If you read the recent story about a border collie named Chaser who can understand over 1,000 English words, you may have looked over at your pet and raised an eyebrow. After saying, “wow,” this dazzling dog deal became a canine conundrum: Dogs obviously understand the same words as humans, but is it accurate to say that animals use language?

Man’s best friend is hardly the only animal capable of amazing humans with communication skills. While Chaser apparently can understand English words, extensive studies using gestural communication (sign language) explore the cognitive potential in the great apes. In addition, a recent book chronicles the late Alex, an African Grey Parrot that could apparently comprehend the difference between syntax and the meaning of words in English, distinguishing his cognitive skills from instinctive communication.

(You have a “pack” of dogs, but a “what” of cats? A herd? Find out, here.)

Instinctive animal communication versus learned cognition is at the heart of a debate raging in zoosemiotics, the study of animal communication. In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that there are 7 properties in human language that separate it from animal communication:

  • Arbitrariness: The relationship between the word and object is symbolic.
  • Cultural transmission: Language is learned from speakers.
  • Discreteness: Language exists in units that can be used in patterns to create meaning.
  • Displacement: Language can convey meaning about things not immediately present.
  • Duality: Language has a surface meaning and a semantic meaning.
  • Metalinguistics: We can talk about language.
  • Productivity: A finite number of units are combined to create an infinite number of meanings.

Some of these properties appear in animal communication, but it takes all seven to create human language. In contrast, animal communication is instinctive, not learned. Animal communication is highly functional and associated with survival, sustenance, reproduction or activities tangential to these goals. There are plenty of famous examples of this, from prairie dogs clicking to alarm others of predators to male songbirds singing for a mate.

(Why is the simple word “dog” one of the great mysteries of the English language? Here’s the story.)

Animals communicate through biological function, such as scent, and color. Certain aquatic species, the most sensitive being sharks, send electric pulses through electrocommunication.

So, when a dog starts wagging its tail and jumping when it hears you say “park,” the canine understands the events that typically occur in association with the sounds. While animals are capable of a dazzling variety of these word-event connections, the qualities listed above that make human language such a pliable resource also illustrate the big difference between us and our pets.

What do you think? Does your experience with pets support or contradict this assessment? Tell us about the most remarkable example of animal communication you’ve witnessed.


Software Industry Report November 15, 1999 Seven Firms Plan To Participate In New Microsoft ‘Office Online’ Pilot Program Verio Inc., the Englewood, Colo., operator of Web sites for businesses and a leading provider of Internet services, is one of at least seven high-tech firms expected to participate in a new pilot program spearheaded by Microsoft Corp. that will make Office 2000 applications, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, FrontPage and Outlook, available to end users on an outsourced or “rented” basis. Verio will begin beta trials of the new application service with customers by the end of 1999, with widespread availability of the services through Verio to be announced later. here microsoft office online

San Jose, Calif.-based Concentric Network Corp. will also participate in the pilot program. When Concentric’s pilot commences in early 2000, customers will use Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other Office applications via the Internet, instead of having the software installed on their PCs. The Office applications will reside on Concentric servers, allowing users to access the latest version of Office without having to make an upfront investment and without having to install or maintain the software. Outsourcing Office also allows users to access the application from any computer, and save their documents to a secure server in the Concentric Network. go to site microsoft office online

The Office Online pilot is Microsoft’s reaction to the fast growing Application Service Provider (ASP) movement, where expensive software applications can be rented as needed, instead of purchased and loaded onto client machines.

Some analysts say the new Microsoft experiment was sparked by Sun’s recent acquisition of rival office suite software maker Star Division Corp. and Sun’s subsequent plans to make the StarOffice Suite available free via a service-driven web portal (see SIR, Sept. 6, pg. 1).

Microsoft has yet to iron out a pricing scheme for the rental program. Other participants in the pilot include British Telecommunications PLC, Quest Communications, Micron Electronics and FutureLink.

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  1. Miss Cellany -  January 25, 2014 - 7:35 pm

    “animal communication is instinctive, not learned”

    – what are you basing this on? What research? What source? How can you possibly generalise that ALL animals (excluding humans presumably?) communicate instinctively rather than learning how to communicate? You do not know this, you have simply been told this or read it somewhere and you blindly believed it, and the people who said it or wrote it likewise have read or heard it somewhere and blindly believed it.

    Actually there have been precious few experiments into animal social interaction – had there been more we may have learned sooner just how well dogs and dolphins and apes understand us (and each other). Animals DO learn social interaction and communication by participating in social interactions and communications with other animals (both of their own species and of other species). They may Also instinctively make sounds for fear, pain, anger etc but so do humans. A child is not taught to scream when it is scared or hurt – it is instinctive. That doesn’t mean that the more complicated animal communications are not learned.

