Are animal languages so much more complicated than we first thought?

Anyone who thought Dr Doolittle was a load of rubbish may have to think again. Scientists have shown that animal “languages” are actually much more than just the simple sequences of grunts and whistles we assumed before.

So, what have they been looking at?


The experiments themselves involved studying and analysing the noises made by a wide variety of animals. The creatures whose sounds got the statistical treatment included chickadees, finches, bats, orangutans, killer whales, pilot whales, and hyraxes.

What did we think we knew before?

A mockingbird. (Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

We knew animal noises could be fairly impressive. For instance, the mockingbird can mimic up to 100 different calls of other birds.

But until now we assumed animal noises weren’t very complex, and that they all involved a simple structural system known as the “Markov” process. This basically meant that any sequence of animals noises should be easy to predict.

Human language, on the other hand, uses a more complex system known as “context-free grammars”. This gives us a wider set of rules to play with.

What do we think now?

Pilot whales
(Christa Rohrbach/Flickr)

Looking at their statistical research, researchers found little evidence of the Markov processes in animal calls. Instead, the sounds made by animals were more consistent with statistical models relevant to human language.

This all suggests there may be a “missing link” on the evolutionary path from animal communication to human language – and we just haven’t discovered it yet.

And what do the experts say?

Orangutan in cloth

Dr Arik Kershenbaum, from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, Tennessee, said: ”Language is the biggest difference that separates humans from animals evolutionarily, but multiple studies are finding more and more stepping stones that seem to bridge this gap.”

Apparently, more research might even help us better understand the origins of human language. But we probably won’t be talking to the animals any time soon.

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox