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Animal Communication versus Human Language

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1769 words Published: 21st Sep 2021

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Animal communication is any behavior on the part of one animal that has an effect on the current or future behavior of another animal. Body language like some gesture and action is a common way that animal communicates with others. Combined with other body language, in a specific context, many gestures such as yawns, direction of vision, and so on all transmit meaning. As with human beings, who may smile or hug or stand a particular way for multiple reasons, many animals reuse gestures as well.

Communication system varies among animals. Some may use gestures and some may use a particular sound to inform others some message. Therefore, in the following section, some examples of how different animal communicate with others will be provided.

Different animal’s communication system


The communication system of bee is complex as it use gestural. Bees communicate with others by dancing. Bees dance when they have found food source. For example, a particular bee called forager bee has to locate the food source for the hive. When a forager bee finds food and returns to the hive, it does a special dance on the wall of the hive in order to inform the other bees of the location of the food so that they can go and get it. Depending on the orientation of the dance on the wall of hive, the bees know which direction from the sun to fly and how far to fly. The primary function of this dance is to recruit other forager bees to gather the food.

(Elizabeth, G.W. (2007). Understanding Language,24-25.)


The communication system of bird is using both vocalizations and visualizations. Vocalization is a mainly communication method among birds. Therefore, we focus on vocalizations which are divided into two parts which are calls and songs. Bird calls are made up of single notes or short sequences of notes. Calls are used to signal a lot of activities For example, birds employ calls during flight to keep the flock together and to signal takeoff and landing. They also utilize them when they need to sound an alarm or to protect their territory. Birds use different types of calls depending on what threat they perceive. If there is a danger, the call and the reaction of the birds that hear the call will be different from usual. When they hear this call, birds either stop moving or get under cover so they are harder to catch.

(Elizabeth, G.W. (2007). Understanding Language,26-27.)

Dolphins and whales

The communication systems of dolphins and whales are complex and quiet similar to those of birds in their functions. For example, the bottle-nosed dolphin creates two kinds of vocalizations which are pure tones, comprised of whistles and squeaks and pulsed sounds which including clicks, barks, yelps and moans. Dolphins produce clicks to send out sound waves that they bounce off objects to identify them, a process called echolocation. Whistles are also used to send out alarms and distress calls. If a dolphin is injured, it can signal other dolphins to come and provide help by raising the injured one out of the water so it can breathe.

(Elizabeth, G.W. (2007). Understanding Language,28.)

The differences between animal communication system and human language

The capacity to communicate is innate in both humans and other species of animals. However, there are significant differences between human language and animal communication systems.

For human, communication means that a sender provides information to a receiver through a signal to interpret the exchange. For animal,less about information, more about managing or manipulating behavior.

Human language possesses a number of significant qualities that as yet have not been found, as a group, as a part of any other animal communication system. For example, human speech sounds can be arranged in infinite sequences to create new meanings. No animal species has been identified that can combine the sounds and gestures of their system to add new meanings in an ongoing and productive way. Each and every day humans are constantly creating new words and topics of discussion.

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In addition to this, the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning is almost always arbitrary in human languages. This is evidenced by the fact that all human s are of the same species but that one species’ individuals currently speak over 6000 languages. In animal communication systems, a specific sound corresponds with a specific meaning. For animals, not only is the ability to communicate innate, but also the sounds, gestures and postures are often biologically fixed according to each species.

Finally, humans do something quite significant with their languages that animals do not. We communicate in the abstract, about events in the future or the past, about things and people not in the immediate environment, and concepts and ideas that have no physical form. Although some animal communication may deal, with items not in the immediate environment, animal communication is limited to reacting to the environment in some way.

(Elizabeth, G.W. (2007). Understanding Language,22-23.)

The uniqueness of human language

People have made attempts to teach animals to speak human language. For example, one of the well known experiments with teaching animals language was Allen and Beatrice Gardner’s work in the1960s and 1970s with Washoe, a chimpanzee. According ti the Gardner’s, Washoe learned to make over 100 signs and could combine two of them together in meaningful ways, for example, ‘you drink’.

However, animals can never communicate in the same way as human beings do. They may be able to produce sounds similar to those used in human language, but it cannot be equated with the ability to acquire the complex grammar of a human language.

(Elizabeth, G.W. (2007). Understanding Language,31.)

According to Yule(2010), human language is unique and has the following five distinct features:

1. Displacement

Humans can refer to past and future time. This property of human language is called displacement. It allows language users to talk about things and events not present in the immediate environment. This cannot be done by animal. For example, If a cat stands at your feet calling “meow” when you comes home, you are likely to understand this message as relating to that immediate time and place. If you ask your cat where it has been and what it was up to, you will probably get the same response “meow”. This shows that animal communication seems to be designed exclusively for this moment, here and now. It cannot effectively be used to relate events that are far removed in time and place.

For human, we can say “I went to China in the summer” but a cat can never say “I went to a friend’s home last night”. That is, human communication is not limited by time and space.

(Yule, G.(2010) The study of language. 11-12.)

(Wang, L.(2011)Introduction to language Studies

2. Arbitrariness

There is no “natural” connection between a linguistic form and its meaning. The connection is quite arbitrary. For example, there is no rational reason to explain why a four legged domestic animal making “woof” sound is called “dog” in English, “gou” in Chinese, and “hund” in German. The relationship between the sound and the meaning is completely random.

There are some words in language with sounds that seem to “echo” the sounds of objects or activities and hence seem to have a less arbitrary connection. For example, cat say “ngeong” in Indonesian, a rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo” in English but “cocorico” in French or “kikiriki” in German.

(Yule, G.(2010) The study of language. 12-13.)

(Anderson S.R.(2004) Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion Animal and the Uniqueness of Human Language. 27.)

3. Productivity

Humans are continually creating new expressions and novel utterances by manipulating their linguistic resources to describe new objects and situations. This property is described as productivity and essentially means that the potential number of utterances in any human language is infinite. However, the communicative systems of animals do not have this kind of flexibility. They are not able to invent new signals to communicate. Take honeybee as an example, the honeybee normally able to communicate the location of a nectar source to other bees, but it will fail to do so if the location is really “new”. Each signal in the system is fixed as relating to a particular object or occasion.

(Yule, G.(2010) The study of language. 13-14.)

4. Cultural transmission

The process whereby a language is passed on from one generation to the next is described as cultural transmission. It is clear human beings are born with the biological organs that can help them to produce speech sounds, they still have to acquire a language from the people around them. It is so different from animal as they are born with a set of fixed signals that are produced instinctively. For example, when a bird is isolated for the first two months without hearing other birds, it can still instinctively produce the same songs the other birds of the same species do. But human infants growing up in isolation without any human language input cannot speak a language instinctively.

(Yule, G.(2010) The study of language. 14.)

5. Duality

Human language is organized at two levels or layers simultaneously. This property is called duality. In speech production, we have a physical level at which we can produce individual sounds, like n,b and i. As individual sounds, none of these discrete forms has any meaning. In a particular combination such as “bin”, we have another level producing a meaning that is different from the meaning of the combination in “nib”. Therefore, at one level we have distinct sounds and at another level, we have distinct meanings. Among other creatures, each communicative signal appears to be a single fixed form that cannot be broken down into separate parts. Although your dog may be able to produce “woof”(“I am happy to see you), it does not seem to do so on the basis of a distinct level of production combining the separate elements of w+oo+f.

(Yule, G.(2010) The study of language. 15.)


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