What's the Big Idea?
Perhaps the better question is, do humans speak dog? Either way, the debate over whether language is unique to humans, or a faculty also possessed by wild and domestic animals from dogs to apes to dolphins, is an interesting one. The answer depends on exactly how we define "language," and who's doing the talking, says David Bellos, the Booker prize-winning translator.
Watch our video interview with David Bellos:
Animal signalling systems are not (as far as we can tell) as complex as human language, nor do they fit the linguist's definition of a language -- the existence of grammar, syntax, and sound units. "Words in languages are finite, but sentences are not. It is this creative aspect of human language that sets it apart from animal languages, which are essentially responses to stimuli," write Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman, expressing the semantic view.
But dogs do have many ways of telling us things. When a puppy wags its tail or barks or runs around in circles as we arrive home from work, we get the gist. I'm hungry. Let's go for a walk! Get off of my property. And mounting evidence shows that dogs understand human language better than previously assumed (except by dog lovers). They're about as smart as a 2- or 3-year-old child, the age at which most kids begin to initiate conversations and speak in simple sentences.
To acquire language, kids use a strategy called "fast mapping" -- forming quick, rough hypotheses about the meaning of new words after just one or two exposures. So do dogs. Recently, researchers found that a border collie named Rico was able to infer the names of more than 200 items using this method.
Four weeks after the initial exposure, Rico was still able to retrieve the items by name. Another border collie in South Carolina has memorized over 1,000 nouns. The dog, Chaser, reportedly loves her vocabulary drills.
A similar study out of the Max Planck Institute showed that puppies use human communicative cues to solve problems by as early as six weeks.
What's the Significance?
“Imagine a dog. He’s a very thoughtful dog and he can hear humans barking," says Bellos. "He can hear that amongst the funny noises humans make there are a number of signals with fixed meanings like ‘walk,’ ‘sit, ‘heel,’ and he ponders as to whether the rest of the noise they make is just barking.”
It's a joke, of course, but one with a point. For Bellos, the condition for the existence of a language -- “what we think of as a language" -- is its translatability. "So the boundary between our species and others is indeed an unbridgeable gulf until we learn to translate them.” The gap between human and dog is not about grammar or syntax, but about how deeply we can grasp each other's meaning.
Broadly, a language is a mode of expression. "The argument that only human language is language and that animal communication systems, however sophisticated they are -- and some of them are quite sophisticated -- are not languages because they consist of discrete signals is a circular argument," he argues. "It’s a self-fulfilling thing. And I think we should be a little bit more interested in the complexity and the variability of animal communication systems and less rigid about this distinction between what is a language and what is not a language."
For now, we're happy with this:
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.