    My rescue dog was not properly socialised with other dogs when he was a puppy. He has trouble communicating with other dogs. It starts a lot of fights because he never learned how to interact properly and he doesn’t display the right language to them when he meets them. Most dogs will bark at him and growl even when he is just walking past – clearly there is some signal he is giving out (or not giving out) that causes this. Conversely he understands me perfectly and I speak to him in whole sentences which he acts on accordingly. He knows his toys individually by name, and also by category: ball, soft-toy, Squeaky (anything that squeaks – when the speaker breaks its apparently no longer a squeaky according to my dog so this is a temporary category) “moo” (plastic squeaky cows in various colours), rope-toy (tug toys made from various types of rope) frisbee, and the generic “toy” which means any of his toys. He also understands that the same word means different things according to context. E.g. The word “dog”. If I say “look at the dog!” he’ll jump up and go to the window to look for dogs passing by. But if I ask “where is my dog?” he’ll come over to me and poke me with his nose (his way of getting my attention). I never trained him to do this – he has learnt all his words the same way a child would – by listening to me speaking as I go about my daily business (I talk to him as if he were a particularly bright toddler). Its worth noting that my dog is also a border collie (known to be one of the most intelligent dog breeds).

    Most domesticated mammals can understand at least some human speech. They MUST have had a pre-existing mechanism to LEARN communication or they would not be able to learn our language. It must have existed in the wild form for it to be present in the domestic versions. If they have such a mechanism there HAS to be a reason for it – they must USE this mechanism to learn how to communicate, either with each other or with other species in their range. It’s well documented how birds issue alarm calls and other animals have LEARNED to take advantage of these calls and understand that the bird is calling out that there is danger. If communication is instinctive how would an animal that moves from one environment to another (with different birds and different alarm calls) understand the new call unless it can learn the new call is also an alarm. If what you say is true it would take hundreds or thousands of years of evolution to assimilate the new call into its genetically programmed (hard wired) instincts.

    Finally, humans ARE animals – you are basically saying that humans are the ONLY animal that learn to communicate – that is scientifically totally ridiculous. How would such an ability evolve all alone all at once in such a complex form? It’s impossible. It reminds me of the assertion that “only humans use tools”. That lasted until scientists found a bunch of different animals using tools that they had fashioned themselves and TAUGHT other members of their species to use. There must be varying levels of learning going on in different animals. Yes SOME simple animals have hard wired instinctive communication, but then there are others that have mechanisms to learn what sounds produced by other animals mean, and then there’s the very complex animals that can learn whole sentences and distinguish between nouns and verbs (dogs, dolphins, apes, humans etc).

    It’s arrogant and foolish to believe we are so far apart from the other species on our planet; it makes otherwise intelligent scientists look like religious morons when they assert such things, especially when there is next to no evidence to back up such claims, and a wealth of evidence that suggests there actually aren’t so many differences after all.

  2. Sally -  July 1, 2013 - 2:45 pm

    Dogs are, at least two of the dogs I have had, much more able to comprehend words (not just words but ideas) than they are given credit for. My current dog knows over 1000 words, many of them fairly sophisticated words. It is mostly a matter of how they are taught (not that this dog is not also pretty smart). I think the notion that language is only the province of the human species needs to be reworked, at least as far as dogs are concerned, because however differently their brains are structured, these two dogs have been quite capable of understanding orally spoken language–with training. They just have not had the capacity for assimilation of language in the same way a young child would.

    My dog also has emotions, appreciates classical music, is able to feel guilt and is aware of the passing of time (knows the difference between a 15-minute absence of his human and a 2-hour one)–all of which dogs are intermittently stated to be, by both popular sentiment and scientific community, too dissmilar to humans to be able to experience.

  3. Sue -  July 13, 2012 - 6:38 am

    From my experience dogs can understand the language of their owners. Whilst in Thailand I made a point of speaking to the dogs there. There was no recognition of anything that was said in either a friendly or scolding tone when spoken to in English, but when spoken to in Thai some wagged their tails others followed us. I am positive our two furkids
    understand English. We have talked about going out in the car without any inflection in our voices while sitting at the table. Both dogs will hurry to the door and sit waiting

  4. June -  April 11, 2012 - 8:26 am

    My American Eskimo dog responds to many words…but also to a sequence of events. They associate your repeated pattern after you say a word. If i say “Do you want to take a bath?”…she gets under the bed. If I say “Do you want a treat?” she runs to the kitchen where they are kept. I have an unusual dog who hates the leash and doesn’t want to go walking. She has a big back yard to run so we don’t go for long walks. If I say, “Shall I get the leash?” she jumps up on the bed and lies quietly on a pillow. An Eskie is an unusually affectionate dog to her owners and family; but not too great for strangers unless they are properly socialized.

