General Question

JackAdams's avatar

If human beings are truly able to "talk" to primates via sign language, then will the day ever come when we can talk to our dogs, cats and horses?

Asked by JackAdams (6497points) September 2nd, 2008

This question may appear to be somewhat whimsical, but it’s seriously asked, because I feel that if a human being can indeed talk to a gorilla, then it seems to me that it’s only a matter of time, before we will be able to carry on a conversation with other animals also, and in a way, I’m almost scared of what they may say to us, about us.

September 2, 2008, 11:13 PM EDT

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41 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Dogs, for one, are extremely sensitive to body language and very responsive to hand signals.

More research is needed. The problem right now is that most of the establishment does not accept the level of animal intelligence.

Most people who discuss it believe that animals “think” in images.

buster's avatar

Dr. Dolittle already talks to animals.

augustlan's avatar

Right now, we can “talk” with sign language only, which demands that our inteded target has “hands” in order for them to talk back. In order for us to communicate with other types of animals, we’d have to learn to decipher, translate, and “speak” their language. I, for one, think it will happen someday, but probably not in my lifetime. Related point:
I think it’s absurd to believe that animals don’t have a “language”, whatever form it may take. If we accept the premise that animals don’t communicate with each other using a language, then we must believe that all animals use mental telepathy. I ask you, which seems more likely?

tinyfaery's avatar

My cat understands a lot of what I say. How can I tell? He does what I ask, and if he doesn’t want to, he yells at me.

paulc's avatar

I already know what my dogs would say through the much more entertaining powers of anthropomorphization. Here is a small sampling:

• Hey are you opening the bag of carrots? Huh? Are you? Carrots? I like carrots! Give me carrots! Carrots! etc.
• I am staring intently at you, mere centimetres from your face, while I direct my mental powers of suggestion to get you to give me some carrots.
• Let me out I need to get all barky at those dogs and people and invisible things outside as they may be plotting to steal our carrots.
• Oh man! Oh crap! When you left the house for 3 minutes just now I thought you like entered a freakin space-time rift never to be seen again. I’m so glad you’re back! Got carrots?

winblowzxp's avatar

We need to hunt the vastness of space for the elusive Babel Fish. It’s about time we started utilizing those clever little yellow bastards.

ezraglenn's avatar

“I think it’s absurd to believe that animals don’t have a “language”, whatever form it may take. If we accept the premise that animals don’t communicate with each other using a language, then we must believe that all animals use mental telepathy. I ask you, which seems more likely?”

This answer deserves a MILLION lurve. Has ANYONE else thought of that? AMAZING.

winblowzxp's avatar

I can agree with the language thing to a certain extent. Language in its most primitive form is a series of sounds that have a common meaning amongst species. I’d say that a very small amount of sounds that animals make have much meaning, if any, to other animals of their species.

I have a cat. If he hears any other cat, be it on the TV, or even another cat at the door hollering, he just keeps sleeping. Actions such as hissing, growling, or hollering when in heat may mean absolutely nothing, and that when such actions occur certain chemical reactions occur which frighten the other animal away or halt its forward movement. We also have to keep in mind that humans are unable to hear sounds which are above 20 KHz, so when the hissing, et al., are being done, there may also be something in the ultrasonic range that’s being heard that is unpleasant to them and they stop what they were doing.

JackAdams's avatar

I’m very flattered by the very high level of intelligent discourse that my question has created.

The feedback from those of you who have contributed to my understanding of this topic, is beyond measure.

I am grateful for your wisdom, really.

September 3, 2008, 1:11 AM EDT

augustlan's avatar

@Ezra: Thanks, I am blushing :)

Bri_L's avatar

are you kidding? If my owner ever found me talking to you guys…. Wait….. Here he comes!

Back to licking stuff.

Lovelocke's avatar

Me and my doggie dog talk to each other quite well. It’s all based on how much you bond to your pets… Y’know? Even birds can interface with people very well.

JackAdams's avatar

Dogs can sense a lot about people. My dog, Gawd rest his soul, always knew when I was sad, and would rest his head on my lap, to try to cheer me up.

To this day, I miss him MORE than any other member of my entire family.

As Will Rogers once said, “I love dogs, they don’t do anything for political reasons.”

September 3, 2008, 2:22 AM EDT

syz's avatar

We’re talking about two different things here. Dogs seem to communicate with us because they have highly developed social skills as a result of living in gregarious groups in which social status and standing are based in part on the ability to read signals and interpret them correctly. They use those same skills in their interactions with us.

Cats are somewhat more unique in that they are considered solitary animals and yet through thousands of years of selective breeding, they have come to respond to human interaction with great success (look at how many are kept as pets).

