Human Language Vs. Animal Communication
If someone asked you what separates humans from other animals, one of the first things that would probably come to mind is language. Language is so fundamental to human life that it's hard to imagine what life would be like without it. In fact, the original term for language referred to it as part of the body—language is derived from the Latin word lingua, meaning tongue. Barnett highlights the inseparability of language from man when he says, “Verbal communication is a condition of the existence of human society.”
But at the same time, other animals also communicate: Your cat may let you know when its hungry, ants use pheromones and sound to indicate social status and distress, bees dance to tell one another where to find honey, and chimpanzees can learn sign language.
So when we think of language as a way of setting ourselves apart, what is it about our language that is different than how other animals communicate?
In the video below, Professor Marc van Oostendorp of the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics discusses three of the major differences between human and animal communication; this article will examine these differences and more.
Differences at a Glance
Duality of Patterning
Distinctive sounds, called phonemes, are arbitrary and have no meaning. But humans can string these sounds in an infinite number of ways to create meaning via words and sentences.
Other animals do not communicate by arranging arbitrary sounds, which limits the number of messages they can create.
New words can be invented easily.
Animals have to evolve in order for their signs to change.
Humans can talk about remote, abstract, or imaginary things that aren't happening in their immediate environments.
Animal communication is context driven—they react to stimuli, or indexes.
Any gender of human can use the same languages.
Certain animal communications in the animal world can only be used by one gender of that animal.
Humans acquire language culturally—words must be learned.
The way that animals communicate are biological, or inborn.
Human language is symbolic, using a set number of sounds (phonemes) and characters (alphabet), which allows ideas to be recorded and preserved.
Animal communication is not symbolic, so it cannot preserve ideas of the past.
On a purely biological level, the human voice box and tongue are very unique, and are required to make the sounds we recognize as language.
Other animals have different biological structures, which impact they way they make sounds.
A word, or sign, can have several meanings.
Every sign has only one meaning.
Human language can arrange words into an infinite number of ideas, sometimes referred to as discrete infinity.
Animals only have a limited number of combinations they can use to communicate.
The Main Differences: In Depth
While many scholars may add to this list, this article will examine seven properties that are largely unique to human language: duality, creativity, displacement, interchangeability, cultural transmission, arbitrariness, and biology.
The primary difference is known as duality of patterning, or structure. Each human language has a fixed number of sound units called "phonemes." These phonemes are combined to make morphemes, the smallest unit of sound that contains meaning. Thus, language has got two levels of patterning that are not present in other animals' communication.
Yet another distinctive feature is creativity. Human beings use their linguistic resources to produce new expressions and sentences. They arrange and rearrange phonemes, morphemes, words, and phrases in a way that can express an infinite number of ideas. This is also called the open-endedness of language. Animal communication is a closed system. It cannot produce new signals to communicate novel events or experiences.
Human beings can talk of real or imaginary situations, places, or objects far removed from their present surroundings and time. Other animals, on the other hand, communicate in reaction to a stimulus in the immediate environment, such as food or danger. Because of this, human language is considered context-free, whereas animal communication is mostly context bound.
Human language is interchangeable between sexes. But certain communications in animal world are performed only by one gender. For example, bee dancing is only performed by worker bees, which are female.
Another important difference is that human language is culturally transmitted. Human beings brought up in different cultures acquire different languages. Man can also learn other languages via the influence of other cultures. Animals lack this capacity. Their communication ability is transmitted biologically, so they are unable to learn other languages.
Human language is a symbolic system. The signs, or words, in language have no inherent connection to what they signify, or mean (that's why one object can have so many names in different languages). These signs can also be written with the symbols, or alphabet, of that language. Both verbal and written language can be passed down to future generations. Animal communication is not symbolic, which means ideas cannot be preserved for the future.
Biological differences also play a vital role in communication. Human vocal cords can produce a large number of sounds. Each human language uses a number of those sounds. Animal and birds have entirely different biological structures, which impact the way they can form sounds.
Does That Mean Animal Communication Never Displays These Properties?
Wait: largely unique to human language? Does that mean that other animals can display these properties?
It's a matter of debate. One of the most contested examples is Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee named after noted linguist Noam Chomsky, who was taught over 100 signs in sign language in the '70s. Turning hand gestures into meaning certainly displays arbitrariness. But Herbert Terrace, the psychology that led the study doubted that Nim had really learned a language. He noted that Nim very rarely signed spontaneously; instead, he would react to signs his teacher was making.
The idea below shows other contested examples of when the line between human and animal communication becomes blurred.
