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Contrasting Human and Animal Communication

Communication plays a profound role in the lives of all animals. One can observe communication in animals of all sizes— from the dizzying waggle dances of nectar-seeking honey bees to the triumphant trumpeting of a 15,000-pound elephant. In addition, animal communication occurs in countless levels of complexity. It can be as primitive as the cells of sponges’ method of organizing reproduction with chemical signals, and it can be as advanced as mockingbirds’ sophisticated birdsong imitation. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast these various animals’ modes of communication with human language in order to learn the ways in which Homo sapiens’ communication is unique.

            One area of contrast between humans and animals is in the anatomy of their vocal tracts and brains. In earlier studies of human communication, scientists strongly believed humans’ permanently lowered larynxes were the source of mankind’s unique vocal proficiency. They believed lowered larynxes could increase the range of human sound. It is thanks to this increased range of sounds, the scientists supposed, that humans were able to create language.

            The lowered larynx theory has, however, lost its appeal over the years. This is because scientists discovered that lowered larynxes are not unique to humans. The red deer is one example of an animal in which the lowered larynx serves a much different purpose than language production. Red deer can modulate their larynxes manually, lowering them when it is convenient. By lowering their larynxes, the deer can sound bigger than they really are. This allows them to scare off potential predators or to intimidate other males of their species in order to gain access to food sources and females. Thus, the red deer proves that not only do lowered larynxes occur in more species than just Homo sapiens, but also that lowered larynxes do not necessarily create a vocal tract that enables true language.

            Hauser and Fitch (2003), who presented the red deer analogy, believe that neural advancements must have more to do with humans’ impressive speech production than anatomical changes in their vocal production system. Among the advancements from which humans benefit are their large brains. Along with the primitive brain regions such as the brain stem and subcortical regions that control simple activities such as breathing, digestion, and motor control, the human brain includes a large cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex controls higher order mental activities like thinking and reasoning. By studying and contrasting the brain activity of animals and humans, scientists may be able to discover the key advantages that a larger cerebral cortex can afford.

            In addition, the areas of phonetics and phonology can shed some light on the differences between animals and humans. Categorical perception is the idea that in every human language there is a certain range of acceptable sounds that pass for each phoneme. Yet, like lowered pharynxes, this trait is not unique to humans. Hauser and Fitch (2003) prove this by reporting the events of an experiment in which both human newborns and cotton-top tamarin monkeys could differentiate between recorded Dutch and Japanese speakers. The fact that birds also possess this general auditory mechanism proves that categorical perception is not just a characteristic of primates. The common evolutionary link between birds and humans is immensely distant, so birds’ and humans’ categorical perception abilities must have evolved separately. Therefore, the development of categorical perception cannot adequately explain the creation of human language.

            The differences between humans’ and animals’ morphology and syntax also serve as testaments to human language’s uniqueness. The closest comparison to human syntax is birdsong. Several different-sounding tweets, which serve in this analogy as morphemes or words, combine and repeat to create syntactical patterns similar to human sentences. Birds generally stick to certain song patterns and rarely amend or add to the pattern, thus indicating that there is a kind of grammar at work in birdsong. Yet the morphemes in birdsong are not true morphemes since they have no meanings as do human words, prefixes, and suffixes. Thus, bird syntax is grammatical without being actually semantical. Humans possess the unique phenomenon of generativity— the ability to generate infinite combinations of morphemes into syntactical sentences. Birds, on the other hand, are limited in their syntax.

            As with their syntax, animals are limited in their semantics. Ethologists narrowed down meanings behind animal communication to seven general categories: advertising an animal’s presence; establishing a social hierarchy; synchronizing physiological states; announcing danger or opportunity; synchronizing activities; discouraging predators; and luring prey. One example of an animal advertising its presence is a male bird calling to impress a female for purposes of mating. An example of an animal announcing an opportunity is a honey bee’s waggle dance, which involves one bee describing to other bees the direction and distance to a source of nectar. In short, the spectrum of ideas that animal communication can convey is less diverse than the range of human languages. Humans are truly a one-of-a-kind species due their ability to discuss subjects from philosophy to science and from politics to literature.

            One more area in which to explore the differences between humans and animals is pragmatics. In front of females, a male animal may put on a showy display in order to find a mate. The same male, however, might act fierce toward another male in order to achieve an alpha male status. Human males may exhibit similar behavior: dancing in front of women and yelling at other men. Yet humans may also be involved in more complex situations in which they can react more subtly than animals’ strutting or growling. Pragmatics of human speech falls into the category of etiquette since it involves catering one’s language to a certain group of people. While speaking to her students, a teacher would most likely not use many curse words. Conversely, when with her friends, the same teacher could use vulgar speech and it would be more acceptable. Because culturally-created social statuses such as teacher and student do not exist in the wild, animals’ system of pragmatics is less complicated. There are fewer roles to be played in the wild, and there are also not as many chances to express subtle reactions.

There are many interesting similarities between the communication of animals and humans. These comparisons help scientists create, change, and discard theories about the origins of human communication. Despite these similarities, some key differences ensure that human language is the most complex and descriptive method of communication— at least for now.

Works Cited


Hauser, Marc D. and Tecumseh Fitch.  “What Are the Uniquely Human Components of the Language Faculty?”  Language Evolution.  Eds. M Christiansen and S. Kirby.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.