Do animals have different languages?

Do animals from one part of the world have different “languages” from each other? If a dog from China was barking at a dog from Brazil, would they understand each other?

All canines have pretty much the same “language,” whether it’s conveyed with sound or by posture.

Growling is a sign of anger and aggression to a Siberian wolf, a French poodle, a Japanese Akita or an Indian jackal.

A tail tucked between the legs is a sign of submission to an Australian dingo, a Mexican Chihuahua, or a Welsh Corgi.

Howling means “I’m lost, come find me” to an Arizona coyote, a German dachshund or a border collie in New Zealand.

The basic body signal for “Let’s play” (bending down on the front legs) is exactly the same among all canines, everywhere in the world. My pet rat terrier does it exactly the way every canine of every breed and species does it.

Basic canine “language” (sounds/postures) hasn’t changed in a hundred thousand years, and don’t vary by geography.

I seem to remember reading that they have different accents. A dog in China will have a different sounding bark then a dog in the U.S. But, since a dog barking isn’t really equivalent to a person speaking, I wouldn’t call it a different language. I don’t think dogs understand what a bark means much better than a person does. It’s a warning, a call to play, etc. But, I’d hesitate to call barking much of a language.

Obvious Nitpickiness:

Using the term ‘language’ only helps to muddle the question.

The fact that animals may make noises in conjunction with certain behaviours should not lead us into the idea that they are communicating in a way comparable to the vocalizations that we use for communication. Yes we have questions about a few of our cetacean co-habitants but beyond that we’re getting a good sense that most of the other stuff critters do is all about behaviour and conditioning and stimulus response.

How much this behaviour/response mechanism is dependent on learning vs coding is a whole different question but Astorian’s response is pretty much accurate. It seems to me that a dog raised in a completely foreign environment might well react somewhat differently than his fellow mutts if he hasn’t had a chance to hone his canine social skills with other tail waggers.

Whales certainly have what might be called “regional” dialects. I believe the same is true for some birds also.

Songbirds certainly have different regional dialects. More interesting, though, are the cross-species signals that birds understand. There’s a high-pitched whistle that many different bird species all produce as an alarm cry, like when there’s a bird hawk nearby; it sounds the same regardless of the species producing it, and is very effective as an alarm because it’s very difficult to localize, so the predator can’t use it to zero in on his prey.

Please tell me I’m not the only one thinking of “Best in Show” right now.

I guess I SHOULD add that I used the word “language” rather facetiously, where dogs are concerned.

Remember the old “Far Side” cartoon about a scientist who’d invented a machine to translate dog “speech”? It showed that, when a dog barks, all it’s really saying is “Hey!”

And I think that’s pretty accurate! I love dogs, but I don’t think they’re terribly cerebral. When they communicate with other dogs, they aren’t saying deep things! There are only few simple ideas or emotions they ever want to express to each other, and they do so through rudimentary sounds and physical postures. Those few basic sounds and gestures are pretty much the same ones wolves used in the wild 100,000 years ago, and they’re pretty much the same ones your pet pooch uses now.

One of the ONLY differences is the extent to which domesticated dogs bark. Wolves, coyotes and other wild canine don’t do that (well, they can make a short “vooff” sort of sound, but loud, persistent yapping is unheard of). But barking is now standard behavior by domesticated dogs all over the world. All it really indicates is excitement. And any dog can recognize that excitement when it hears another dog bark, no matter where those dogs come from. After all, “hey” means pretty much the same thing to humans all over the world, doesn’t it?

[slight hijack]

Why do some dogs howl when they hear a siren on a fire truck or ambulance, and others do not?

And they continue to howl after the stimulis is gone. I wonder if they think it’s a REALLY big dog?

[/slight hijack]

Just watch out for that hot candle wax when you go to obidience training.

  1. I heard second-hand of a study done in England wherein researchers recorded the chirps of robins. When they were played back to robins in the same region, the birds responded in some way. When they were played back to robins in another region, no response. Sorry, no cite.

  2. I read an article online recently about seals (or similar prey) that were able to distinguish between herbivorous and carnivorous orca from their vocal sounds. The carnivorous orca, in turn, have learned to hunt quietly and only speak after the hunt is over. I can’t find the story, though.

