5 major differences between human language and animal communication

Deer and child.

A translating machine once took the English expression “out of sight, out of mind” and rendered it in another language as “invisible idiot”!

Did that mean that the machine had snapped a gear?


It was making a very pardonable mistake.

And it was also highlighting one of the many factors that make human language unique among known methods of communication—its complexity.

To the machine, “out of sight” was, in a certain sense, to be invisible.

To be “out of [your] mind” was to be mad or an idiot, and yet “out of sight, out of mind” does not mean “invisible idiot”!

It is this sort of thing that gives inventors of translating machines headaches.

Of course, it is not only complexity that makes human speech unique.

There are many other factors involved—so many that some scientists maintain that, instead of labeling man homo sapiens (“human with wisdom”), it would be more appropriate to label him homo loquens (“human who talks”).

But someone may protest: “Have they forgotten all the recent research in animal communication systems?"

Humans speaks, yes.

But so do animals, in their own fashion.

Dolphins whistle, bees dance, birds have distinctive call notes and some can even imitate human speech.

And what about the monkeys that have recently learned some ‘sign’ language?

Although their way of communicating might not work in quite the same way as human’s, surely the purpose and results are the same, are they not?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, they do communicate; and no, as a rule the purpose and results are not the same.

Much research has gone into this question.

The different call sounds made by creatures as varied as gibbons, geese and dolphins have been catalogued—in some cases even worked into a sort of vocabulary.

Gibbons apparently have nine calls or so and dolphins more.

Dolphins even appear to have different “dialects,” according to where they live.

Yet, there are several vital differences between human’s speech and that of the animals—even beyond the obvious fact that human language is immeasurably more complex.

Here are some of those differences:

1. The Intention to Communicate

Pair of jackdaws.

When they use their own call signs, do animals or birds consciously intend to communicate with one another as humans do?

Or is the sound merely an instinctive reaction to their momentary situation?

Konrad Z. Lorenz, a world-renowned authority on animal behavior, claims that they do not intentionally communicate, although they often appear to.

Should a jackdaw, for example, be alarmed while feeding, it will fly up into the air uttering a warning “Kia, kia” cry, and any fellow jackdaw hearing that cry will fly up automatically also.

The perfect coordination of the warning cry and the reaction of the other birds creates the impression that they are talking and understanding a language of their own.

But not so, explains Lorenz in his book King Solomon’s Ring:

"The animal, in all these sounds and movements expressing its emotions, has in no way the conscious intention of influencing a fellow-member of its species. This is proved by the fact that even geese or jackdaws reared and kept singly make all these signals as soon as the corresponding mood overtakes them.”

When a human uses the voice signals that he has learned, he intends to convey something to his hearers (unless, of course, he is singing in the bath!) and he will stop if he notices that no one is listening.

The jackdaw, however, does not care if another is listening.

It merely emits the sound as an instinctive reflex action, just as a human will yawn when tired.

2. Mobility of the Signal

Picture of a gibbon.

Most animal signals are not what linguists (students of language) call “mobile,” or separable from the situation that prompts the signal.

The gibbon, for example, uses its danger call only when danger actually exists.

Animal signals are also fixed in the sense that the animal does not, in general, listen to the sound it makes and then try to modify it into another sound.

Certain birds, it is true, are able to mimic sounds that are not in their inborn “vocabulary.”

They can learn to copy sounds made by other birds, or even those made by human, like the parrot that says, “Pretty Polly!”

However, Lorenz insists that birds rarely manage to associate consciously even one of the word sounds that they had learned with a certain action, and then never to any practical purpose.

One old gray parrot called Geier, who had quite a large “human” vocabulary (including saying “Auf wiedersehen!” in a deep benevolent voice whenever anyone got up to leave), never did learn to say “food” when he was hungry and “drink” when he was thirsty.

This lack of “mobility” is even more noticeable with the bees dance.

This is a sort of sign language akin to semaphore flagging, and men have even succeeded in using it to communicate with the insects.

The explorer bee indicates distance to the flowers by the speed of his dance (thus showing the effort required), and direction by its axis in relation to the sun.

