Do Dogs Speak Human?

David BellosWell, are humans the only species that have language?  It’s a question that's been asked many times, but to think about it I’d like you to imagine a dog.... and he’s a very thoughtful dog and he can hear humans barking.  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 or whether it constitutes a language, and I'd like to fix on that idea.  I mean, obviously it’s a silly fable, but it’s not completely silly in that, precisely because we do not understand the noises that dogs make except for a few individual signals, such as "Let me out of here" or "Take me for a walk" or "There's an intruder," we therefore say it’s not a language because it consists only of a discretely or a fixed number of specific signals that don’t change, and the rest is just dogs barking.

Dogs could, in this fable, have exactly that same understanding of human language. The problem is that we can’t translate between dog and human.  If we could, then we might know whether dogs have a language or not.  The condition for the existence of a language, or 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.  If we could translate any of them, we would then have a much more intelligent and interesting view as to what makes human language different from.  But there's no earthly reason, I mean, given that language, as I've said at the beginning, is a form of human behavior, why a dog or a cow should have a human form of behavior.  They’re not humans, so it’s a species difference.  What would a dog want to say anyway that would be of interest to us?  Only a limited number of things where we interact on specific points. 

And so 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 kind of—it’s a circular argument; 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.  

Directed / Produced by 
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

 

The award-winning translator and language expert examines the intricacies of human language. We ask, do animal communication systems measure up?

Why Lil Dicky made this star-studded Earth Day music video

"Earth" features about 30 of the biggest names in entertainment.

Culture & Religion
  • Lil Dicky is a rapper and comedian who released his debut album in 2015.
  • His new music video, "Earth," features artists such as Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheehan, Kevin Hart, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
  • All proceeds of the music video will go to environmental causes, Dicky said.
Keep reading Show less

After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Keep reading Show less
Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less