Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Animals, Language and Speech (A Short Paper)

Animals, Language, and Speech

Dr. Edgar Foster

Is language strictly a human activity or do animals also use language? What is language? Is there a difference between speech and language? The following brief treatment of these questions in no way claims to be comprehensive or exhaustive. It is merely a short reply to specific claims regarding language and animals.
Rodolfo R. Llinas (author of I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self) claims that language simpliciter, but particularly human language, "arose as an extension of premotor conditions, namely, those of the increasing complexities of intentionality as abstract thinking grew richer" (242). Llinas defines intentionality as "the premotor detail of the desired result of movement through which a particular emotional state is expressed: the choice of what to do before the doing of it" (228). Notice that intentionality, as opposed to being primarily mentalistic, is associated with "a motor representation of what is happening inside our heads" (ibid). Intentionality expressed in premotor activity essentially predicts or adumbrates genuine motor patterns, according to Llinas. Language, he argues, arose because premotor activity increasingly grew more complex as abstract cerebration became richer.

The upshot of Llinas' analysis is that language is not simply a human possession (228-230). He contends that non-rational animals also use language. For language, on this view, is "the given methodology by which one animal may communicate with another" (229). Is Llinas correct? Do animals really implement or deploy language in their daily activities? Did non-rational animal language precede the use of language by Homo sapiens?

Most psycholinguists now believe that human language acquisition is not based on external stimuli. Scientific studies of “language” deployed by apes and by children indicate that human language is somehow innate since there evidently is such a discrepancy between the lingual performance of apes and that of humans. This difference is so profound that it moved Noam Chomsky to argue that humans possess a "language acquisition device"(LAD). Based on the foregoing, is it accurate to say that animals utilize language?

Linguist and NT scholar Moises Silva thinks that non-rational animals do communicate with one another and this point seems hard to deny. Nevertheless, Silva also holds that "the most successful experiments to date serve, if anything, to emphasize the enormous difference between the 'language' of the most intelligent animals—even after extensive training—and the linguistic competence of even a three-year old human being" (Silva, "God, Language and Scripture" in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, 207). At any rate (Silva insists) animals do not use speech. This leaves us with two questions to consider. What is language? Secondly, what is the difference, if any, between language and speech?

Ferdinand Saussure famously made a distinction between la langue and la parole. The former refers to an abstract system of different phonological signs, whereas the latter has reference to the use of abstract language in communication. La langue additionally has both an internal and external aspect in that phonology, morphology, syntax (internal features) and semantics (external feature) all constitute language. Ergo, if we define language as Saussure and other linguists or philosophers have defined the phenomenon, then it seems that animals possess neither langue nor parole. The matter will no doubt remain controversial, yet there are good scientific and logical reasons to doubt that animals use language, as one commonly understands that term.

In conclusion, I affirm the uniqueness of human language and speech. I will close with quotes from Sophocles and King David to support my case:

"And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods
that mould a state, hath he [i.e. man] taught himself;
and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when 'tis
hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of
the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all;
without resource he meets nothing that must come: only
against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from
baffling maladies he hath devised escapes"(Antigone 332-340).

"What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere
mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them
little less than a god, crowned them with glory and
honor" (Psalm 8:5ff NAB).


Elizabeth said...

I agree with you to an extent. The mechanisms we have for speech are unique, no other animal in the world possesses them.

However, I believe that certain animals can be taught language. I know that Noam Chomsky disagrees with me and as a linguist, I'm "okay" with that. He believes that chimps we teach sign language are mimicking those signs. Just as we can study and memorize a bee dance, and never truly know the meaning of it. But we can't disagree with the idea that chimps are attaching an abstract sign with its referent. Some chimps have even been able to create new and unique "sentences" with the signs they have learned.

This is a characteristic of any human language. Every sentence we come up with is a new and unique combination of words that we have in our lexicon. Leading me to believe that chimps have the capacity for language, regardless of how simplistic that language is.

Edgar Foster said...

Hello Elizabeth. Thanks for your remarks. In my paper, I acknowledge that non-human animals (as the saying goes) may have the capacity or potential for language (depending on how we define that term). Nevertheless, I believe that humans have the unique God-given ability of speech.

Best regards,