Fun facts for the Ides of March

The 15th of March was not a good day for Caesar. It’s never really a good thing when your own BFF quite literally stabs you in the back.

I have more pleasant memories of this day from the year 2011. That was the day when a little thing called Freshly Pressed happened to my post, My Cat Says Hello. Before that day, I didn’t even know what it meant to be Freshly Pressed, but I was soon swept up in the dizzying whirlwind of going from single-number hits to thousands of hits in one day. Watching those numbers plummet two days later was like waking up from a Vegas bender with a killer hangover. But it was fun while it lasted.

Now they can't avoid the paparazzi.

Now they can’t avoid the paparazzi.

To celebrate the anniversary of the whirlwind, I decided to revisit the topic of animal communication and find out if anything interesting has developed since the girls made their Internet debut to help illustrate my post.

First, a word of warning: trying to do this on your own by searching Google for “animal communication” is far more likely than not to find you an animal psychic or therapist rather than information on the linguistic abilities of non-humans. I recommend at least switching to Google scholar to avoid the new age folks.

From what I could find, there is no new significant evidence to suggest that we are closer to understanding whether or not non-humans can use human language. One abstract from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B summed up the current state of our knowledge: studies have shown that animals can indeed learn to use a limited set of grammar-like rules, but we don’t know yet if they are able to handle the full complexity of human language. There aren’t enough experiments being done in this matter, partly because of the difficulty of designing an experiment that could provide convincing empirical evidence. The question is still open.

Understanding the limitations of what non-humans can do in regards to language may help us understand the nature of language and what makes it unique to humans. And in the meantime, we are learning more things about the communication systems that do exist among different groups of non-human animals. Just a week ago, a new study was released that explained a new understanding of how rats sniff to communicate certain social information, much as dogs and cats do.

Does anyone else have that Smashing Pumpkins song stuck in their heads?

Does anyone else have that Smashing Pumpkins song stuck in their heads?

Researchers basically observed in rats what has been seen in other mammals – including humans – with complex social orders: a communication system that conveys social order and appropriate behavior. When two rats approach each other, the dominant rat sniffs the submissive one more frequently, while the submissive rat sniffs less often. If the submissive rat sniffs too much, the dominant rat is more likely to get aggressive and put that rat in its place.

We humans don’t sniff, but we do certainly have ways of asserting social dominance. For one example, I’m instantly reminded of how men of lower status in Japan have to bow more deeply than their social superiors do. In another example, it also seems that “Men Act Like Dogs to Determine Dominance.” Dominant dogs have deeper growls and submissive dogs whine in a more high-pitched tone. Similarly, men who perceive themselves to be dominant compared to another man will lower the pitch of his voice. If he feels like he is the subordinate, he will “whine” and speak at a higher pitch.

But more often, we communicate this linguistically, and in ways we may not expect. According to psychologist James Pennebaker in his recent book, The Secret Life of Pronounsour pronouns can often reveal social or professional dominance: less dominant people use “I” more often than those more dominant. Also, people who are romantically interested in each other may start mimicking each other’s speech patterns, and so their pronouns and other function words may suddenly behave very similarly. You can even check your own use of pronouns on Pennebaker’s website.

So no, we are not necessarily any closer to knowing if we could teach animals to speak our language, but we seem to be getting more valuable information by observing the parallels between animals’ own behavioral and communication systems and our social and linguistic behavior. These parallels might give us more understanding about the link between social interaction, communication methods, and the development of language. Some linguists are looking more at that link rather than at individual grammatical systems to determine what they’re made of or how they are connected. Some psycholinguists, for example, are using computational methods from evolutionary biology to track how languages diverged and became separate, and what role social processes may have played in the rate of that language change.

But we’re also gaining knowledge of how to navigate our daily linguistic lives. Now you know that if you want to climb the social ladder, you must adjust your pronouns and voice pitch. Most importantly, however, don’t sniff other people too often unless you want to get smacked.