Using sign language in the great apes is a method for determining level of cognition. While is has long been suspected that their intelligence has developed in a similar manner as our own (due to our close genetic relationship), true communication is difficult because they do not have the physical adaptations that allow for speech. Since they don’t have the physical capability for speech, it’s unlikely that their neurologic development has created a scenario in which they think in “language”. (Why have language if you can’t speak??)

The studies that show that they are capable of communicating with sign language (at least in my opinion) proves that they are indeed a highly intelligent and adaptable species. They have managed to grasp an entirely new form of communication – this level of development and kinship makes it all the more appalling that they are still decimated for bush meat and as trophies.

susanc's avatar

Non-human primates sign in the wild. Jane Goodall’s chimp
studies show them doing something interactive with their hands that may not be a language we’ve bothered to learn. If you don’t call that “language”, how do you
think it feels to deaf people to know that you don’t consider their signing systems to be “language”?
I think we can expand our definition of “language” to mean something like “intentional
coded communication”. By that definition, all animals who have anything to do with others of their own kind have signalling sets. Our cats and dogs communicate with us, given the limitations of their vocal structures, through the deployment of both vocal and non-vocal signalling systems. The consistency of these signals means we can define them as language and not just flailing about.

Another issue is whether language developed exclusively to relay practical messages
(“Feed me”, “Give me that”). Certainly we also use it to express feelings regardless of audience. Once we have an ability, we use it for additional purposes, one
of which is pure enjoyment, one of which is reflection….

tinyfaery's avatar

If I remember correctly ASL and only ASL (no other forms of sign language) uses the same parts of the brain as spoken language.

tWrex's avatar

It’s funny this question came up, because my in-laws just bought a puppy and found out he’s deaf. So they have to teach him to do things by using adaptive sign language – which means it’ll be simpler and adapted to the dogs level of understanding. So while we may not be able to use full signing, yes it is possible. You do have to also realize that most non-verbal children who also have a disability, such as autism, use adaptive sign language to communicate – my wife works in a classroom full of non-verbal autistic kids so I get to see all the variations on signing.

scamp's avatar

My dog is getting very old, and losing his hearing. I use hand signs to tell him what i want him to do now, and he understands most of them perfectly.

JackAdams's avatar

tWrex: I’m sorry to hear that your family has a puppy who is deaf. As long as he gets an unlimited amount of love and the best of care from your in-laws, the puppy will be just fine.

My cousins in Arkansas (the ones our family don’t talk about, much) told me that one time, they had a horse who stuttered.

They kept him away from the other horses, so they wouldn’t make fun of him…

September 3, 2008, 8:59 PM EDT

marinelife's avatar

With a deaf puppy, you just have to make certain the dog is not startled while sleeping (automatic snap reflex).

JackAdams's avatar

ANY dog, deaf or otherwise, can be startled into wakefulness.

I had a king-sized bed, and my own wonderful dog (1960–74) slept right beside me on it, through my entire childhood.

My Mom encouraged that, because she said that I could never be kidnapped, if he was always right next to me.

My dog was a very heavy sleeper, and sometimes he would be startled awake by something that woke him up in the middle of the night.

Dogs sleep soundly, if they feel safe.

September 3, 2008, 9:37 PM EDT

tWrex's avatar

Wellllll…. It turns out that my in-laws took the puppy back. I found it truly discouraging, but it’s their choice, not mine. Thankfully they found someone to take it so it wasn’t just thrown to the wild. @Marina That startled deaf dog idea is a myth. As @JackAdams said, all dogs startle and all react differently. More info can be found there on the myths, but that one describes the one you just described. =)

JackAdams's avatar

I hope the deaf puppy was not “put to sleep.”

Don’t tell me; I don’t wish to know…

September 3, 2008, 10:03 PM EDT

marinelife's avatar

I hope the puppy has a good future.

“Needless to say, you and all your family members have to learn not to do anything that will startle the dog. Things you might do that will startle your dog include: stamping on the floor to get his attention; waking him up abruptly like plopping down heavily on the couch when he’s sleeping soundly on it; and scaring him when he comes around a corner.”

JackAdams's avatar

They no longer have the puppy, Marina.

September 3, 2008, 10:09 PM EDT

marinelife's avatar

@JA Right, I got that. It is still my wish for the puppy.

tWrex's avatar

It did go to a good home (had it gone to something other than that I would have followed them in my own car and bought the dog myself). A woman that the breeder worked with took the dog and was well aware of the dogs differences.

@Marina You’re quote describes part of what I had linked to. Yes you need to do things differently and make the dog aware of your presence, but the idea that a startled dog may bite and that a deaf dog is more prone to it is the falsity I was trying to disband. =)

Noon's avatar

Ahhh, there is sooo much misinformation on this thread I just had to say something. First of all I should say that I am an American Sign Language Interpreter just so you know where I’m coming from.