  3. A researcher in Japan believes that dogs have more subtle communications than some posters here believe. He created a product called Bowlingual, which translates canine speech into Japanese text. I have played with the device; after indicating the species of dog, I played several recordings of dogs barking that I had found through Google. It gave different responses depending on the file, and seemed fairly consistent when repeating a file, but I was by no means exhaustive in my testing and my Japanese is poor at best. We’re currently (and casually) on the lookout for a Japanese speaker who owns a dog so that we can do further testing.

Conclusion: animals have ‘language’ that varies by region and by species.

We don’t really know what it’s like to be another human, so trying to figure out what’s in a dog’s mind seems impossible.
Having said that, I’m convinced that dogs dream. Of sorts. That indicates in turn a sense of self. And if there is a sense of self, maybe, just maybe, there is a need for language, as in communicating with other individuals. The things communicated might only be a vocabulary of ten sentiments, but it’s still there.
If this carries all over the world is another question, but my WAG is that it does.

“Gauging six emotions, the “Bow-lingual” uses 200 words to relay to the owner the dog’s feeling together with the relevant pictures. Happy”, “fun”, “annoyed” and “frustrated” are just a few of the options."

"Bowlingual. A radio microphone attaches to Fido’s collar, and a handheld receiver “translates” his yelps, growls and whines into such phrases as “I can’t stand it,” “How boring” and “I’m lonely.”

Just keep the word “language” in quotes.

voltaire, I agree that the Bowlingual alone doesn’t make a strong case for the dog’s language. Translation is not an easy task, and I hold no misconceptions about the accuracy of the device; I think it’s a fun toy and wouldn’t use it to conduct diplomatic negotiations with the neighbour’s dog to dissuade him from piddling on my petunias.

That said, I do believe that dogs have language. The fact that they can communicate to each other (regardless of our ability, or lack thereof, to interpret that communication) indicates that they are verbally sharing information. Even if that information channel is only two bits wide – say, ‘happy’ versus ‘not happy’ and ‘danger’ versus ‘no danger’ – it’s still communication and the differentiation of concepts implies language.

I think the other examples I gave, of the robins and the orca, support the theory of animal languages (and regional dialects) without the use of quotes.

According to linguists, in order for a form of communication to be considered a true language, it must meet several criteria. Among them:
Productivity–within the rules of the language, you must be able to make new words and new sentences in infinite combinations
Reflexiveness–one must be able to discuss the language as an abstract form, in order to further understand it and develop it
Learnability–users of one system of language can learn another one
Displacement–speakers can refer to things and events which are in another place and time
Prevarication–you can use the language to lie

(paraphrased from “Contemporary Linguistic Analysis” by William O’Grady and Michael Dobrovolsky)

As far as I know, humans have not yet found any other creature capable of true language, although I think they’re close with dolphins. However, virtually all creatures are capable of some form of communication, be it barking, meowing, hissing or “body language.”

Bees can communicate the location of pollen through their dance, however studies have shown that the dance does have regional dialects–Italian bees have three distinct dances to indicate distance to a food source; Austrian bees have only two. In both cases, the distance is horizontal–they are incapable of relating information on a vertical plane (study noted also from “Contemporary Linguistic Analysis”)

Getting back to the OP, most species can understand each other, at least to some limited degree, and some species can communicate with other species, to an even more limited degree. So I think it’s reasonable to assume a Chinese dog barking a warning at a Brazilian dog would be understood as being agressive and threatening, but nothing else.

Dread Pirate Jimbo, I hadn’t realized there were such rules governing what is and what ain’t a language; thanks for the info.

What’s it called when two organisms communicate without language as you’ve defined it, and as distinguished from, say, the chemical communications of bacteria? Just ‘verbal communication’, or is there a term for undeveloped not-languages?

I have witnessed a dog raised among cats, who learned to purr to express contentment. I would argue that that’s productivity. I’ven’t heard a dog form infinite combinations of vocalizations, but then, I’ven’t heard any human do that, either (it would take a while).
Reflexiveness seems impossible to judge, at our current level of understanding of dog-talk.
Dogs can certainly learn to understand a good bit of human language, although they’re physically incapable of reproducing it, and likewise, a dog owner can learn to recognize the various vocalizations a dog uses, so dog language is learnable.
I’ve seen dogs express loneliness when a favorite human isn’t present, which seems to be displacement.
And as for prevarication, dogs are lousy liars, but then, so are some humans. They do, at least, try to lie sometimes.

