It seems almost self-evident that humans are different to other animals, but when pressed about what it is that distinguishes us, we start to run into problems in the thesis.
Is it that we can form deep bonds with one another that last for a lifetime, or that we mourn lost friends? Penguins have that. Is it that we build houses? Many insects and birds do that. Use tools? Many animals use tools and can learn how to use human-made appliances, as well. Self-awareness? Several animals have been shown to recognize themselves in the mirror.
Or maybe it’s the fact that we can talk? Now we’re getting warmer. While animals are quite capable of communicating, not all communication constitutes a language. Think of how a cat can convey hunger, anger, alarm and distress, but it can’t form a sentence about what it wants to eat or what’s bothering it. For a communicational system to be termed a language it has to have a vocabulary and a grammar. Do animals have those? Can they learn those things? Let’s take a look:
Sperm Whales and Orcas
The intelligence of large cetaceans like sperm whales and baleen whales is rather hard to study because of their size (imagine getting a mirror large enough for a blue whale to stare into!). We do know that they have a large brain-to-body proportion and that they have complex vocalization. What’s more, the vocalization of pods of sperm and killer whales in different regions has been found to differ, which scientists liken to different accents or dialects.
It is no secret that dolphins are intelligent, sometimes frighteningly so, but can they speak? Quite possibly. To date, dolphins seem to be the best animal candidates to possess linguistic skills, as their vocalizations are extremely complex. For example, dolphins have a unique identifying call that relates to them and only them- or in other words, dolphins have names.
Bonobos are, together with the common chimp, our closest relatives and have been characterized as the cleverest ape, even though their more aggressive chimp siblings appear to use tools more intuitively. They are capable of recognizing their own reflection, can learn to comprehend human speech and use sign language or keyboards to convey messages to humans. Some animal rights activists have argued that should suffice to recognize them as legal persons.
Much like the smaller bonobos, gorillas, too, seem capable of language learning, and even of ingenious language use, such as using existing words to describe things they don’t know the word for (for example, calling a ring a “finger-bracelet”). One thing great apes can’t seem to do, however, is ask questions, leading researchers to believe that may be the key to understanding human cognition.
Can ravens speak? Ask Edgar Allan Poe. It is well-known that corvids are intelligent, exhibiting problem-solving skills that match those of dolphins and chimps, but their communication system is somewhat of a puzzle to us. We know ravens are terrific mimics, but we don’t know if they understand what they’re saying. Nor do we know if their own cawing follows any grammatical rules.
By far the most famous talkers are parrots, though scientists can’t agree as to whether parrots know what they’re saying. African greys are considered to be the best mimics, with one famous bird called Alex (acronym for *A*vian *L*anguage *EX*periment) having a vocabulary of more than 100 words and showing innovative use of language and, unlike apes, having the capability to ask questions. Some scientists argue that Alex and other parrots are merely repeating patterns and any complex language use is a “trick” that’s reinforced by a reward system.