Second of all, basic communication with symbols and signs is NOT language. Language is still considered a exclusively human phenomenon. That is not to say that animals do not communicate, or course they do but they do not have LANGUAGE. Some have a sophisticated communication system, but again no grammar.

And all of the primate studies are full of controversy. But it is agreed upon that there has never been an ape who has learned ASL. They have learned some signs, and are able to use them as symbols to communicate but no language. Keep in mind ASL is a full language. There is complex grammar in ASL and an extensive vocabulary with variable nuanced inflection.

@ susanc—ironically enough most Deaf people are quite happy that people don’t consider what apes do language. Many of the primate experiments have tried to include Deaf people and fluent signers. I happen to know a few who worked with Koko. Almost all of them quit shortly after being hired because the researchers were trying to equate Deaf people’s language to Koko’s language. Most fluent signers that worked with Koko had a hard time understanding her, it was only the hearing trainers who “understood” her.

@tinyfaery—Where did you hear that only ASL stimulated the “speech” part of the brain. I see no reason why other signed languages wouldn’t do the same thing. I mean, ASL is actually a relative of French Sign Language, why would ASL stimulate the speech center but French Sign Language not, or Mexican or Brazilian Sign Language, also relatives of French Sign Language.

JackAdams's avatar

Noon, perhaps you have not (yet) heard of Yerkish which is what the developers are referring to as a bona fide language. I quote from the Wikipedia:

“Yerkish is an artificial language developed for use by non-human primates. Yerkish requires the primates to use a keyboard to punch keys with so called lexigrams, symbols corresponding to objects or ideas. The language was developed by Ernst von Glasersfeld and used by Duane Rumbaugh and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of Georgia State University while working with primates at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia teaching them to communicate by means of lexigram board, a computerized array of keys labeled with lexigrams. The first ape that from 1973 was trained to communicate in Yerkish was Lana.”

If you can obtain a copy of the Rod Serling narrated 1975 documentary, The Outer Space Connection, you will see this ape language demonstrated, where one of the humans requests, via the keyboard symbols, to enter an ape’s enclosure (and is granted permission) then asks for permission to be “groomed” by the ape, and that is also granted.

I believe, if my memory is correct, that the primate is a Chimpanzee.

This is an excellent movie to watch, if you are fortunate enough to obtain a copy, even if only a loan.

Noon's avatar

I’m still not sure I agree to call “Yerkish” a language. And Judging by other websites I’m alone. But I will say that it does look like with Yerkish primates were able to learn ‘aspects’ of language, but a full fledged language, I don’t think so. Again, the primate studies are full of debate and I think I’m going to lean on the Chomsky side of things ;-)

JackAdams's avatar

I understand (and respect) your logic on that.

There are still folks today, who are members of a club whose premise is that man will never fly.

Do you believe that there is such a “language” as Esperanto or Klingon?

Noon's avatar

@JackAdams—Cute link with the whole “man will never fly” thing. But not relevant ;-)

Funny you bring up Esperanto and Klingon, I happen to know a bit of both (luckily more Esperanto than Klingon, don’t want to look like too much of a crazy) But yes of course I consider both of these languages. My problem with Yerkish is not that it is artificial or constructed, I mean technically modern Hebrew is reconstructed and I would not say that millions of people are not speaking a language because it’s constructed.

The problem I have with calling Yerkish a language is because it does not exhibit the nuances that languages have in order to be considered a true language. They are still very basic ways of communicating very basic ideas. Maybe ‘Protolanguage’ if that is a word might be more accurate.

To try to make my perspective more clear there are many things that you might call language that I would not. I have worked in many situations with deaf individuals who for some reason or another (usually by being brought up in a oppressive society/environment) they were not exposed to language. Eventually if they were lucky enough they are exposed to some kind of language but it is usually too late. They end up being able to communicate basic needs and sometimes a bit more. But everything is concrete nothing abstract an inability to communicate tense, not able to talk about things not visible to them. Yes that may mean that I consider some developmentally disabled people incapable of language, but capable of communication.

JackAdams's avatar

Noon, have you ever seen a movie called, The Gods Must Be Crazy?

In that movie, one of the protagonists, a young man named N!xau, speaks the Juǀʼhoan language, which is mostly a series of clicking sounds, as opposed to any kind of recognizable words being uttered.

Please try to obtain a copy of that movie, if you have the time to view it. The language mentioned in it, is unlike any you have ever experienced, in your entire life.

And how many people have you ever known, whose name is spelled with an exclamation point within it?