  5. iq145 -  April 4, 2012 - 8:12 pm

    My cat, Mystik, is the most intelligent of any animal i’ve ever witnessed myself. He’s an American Shorthair, nothing more. His deductive reasoning and creative problem solving is nothing short of incredible. Most amazing part: i never intentionally tried to train him on much of anything. i should’ve seen the clues coming… Cats automatically seemed to spontaneously start using their front limbs like arms (as monkeys do). He observes, he studies… He even attempts to mimic my “talking”

  6. Debbie -  November 21, 2011 - 7:46 pm

    I have a two year old beagle that always amazes me. She understands a lot of what I say and even more of my body language. One of the things she does that I find interesting is that if I am in my bedroom and I’m awake and someone comes in she simply lifts her head,but if I am sleeping who ever happens to walk into my room is meant with a very menacing growl,and Gracie does not have a mean bone in her body!

  7. eryns -  June 17, 2011 - 3:22 pm

    I do belive that dogs understand the meaning of word. My nana has a dog, Oliver, and one time he pooped on her side of the bed. And my nana said, “Oliver, if you poop on my side of the bed, I will sell your but.” And that was a year ago. However, since then, Oliver has never pooped on my nanas side of the bed.

  8. #1 Skillet Fan -  March 7, 2011 - 6:03 pm

    @ Dida: I have to do that to my dog too…unfortunately I think he is catching on to the spelling because he is starting to act the same way as if I really said “Walk”

  9. warthog3 -  February 22, 2011 - 8:42 am

    Dogs simply have some innate abilities humans simply don’t have,but wished they did. Finding your way home, even across hundreds or thousands of miles, without asking directions. Hearing very high frequencies and responding immediately. Labs can detect colorectal and bowel cancer with 98 % accuracy, Shepherd can detect road-side bombs,Jack Russels can sniff out bedbugs w 95% success rate. Which of these can you do?

  10. Bloob -  February 22, 2011 - 5:13 am

    Do you know how much I hate websites that won’t let you exit them with the Back button?

    I hate them with the heat of a thousand burning suns, that’s how much.

  11. Sharonsj -  February 21, 2011 - 3:03 pm

    I have cats and dogs and most of them know their names and come when called (except for cats, who do as they damn please; but when they refuse to come, they will turn their ears in my direction at the name and not another pet’s name).

    My two mutts certainly understand words. If I ask if they want to go out, they go to the front door. If I say, “no not that one, the other one” they will rush to a different room. I call anything I feed them “din-din.” If I ask, “do you want din-din?” they will run from the room and make a beeline to their dishes in the kitchen.

    Even if they associate actions with words, the bottom line is that they still understand the word has a meaning.

  12. Janet -  February 20, 2011 - 6:33 am

    My standard poodle knew how to spell. I could say “out” or say “spell the word o u t, and he understood the meaning. The same with the word ball.

  13. kati -  February 19, 2011 - 1:38 pm

    I think the studies are missing the point. Communication is a dialogue, and is predicated on both parties understanding agreed upon modes of communication. So far, we’ve expected animals to fully understand our mode of communication without taking into consideration their side of the dialogue. I never expected my cat to walk up to me and say “Mom, there’s something terribly wrong with the back of my head and I really need to go to the vet before you take off for your weekend trip tomorrow morning,” in my language. However, I knew my cat and his body language very well, and when I came home from school one day and saw him, everything about his body language and the tone of his meow (that damn cat had a very expressive meow…) told me there was something seriously wrong with him. I took him to the vet that minute, and the vet wasn’t able to find anything wrong.

    Fast forward 4 days, and I’ve come home from my weekend trip to find my cat with a gaping hole in the back of his head, and he’s in serious pain. Like the good parent I tried to be, I took him to the vet immediately and the vet told me he had an abscess. What he couldn’t understand, though, was how I had known that there was something wrong with him 4 days ago. The vet had been looking for tell-tale signs of the abscess and couldn’t find any. The only thing I could tell him is that my cat basically told me there was something wrong. I read his body language, and I’d become so attuned to his various meows that I knew what that one meant, that he was asking for help.

    I honestly think these studies need to be two sided, and look at how animals not only learn to understand our language, but also learn to navigate expressing their needs and desires to us. I don’t think it’s much different than 2 people sitting in a room who speak different languages learning to communicate basic things to each other despite the language barrier.

  14. Ed Bernier -  February 18, 2011 - 8:23 am

    My Bichon Frise knows a little bit of French. For example, when he is hungry he says “boeuf,” expressing his preference for “beef.”

  15. naoma -  February 18, 2011 - 6:27 am

    I saw the NOVA show on the dog that knows all its toys by name. Not sure how. But why does my neighbor’s dog who barks day and night not
    understand “shut up?”

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