Now, I’m not trying to say that dogs communicate via a complex language, as they obviously do not. But it seems like the distinction between canine communication and human language is one of degree only.

Consider a dog that has learned to sit when you say “sit!” and to stop barking when you say “don’t speak!” If later he is standing up and you shout “don’t sit!” what will he do? Probably sit. Maybe sit without barking. But any three-year-old would understand this as your desiring them to not sit down, even if they hadn’t heard it before.

Dogs do not understand a whit of human language. They can be trained to respond to distinct noises that humans make, but they have no conception at all of how the sounds that make up “roll over” relate to rolling over. See productivity… it’s just as easy to train a dog to roll over by shouting “sit!” at him instead of “roll over!”

Say you train a dog to sit when you say “sit!” and to bark when you say “speak!” and then you train him to sit AND bark by saying “do both!” Then you later train him to fetch when you say “fetch!” If you then command him to “fetch! speak! do both!” he won’t fetch, bark, and then fetch and bark… he’ll fetch, bark, and then sit and bark. No human would respond that way, because we understand that language sometimes refers to itself… “do both” in that example has no referent in the real world, and no dog can conceive of this. It’s trivial for a three-year-old kid though.

If dog language was capable of this, you could cheer up a dog by barking the message to him that his favorite human would be back in an ten minutes, so there’s no need to be sad. Any noises a dog makes because it is lonely expresses loneliness, not any conception of their favorite human being in some distant place. Also, you can’t make a dog more lonely by telling him that his favorite human is never coming back because he found a better dog. Again, this is trivial to do when dealing with humans.

I’d need some examples of dogs lying here… I can’t think of any that aren’t just anthropomorphizing the expression on a dog’s face as deceptive when he’s done something bad.

The problem with putting dog noises and humans speaking on a continuum of language is that it wouldn’t be a very useful one. It would be a flat line with points along it for every animal in the world and then a massive spike at the very end with one animal on it… human beings. The absolute minimal requirements for language are really quite complex. Everything else is communication.


If the dog could then use a series of barks and purrs to tell us what’s on his mind, then I’d agree. Productivity also requires the ability to combine the vocalizations it does know in new and unique ways, such as I am doing as I write this–I’d be willing to bet that this sentence I have written has never been written before.

If we can’t judge it, we can’t assume they can do it. I concede we also can’t rule it out, though.

Learning to recognize as few words or commands does not necessarily suggest real understanding of what is being said. I am reminded of a Far Side comic where a dog owner is scolding his dog and the dog hears, “Blah, blah, blah, Rex, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Rex.” Also, being unable to reproduce the learned words leaves a huge gap in the communicative process. As to the second part, there was an informal survey done recently by the Discovery Channel where people tried to identify the meaning of various cat meows, purrs, and growls. The average respondent only got about 25% right. People can learn to understand some of an individual animal’s sounds, but we have yet to pin down how to accurately understand what they’re all saying.

Said loneliness refers to the dog missing the human in that specific time and space. They aren’t capable of expressing lament in anticipation of the human leaving at a later date, nor of expressing the level of loneliness it felt a week earlier.

I’ll happily give you that one. :slight_smile:

The key is the distinction between what constitutes language and what is merely communication (I have never heard any other term for it, sypticus. Perhaps a true linguist out there knows a term I don’t?). The difficulty, I think, is in our choice of terms; I’m using the definitions of language and communication as they have been taught to me from a linguistic point of view.

Most animal communication exhibits some elements of language, as you have observed, but in order to be considered a true language, it must include all the elements, of which I only posted five from a list of 13. It’s the difference between me walking up to someone and punching him in the face and me walking up to that same person and telling him I hate him.

I do not dispute that dogs, among other critters, can learn to understand some words, but until they can actually use them, invent new ones, and discuss with me whether or not that new word is useful, they haven’t mastered language.

[slight aside] One of my all-time favorite comics is a Bizarro from a few years ago which depicts a parrot speaking to its owner, saying, “I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t understand language as an abstract concept, but am merely repeating syllables as a trained response.” [/slight aside]

Excellent examples, hazel-rah. You’re clearly more of an expert than I.