However, this is all that can be transmitted.

Each sign, the “meaning” of which is fixed, cannot be separated and used in other ways for little chats about “How’s the weather over there?” or “Seen any beautiful flowers lately?”

3. Makeup of Language

Guinea pig.

The big deficiency of animal codes is that they lack the creative capacity that enables humans to produce and understand sentences that they have never heard before, and that may never have even been uttered before.

This is due to the way human language is made up.

Speech has what is called a double structure.

By that we mean that human utterances can be broken down into smaller units: first, into units of meaning or single words, and, secondly, into sound units, called phonemes.

Phonemes can be used to construct other words having nothing to do with the original one.

Suppose, for example, that an animal had a call sign for meat.

Now that call, whatever it was, would mean meat and nothing else.

But the English word meat not only can be used to signify the flesh of an animal, but also can be separated into three distinct sound units or phonemes: m, e and t.

Those three phonemes can then be used to make all sorts of other words: teem and me, as well as eat, tea, meaty, and so on.

Thus fewer than fifty sound units in English have been combined to make up over half a million word units, and new words are being formed all the time.

The words, in turn, can be combined to form an infinite number of sentences.

This brings us to another facet of language composition the idea of grammar.

Grammar is the makeup of language in another sense: the network of relationships between individual words and the rules governing those relationships.

Knowing or sensing the rules lets us make these different combinations and produce understandable sentences, despite our maybe never having heard any exactly like them before.

And just think of the complexity!

Even a simple sentence, for example, will consist of at least one subject-predicate relationship.

In the sentence from the children’s story, “This little pig went to market,” the subject or one talked about is “This little pig.” What is said about him, namely, that he “went to market,” is the predicate. 

Animal codes do not link thoughts in this fashion.

In contrast with animals, not only can humans grasp this and all the other grammatical relationships of word groups, but we can also vary them to express different points of view.

For example, we can affirm that the little pig went to market, but we can also deny it, simply by making what is called a negative “transformation”: “This little pig did not go to market.”

We can change it from past to present: “This little pig is going to market.”

Or we can make it a question: “Did this little pig go to market?”

One simple sentence is thus the basis for a great many others that we do not have to learn individually.

4. Objectivity

A chimpanzee.

To make the transformations required by everyday life, the speaker must be able to keep his distance, so to speak, from the message, not relating each element only to himself.

This is called “objectivity.”

Instead of being able to say only “I put the blue box on the red box,” for example, the objective communicator is able to say “The blue box is on the red box.”

Hence, when things go wrong with the human brain, the ability to make objective transformations often fails.

Due to this, some schizophrenics, for example, have difficulty in making the negative transformation.

Given the sentence “He will eat apples,” and being asked to make it negative by adding not, they will often produce “He will eat pears,” or oranges or some other fruit, instead of “He will not eat apples.”

Although certain chimpanzees have been trained to use simplified sign (not spoken) systems that men have invented for them after hundreds of hours of training, they still have very limited ability to make such objective transformations.

They cannot go beyond the objectivity of about a two-year-old child.

But remember that what little control human babies have at that age develops without any specialized training at all!

And their ability to use all the progressively more complex language procedures in just a few more years leaves the chimps far, far behind.

5. Source of Language

A baby.

Noam Chomsky, a prominent linguist, has suggested that this unique language ability must, to a certain extent, be innate or “built in” from birth.

How else, he asks, are we to explain the rapidity and complexity of language development in small children with as yet undeveloped powers?

Adults who try learning a new language can appreciate the enormity of their accomplishment.

The Encyclopœdia Britannica says:

"It is, therefore, clear that all normal humans bring into the world an innate faculty for language acquisition, language use, and grammar construction. . . . The human child is very soon able to construct new, grammatically acceptable sentences from material he has already heard; unlike the parrot in human society, he is not limited to the mere repetition of whole utterances.”

Animals do not have this “built-in” sense for language acquisition.

Even the highly trained chimpanzees of recent fame have used only simple sign systems devised by humans, while their own natural communications are generally mere reflex signals, largely single calls and gestures.