12 thoughts on “Fun facts for the Ides of March

  1. You write, “First, a word of warning: trying to do this on your own by searching Google for “animal communication” is far more likely than not to find you an animal psychic or therapist rather than information on the linguistic abilities of non-humans. I recommend at least switching to Google scholar to avoid the new age folks.” If you put the word “zoolinguistics” in your search bar, you will presumably find just what you are looking for and none of the extraneous material from alleged animal psychics, animal therapists, and other New Age folks. If I am not mistaken, serious students of the discipline indeed now prefer “zoolinguistics” to “animal communication” as its name. By the way, my experience has always been that Google’s search engine is far superior to Yahoo’s or any other. Even when searching for news items on Yahoo! News, I have found Google to be better.

    • Thanks for the tip, though actually “zoolinguistics” (the study of animals’ communication systems or of the ability of humans to communicate with animals using their own systems) isn’t really what I was looking for. I was looking for research that discussed what we’ve learned about animals’ abilities to learn human language, not just what we’ve learned about those animals’ own communication systems. (And when you search Google for ‘zoolinguistics’ you have to constantly tell it that you did not, in fact, mean to type ‘biolinguistics’ or ‘sociolinguistics’.) My initial narrow search terms didn’t yield much, and the wider search terms (such as ‘animal communication’ or ‘zoolinguistics’) gave me too much that was off-topic (even on Google Scholar.) Regardless, this lack of search results still tells me that this isn’t as hot a topic as it used to be when Koko the signing gorilla was in her heyday!

      • Now I understand. I put “teaching animals human language” in Google’s search bar and many websites appeared.

  2. That was interesting stuff. I was interested in reading (no, wait: ‘It was interesting to read…’) about use of language when dating, and I wondered (erm ‘it would be interesting to know’) how this affects couples who are communicating in a different tongue. My daughter, for example, currently living in Spain, recently dated a Catalan speaker, and their lingua franca together was Spanish. To what extent would this have changed their interactions together?

    • That is an interesting question. I think it’s hard to say how their language might change depending on the power structure when that language is a second one for both speakers. I suppose it would have to depend on their relative skill with the language. Would the less competent speaker not even know how to adjust their language to the more or less dominant pattern? Would this result in inadvertently offending someone when a language pattern that is associated with more power is unwittingly used, thus creating the illusion that the speaker has an unrealistic view of his/her social or professional status? On the other side, what if the listener isn’t as competent and doesn’t recognize those sorts of linguistic cues, and the offends because s/he isn’t reacting properly?

      I would imagine if the two speakers are at similar levels of competence, they will for the most part communicate effectively and maybe see some similar adjustments in their language patterns without even realizing it, but perhaps sudden gaps in the linguistic knowledge of one or the other might, at worst, cause a spat or two :)

      • Yes, I see what you’re saying. As you know, I live in France, and my French is pretty good – but by no means perfect. Recently, I had to write offering constructive criticism on an event I’d been involved with. I worked hard to ‘say what I meant’, but unwittingly offended because the person who read it felt I was expressing myself harshly. Was I, linguistically speaking, seeming to assume a status I didn’t actually have, in her eyes? Or was it a cultural gap in expectations, which is a rather different matter? Don’t worry – you don’t have to answer. It’s just another hurdle to be jumped when trying to assimilate into a different community :(

  3. There’s a great documentary about the dog/human relationship that includes a very interesting section studying how domesticated dogs have adopted some of human’s non-verbal communications. It’s “Dogs Decoded: Nova” and available on Netflix. If you’re a pet-owner or just interested in zoolinguistics, you should definitely check it out.

    • Thanks for the info! I’ve always loved the Nova series and that one sounds very interesting. Will definitely check it out. I don’t have Netflix, but it seems to be available on other sites. I found this on YouTube ( It says “part 1” but I think it’s the whole thing. The episode is 60 minutes long and the YouTube video is 58 minutes and change, and that’s probably because you don’t get the end credits.

    • Thank you! I really appreciate your kind words. I’m not posting nearly as much as I’d like, but I plan to be a bit more regular after this semester ends.

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