Dogs May Not Think We Have Interesting Things to Say

Language expert David Bellos talks about the difficulties of learning about languages other species may be speaking.

Dog owners wonder just how much human language our canines understand. Really, you could also ask the question the other way around: How much of what dogs say do we get? The truth is we understand a few things a dog says. We know what a whimper of pain is, a bark of alarm, a playful bark, and so on. We can be certain that most pet dogs know the meaning of “car,” walk,” and “out.” Is much of the rest of what we say just barking to them, or do they learn to speak their owner’s language?

Language expert David Bellos points out that our two species probably don’t share that many interests, which limits linguistic overlap. Our dogs may just not care about politics, and few of us are that interested in what someone else’s butt smells like. So for now, our verifiable interspecies communication is limited to the things we really need to understand from each other. That we can do this is a promising sign, if you think about it. 

For all we know, your dog could at times be barking “I understand! I understand!” Which gets to the larger problem.

As much as we may like to think of humans as the only species with language, mounting evidence suggests otherwise. (It may also be that we’re the only species with purely mouthed language, and that other creatures use more of their body to communicate in ways unfamiliar to us.) We can hope that analysis of non-human sounds will eventually produce a virtual Rosetta stone that opens a richer dialogue. For now, though, we’re left with our shared interspecies interests and The Secret Life of Pets.

We do, of course, know that cats don’t care that much about what we say.

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