Noon's avatar

Click languages are amazing. But not all that fascinating from a semantic perspective. They are true languages and work like all other languages. Linguists are actually puzzled as to why the click phonemes didn’t appear anywhere else in the world other than Africa. The key here is there were no recognizable words to YOU. But there were in fact words, verbs, adjectives, nouns etc etc.

I mean most people think Sing Language is cool, cute, weird, etc. But few realize the intensity at which it is inflected. I mean, you look in an ASL dictionary and you see the sign for WEEK. And you think “Great I know the sign for week”. What many don’t realize is what a fluent signer can do with that one sign (and a hand full [haha] of morphemes). For example, still using week, I can change my dominant hand to represent of number of weeks, lets say two. I can then continue the movement of the sing back and towards my body and over my shoulder making it “Two weeks ago”. I can scruntch my right lip to the right side (hard to explain) and tilt my head to my right shoulder and make it “Just two weeks ago”. Or move my head forward and raise my eyebrows and make it “Two weeks ago?” (yes/no question). Or tilt my head only slightly forward (not as far as the yes/no) and bring my eyebrows down and have it be “Two weeks ago?” (not yes/no, a “please elaborate” question)

THIS is language, and THIS is not an ape signing “ME WANT APPLE”. Amazing as it is that we can get an ape to sign “ME WANT APPLE” they are not speaking a true language.

JackAdams's avatar

You had written, “I mean most people think Sing Language is cool,” but I am assuming that whenever you typed sing, you meant sign, right?

Just clarifying, so I understand you, completely.

And, I need to point out that an ape saying, “ME WANT APPLE” is the same thing as when Tonto says it.

Noon's avatar

Yep ment Sign. And I think the example of the fictional character Tonto proves my point more than yours.

JackAdams's avatar

Both are using words to make their wants known to human beings.

One uses audio verbalization, the other uses hand signals.

In each case, successful communication results.

There is a video that I have (which I don’t now how to post, here, because it is inside my computer, and not on the Internet) which shows a dog saying, “I want it!” in response to a food treat being offered.

The question is, of course, does the dog know that he is actually asking for the food, or is he mimicking a sound he has been taught, knowing that when he does that, he gets the food?

From my perspective, he knows that the sounds he is uttering, result in the food being given to him, so he utters them to get the food.

Noon's avatar

To clarify, I have never said that in any of the examples animal/people were not communicating. Of course they are communicating, and in some cases amazingly well. But what I do not believe is that they have language. Tonto is an awful example as he is a fictional character written to sound ‘dumb’.

And I think there is something missing here. Sure the dog understands that if I make these sounds I get food. Fine no problem, I don’t have a problem with that at all. What I do have a problem with is the idea that the dog understands that the first sound “I” is a word the means himself, that the second sound “want” is verb meaning that the word before it is who is doing the wanting and that word after it is what is wanted. And finally that the sound ‘it’ is not only a word meaning food in this case, but a word that can mean anything given the context. And more so, I don’t think the dog understands that he can change the first word to “you” and make it you doing the wanting. These examples are language.

JackAdams's avatar

I believe that every living sentient creature, who communicates with others of his/her own kind, has something that qualifies as a “language,” even if it is not yet decipherable by human beings. Even a communication system that is composed of nothing more than grunts, groans, honks, growls and bleats, is still a “language” to those who utilize it.

Please note that there is a language which doesn’t use words at all. It is mentioned here.

Noon's avatar

@JackAdams—Why would you think a whistled language doesn’t have words? I mean even the article that you posted a link to says that the whistling language has a 4,000 “word” vocabulary. So just by using the source you supplied one can say that the whistling language does in fact have and use words. What the article does not go on to say (which you can find information almost anywhere about, since the whistling languages are used in linguistics classes world wide) is that the whistling languages are not languages at all they are codes. (I am not saying that you can’ t have a language that is based on whistling, you could, one just hasn’t been found/constructed yet) From a linguistic perspective calling the whistling languages, languages is like calling braille a language. Braille or morse code are not language but a code that requires a language to be used. The whistling languages are not an independent language but a way to whistle Spanish (or what ever dominant language the whistling language is used in) just like braille is a way to write English to make it easier to read with the sense of touch (or French, the original language encoded in braille ;-)

You appear to think I have a problem with HOW animals are communicating. I have no problem with HOW they communicate. If I wanted to construct a language that was based on the way in which I twirled a baton I could. The problem I have is WHAT they are communicating. And I don’t believe they communicate enough for it to be considered a language.

As for the sentience comment. We are still viewed by most people as the only sentient animals on this planet. Sentience is a subjective experience, and not something we can apply to animals that are unable to communicate their sentience to us.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Not in the way we can talk to another primate. We can teach a dog or a cat to respond to sign language, but they will never have any more ability than they do now to talk back.

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