific to a particular area don't use or understand the calls of crows from other areas. Ravens are closely related to crows.

Jim Nollman, the musician, relates a very interesting encounter with a Raven while camped in northern Canada. A Raven comes to visit him in camp. He plays a Jew's harp for the bird and it begins to follow him. At times the bird appears to be leading him. When Mr. Nollman returns to camp the Raven stays with him. It waits patiently outside the tent, when he takes a nap. After the nap, Mr. Nollman shares some crackers with the bird. He makes the mistake of trying to touch the Raven, who protests the breach of Raven protocol with a "piercing squawk." But the bird doesn't leave. He remains some distance from Mr. Nollman for a few hours and then returns the musician's side. Mr. Nollman describes the bird's return to his proximity:

"...the bird decides to venture close. But he relents, flies to my side, where he makes that strangest of all raven calls that sounds like a drummer banging on wood block. Once, twice, three times. I feel blessed by his proximity: a raven's way of communicating that my indecent affront is forgiven."

The Raven spends a few more hours with his new friend and then leaves. There is no question that the Raven and Mr. Nollman communicated to each other.


As I asked in the introduction to this paper, can language be defined? I don't think it can. Language then, becomes a lexical tag for the concepts that characterize the sounds produced by humans and non-humans. Each language has its own characteristics which make it unique. One characteristic of human language is its infinite creativity. It allows humans to participate in a wide variety of activities. But these activities are not crucial to our survival as a species. Could we survive if we didn't have the ability to discuss the stock market or a new hair-do? I think we could because we would develop a system of communication that would meet our survival needs. Languages of non-humans do just that. They meet the survival needs of the species.

Linguists and scientists call the sounds and body gestures of non-humans signaling systems and instinctual. It occurred to me that Mr. Chomsky's "language acquisition device" is nothing more than instinct. Webster's College Dictionary defines instinct as an "inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species." The second definition in the same dictionary also supports the idea that a "language acquisition device" is instinct. It states that instinct is "a natural or innate impulse, inclination, or tendency." Mr. Chomsky has used the same words, inborn and innate, to describe his own "language acquisition device." Poor Mr. Chomsky! Does he realize that he has put humans on the same level that he puts animals?

I like Mr. Lilly's way of describing communication and language. My cats, dogs, horses and even chickens create meaning in my mind with the signals they give me. I have no doubt that the meaning created in my mind by Cookie's loud and anguished MEOW outside the house was MAMA HELP! I called and he came to me as fast as he could. If the dogs, cats, horses and chickens react appropriately to my actions based on my perception of their meaning then we have agreed on the meaning of those signals and we have language.

Mr. Lilly's dolphins demonstrated agreement with the meaning of lexical tags given to their whistles by responding with the same whistle when shown the object. The dolphins had language. The whales Mr. Nollman plays to agree to the "art" of music by responding with their own unique sounds in the natural pauses in the music. Peter Dolphin agreed to meaning of human words by trying to say them. Washoe agreed to meaning of her signs by teaching them to her son. The other chimpanzees in her family also used sign language not only to "request" items to fulfill their needs but to discipline, love and gossip with each other. The agreed upon meanings then became the "language" shared by the non-humans and the humans they interacted with.

Non-humans that are taught human languages are the pure second language learners. Their own language is completely different from that of a human. The authors of our textbook have this to say about the difficulty of learning a second language:

"Some of us are total failures at second-language learning...we are unable to learn another language." (Fromkin and Rodman, 1998)

Many non-humans are capable of learning a small number of words in the human lexicon and responding appropriately to them. They succeed at learning a second language more often than humans seem to be able to. Does it really matter how they learn them? Doesn't it matter that they can and it doesn't seem to be limited to a few talented individuals? Dogs learn to "sit" and "stay." Cats learn "Are you hungry?" Chimpanzees learn sign language. Dolphins and whales vocalize to music. How fortunate for us that non-humans seem to have more of a capacity to learn our language than we have to learn theirs!

Human languages and non-human languages are worlds apart from each other. One of the respondents in my e-mail survey offered this opinion of non-humans and their languages.

"I think it is a mistake to 'personify' animals. Animals are animals, not people. If you don't understand that, then you miss the miracle of their unique processing of the world around them. If you are a pet owner, you have some opportunity to observe that and have a lot of fun when our mode of communication and theirs intersect... Just because we can't measure or quantify a particular phenomena does not mean it doesn't exist, merely that we don't understand it." (DeAngelo, 2001)

I think I'd like to "intersect" with cats and learn their language!


1. Aristotle on Dolphins. retrieved April 22, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

2. “Buba the Bird.” Coconut Info: 1995-2000. retrieved April 22,2001 from the World Wide Web:

3. Chomsky, Noam. Language and Problems of Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1988.

4. Coren, Stanley. How to Speak Dog. New York: The Free Press, 2000.

5. Fitzpatrick, Sonya. What The Animals Tell Me. New York: Hyperion, 1997.

6. Fouts, R. Mills, S.T. Goodall, J. Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees. New York: Avon Books, 1997.

7. Fromkin, V. Rodman, R. An Introduction to Language. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.

8. Lilly, John C. Communication Between Man & Dolphin. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.

9. Montgomery, M. (Producer). (2000). When Animals Talk. [Videotape]. New York: New Video Group.

10. Mukerjee, M. (4/96) “Interview with a Parrot.” Scientific American. retrieved April22,2001from the World Wide Web:

11. Moyes, Patricia. How to Talk to Your Cat. New York: Wings Books, 1978.

12. Nollman, Jim. The Charged Border: where whales and humans meet. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1999.

13. Nollman, Jim. (1996). “What the Raven Said.” Interspecies Newsletter. retrieved March 25, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

14. Poole, L. (2000, Fall/Winter). "Cat Talk: What Your Cat is Trying to Tell You." Healthy Cat. pp. 12-14.

15. Project Delphis. A series of articles retrieved April 22, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

16. Project Delphis. retrieved April 22, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

17. Project JANUS. A series of articles retrieved April 22, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

18. Rowe, Margaret. Woman and Dolphin. A series of articles retrieved April 22, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

19. Westerfield, Michael. (1999). “The Language of Crows.” retrieved March 25, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Additional Reading:

20. Ainslie, T. Ledbetter, B. The Body Language of Horses. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980.

21. Nollman, Jim. Dolphin Dreamtime. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

22. Roberts, Monty. The Man Who Listens to Horses. New York: Random House, 1997.