1 Kuriakose, K.P., An Introduction to Linguistics, 2002, Gayatrhri Publishers, 7-11
2 Hockett F Charles, A Course in Modern Linguistics, 1970, The Macmillan Company, 570-580
Sadeeq ullah on August 23, 2020:
I get more information from this
Thanks a bunch sir
Qoyi Nonkqubela on August 14, 2020:
helpful information thank you
Sammy Babra Seline on July 24, 2020:
Very much detailed information... Thanks so much
Sarah Adam on June 22, 2020:
Certainly humans have a unique language that enables them to express what is inside them. But I think that communication between animals is so complicated that we have not yet been able to discover or understand them.
hoda M on June 15, 2020:
it's so good
manal on May 27, 2020:
this is very hepful thank you
Notice Bitiel on May 12, 2020:
Glo on April 12, 2020:
This is very helpful.thanx
yay thanks on April 05, 2020:
THANKS!!!! SO MUCH HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Binta yakasai on March 12, 2020:
Excellent article, thanks for the help
Yusuf shitu Aliyu on March 09, 2020:
BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM. Got it and done my assignment. Thanks you.
Murtala Aminu Ahmad on March 01, 2020:
I am really appreciate with this article, which maks students' assessment easier and well accepted. THANK...
big dog of a cunt on February 26, 2020:
Andrew Akunnaya favour on February 24, 2020:
Our God is awesome, by bringing all ds to an existence, I have learnt alot, all Glory be into our maker and creator thanks.
ACJ14 on February 18, 2020:
This was great for my paper! Thanks
miss jacob on December 17, 2019:
adamu issa on December 08, 2019:
ADAMU ISSA on December 07, 2019:
I really enjoyed this article
Faseeha Umar on December 07, 2019:
Yeah! It's amazing. Nice.
Samra on November 30, 2019:
Nice and helpful
AIDAH proscy on November 13, 2019:
I am really happy it has helped me learn something thanks alot
Sayed Muhammad Yousaf on October 28, 2019:
Its really helpful ....
Aebab on October 23, 2019:
Thanks a lot of you
Babar Sultan on October 22, 2019:
These notes proved much important to me.
Benson Oganyo on October 13, 2019:
Unbelievable! What a nice studying tip
clavin on October 07, 2019:
its just owesome
savera chohan on October 07, 2019:
This is really helpful and wonderful.........THANK you so much
Kusi Amoateng Clifford on September 29, 2019:
Very precise and understandably, thank you very much
on September 21, 2019:
Thank you for help me
Amadu Mustapha Bah on September 14, 2019:
This is so interesting! I am going to use this in an assignment for my Bachelor's degree
Langat Cosmas on September 02, 2019:
I have actually learn more
Kimmara Shuler on May 07, 2019:
This was very interesting to learn about myself against animals bcuz we are different in some different ways but I'll continue learning more
Shawn Goit on March 15, 2019:
Excellent article, I am using it in an assignment for my master's degree in TESOL
Licibeth on March 02, 2019:
Excelent article. Thanks
Galaxy mermiad on January 30, 2019:
so helpful! used it in my school speech!
Steve ndossi on December 12, 2018:
I like this explanation because it make me to release more knowledge concern human language
Limonga fatuma on December 04, 2018:
This differences are so delicious I like it.
Cyrus The Great from Persia on November 25, 2018:
The Guy below me is not a member of the Persian Empire
Murphin Johnson on November 25, 2018:
Really enjoyed this educational segment
Jerop Nancy on November 20, 2018:
Thanks so much
Shabeena USB on November 20, 2018:
This is easy to understand thank you
shamshaid jutt on November 18, 2018:
well explained, thank you
Benta on November 05, 2018:
I liked the way you brought out the differences clearly
Batung Banoeye Elvis on October 31, 2018:
its clear that we humans are unique,but i don't want to agree to the judgement here.What if the signs animals use are the real language given to them by God?yes because we don't understand their language..
its helpful though..thanks but lets think about the fact that we dont understand animal language
Jasini Peter Gadzama on October 23, 2018:
I'm really educated with this article, and i thank the researchers of this great work, i was really helpful. Thanks Alot
Ayesha on October 19, 2018:
It was very helpful.... I was much confused before reading it....But thanx alot for this precious information,,,,,,, i loved it....
Wang'asa David on October 16, 2018:
I really needed this..the language is very understanding, thanks for the help
alfred on October 03, 2018:
so detailed....thanks publishers
ella on September 30, 2018:
iffat perween on September 28, 2018:
Naat khan on September 04, 2018:
Naveed sultan on August 25, 2018:
Glassy on August 18, 2018:
i love your explanations.
Now it is well even in the well.
roxy on August 07, 2018:
this is a great information that took me so long to know more about this case of animal vs. human it very predictable but it helps a lots
pweety sugar on July 05, 2018:
I have been thinking and searching of this very information for my assignment, thank you very much for thus vital info
Zeenat Nawaz on May 18, 2018:
what is the difference of human and animal communication with the reference of novelty and discreteness?
GOWTHAM on April 27, 2018:
Bridget on April 26, 2018:
thanks so much
McKenna on March 17, 2018:
Thank you so much have been searching for this information and finally I have it in my hands.i love your explanations
Rehan rao on March 11, 2018:
It is very helpful
Muhammad Nasir on March 01, 2018:
thank you so much its help me lot to get more infirmation about english..
eirini on February 28, 2018:
wonderful job!! well done!
Phlameflowz ogunnaike on February 27, 2018:
This article is very fantastic, nw am done with my assignment. Thank you #mr.author, more grace. God bless you
Finola on February 26, 2018:
Thank you for sharing. It's really helpful for my psycholinguistic's homework
Dickson Mwanakulya on December 15, 2017:
fatna kipingu on December 10, 2017:
thanks so much for the clear expressions about human language and animal communication. the language you used to explain the difference is very understanding. thanks again
ogunsanya olaitan on December 09, 2017:
Thank you so much i really appreciate your lesson and now am trought with my assingment
javed on November 28, 2017:
Thank you very much. Its very useful for me
chelangat racheal on October 30, 2017:
my coursework is made easier
Alicia Moke on October 29, 2017:
good work . am now done with my assignment
KUKUNDA BONITAH on October 24, 2017:
Great thanks and appreciation upon researchers of these great notes because your adding a largest percentage to our success in life,,, I greatly appreciate :May the Almighty bless you always """,Thank you so much
Isenyi leah on October 24, 2017:
dz article has greatly been useful to me ,thanx alot.
Achan jennifer on October 19, 2017:
Well done frnd
addy on September 27, 2017:
Aleena on September 21, 2017:
you're article it is very useful thank alot
jackson nombo on August 12, 2017:
Cha-cha on August 09, 2017:
These is no easy to understand, contains all the points from the definition of language by some linguistics. Thanks sir n remain blessed!
Daka Alfred on July 01, 2017:
Well articulated. It has not only helped me but many out there in writing their academic papers.
Nyangu Mwanza on May 24, 2017:
This has helped me write my assignment,thank you.
Carlos R. Tirado on May 24, 2017:
Your ideas are not up to date with recent studies on animal communication and current research on ethology and animal cognition. Animal communication is more complex than we thought. The current discussion is about syntax and complex grammar (e.g. if animals have a language like our own), which is not the same as discussing language in the sense of complex repertoire of signals, sounds, gestures, etc. that allow them to communicate feelings, intentions, emotions and events or situations past or present. The evidence is growing towards an affirmative answer on that respect, at least in some particular cases like prairie dogs, parrots, whales and dolphins. In some cases we don't even know if some animals have symbolic language. For example, in the case of whales and birds, our knowledge is still very much limited. However, at least in the case of cetaceans, there is undeniable evidence that they can communicate about recent past events and even possible future scenarios. Their language is both symbolic and culturally transmitted. Orcas, for example, even have their own dialects.
lord cash on April 26, 2017:
...first things that would probably come to mind is cash. Cash is so fundamental to human life that it's hard to imagine what life would be like without it... cash cash cash
alyak on March 26, 2017:
this helped me a lot with my english language exam for school, thank you!!
Annabel Felix on March 22, 2017:
this is really helpful and wonderful. thank you so much.
mboneko on March 16, 2017:
Thanx I have got something about language.
Anas Muhammad Sani (Aishatanas) on March 08, 2017:
I read it with keen interest. A very rich article. I learn a lot and I'm gonna score A in my ENG403: Psycholinguistics exam Insha Allah.
Vinith on January 02, 2017:
Super n useful article for learners.
mirirai on November 30, 2016:
Thank u so much u ve made life simple for me.God bless u
Anonymous on November 22, 2016:
Thank you so much! Your article really helped my essay.
Cooper on November 21, 2016:
Who is Barnett when quoting "Verbal communication is a condition of the existence of human society."
fikile mhlaga on November 21, 2016:
I love it
Venance Paul on November 03, 2016:
well done my friend in making the linguistics to be good for language learners to be successful
Claudia makalichi on October 02, 2016:
As an education student it was very helpful for my assignment.
Sumi Seal on September 29, 2016:
Fully satisfied with the note
Andrew Mumpande on September 11, 2016:
As English and Communication student I learnt a lot.Thank you so much
Robyn.Mulesae on July 27, 2016:
Very interesting your information makes my research very sucessful..Great thanks!
victor mochama on April 05, 2016:
i real like the way the points are elaborated they have indeed helped me in my research thanks to all the contributors.
carolyne cherono on March 26, 2016:
good work indeed.
Iroshika on January 21, 2016:
Very helpful for my assignment
karen kaunda on November 28, 2015:
great information shared here. helped alot
joyce on October 28, 2015:
Am done with my term paper