[lg policy] Do animals from geographically distant areas speak the same language?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jun 27 15:28:56 UTC 2012

Do animals from geographically distant areas speak the same language?

By Brian Palmer, Published: June 25

A friend recently asked me whether black bears in Appalachia have
Southern accents and whether they have trouble understanding black
bears raised in Canada or Alaska. Taken literally, those are notions
more fit for a Disney movie than a scientist. In a more abstract
sense, however, it’s a profound inquiry that fascinates zoologists and
psychologists alike.

Is communication learned or innate in nonhuman animals? Can
geographically distant groups of the same species develop local
culture: unique ways of eating, playing and talking to each other? I
posed those questions to Darcy Kelley, a Columbia University professor
who studies animal communications.

“In most species, communication appears to have a genetic basis,” she
said. “Regional accents can only develop in the small number of
species that learn their vocalizations from others.”

Research suggests that the overwhelming majority of animals are born
knowing how to speak their species’s language. It doesn’t really
matter where those animals are born or raised, because their speech
seems to be mostly imprinted in their genetic code.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Bob Seyfarth and biologist
Dorothy Cheney conducted a classic experiment on this question. They
switched a pair of rhesus macaques and a pair of Japanese macaques
shortly after birth, so that the Japanese macaque parents raised the
rhesus macaque babies, and the rhesus macaque parents raised the
Japanese macaque babies. This particular inter-species switcheroo is
interesting because the two primate species communicate using most of
the same sounds — coos, gruffs, barks and screams — although they
don’t use them in the same contexts. Young rhesus macaques, for
instance, tend to gruff during play, for example, while Japanese
macaques tend to coo.

Seyfarth and Cheney found that foster parenting had little effect on
the vocal patterns of the primates. The Japanese macaques continued to
coo during playtime, even though all of their rhesus playmates were
gruffing. This strongly suggests that macaques are born knowing when
to coo, gruff, scream or bark, and that life experience and social
conditions have no impact on their communication patterns. In other
words, you can’t teach a rhesus macaque to speak like a Japanese

The implication is that macaques probably could develop regional
accents only if they lived apart for thousands of years, long enough
for their genetic speech patterns to diverge. That’s different from
what we think of when we talk about accent differences in humans.

Birds do it; bats do it

Don’t pat yourself on the back for our unique language-leaning
abilities, though. Humans are not quite alone in our ability to
acquire language.

“Songbirds are fantastic learners,” says Ofer Tchernichovski, who
studies bird communications at Hunter College in New York. “A
nightingale can learn to sing 60 different songs after hearing them
only a few times.”

Individual members of the same songbird species sing different songs
based on their home town. White-crowned sparrows, whose range covers
large portions of the United States, use about seven different sounds
in their songs. But different population groups combine the sounds in
different ways, researchers have found. They seem to learn their local
patterns in the first three months of their lives by listening to
adults. Ornithologists can immediately identify a white-crowned
sparrow’s place of birth from its song, just as you can often tell a
South Bostonian or a Louisianian from his distinct accent.

Dolphins, whales, hummingbirds and bats also have a proven ability to
learn new vocalizations, and they probably exhibit what we would
consider regional accents. Sperm whales in the Caribbean, for example,
use different clicking patterns from those in the Pacific. Most other
animal species, however, seem to to be more like macaques than men:
They’re born knowing how to vocalize, and it doesn’t matter where
they’re born.

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between learning to say new
words and learning to understand them. It seems that many more animals
can do the latter than the former. Remember the macaques from Seyfarth
and Cheney’s study? Even though the adopted young never vocalized like
their foster brothers and sisters, the adoptive parents raised them
without any trouble. When the infants called out for food or comfort,
the parents responded, even though they were basically speaking a
different language. And some dogs have learned to understand more than
1,000 human words and some simple sentences.

Getting the message

This raises an intriguing question: If animals can learn to understand
and respond to foreign languages, why can’t they learn to speak them?
The answer may lie in a Darwinian imperative.

“Many biologists think that proper vocal communication is so important
that a species can’t risk it being infinitely malleable,” says
Columbia University’s Darcy Kelley. “It’s crucial to mating and
announcing the presence of predators, which is the basis of survival.”

It’s just a hypothesis, but a powerful one. Due to the huge number of
word combinations and accents in human communication, think of the
number of times in a day when you have to say “What?,” “Pardon me?” or
“Come again?” when someone speaks too fast or in an accent, foreign or
domestic, that your ear hasn’t tuned in to well. Often, all you missed
was “Please pass the salt” or something similarly inconsequential. But
just imagine if it was slightly more important, such as “Look out for
that hungry tiger!”


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of the list as to the veracity of a message's contents.
Members who disagree with a message are encouraged to post a rebuttal,
and to write directly to the original sender of any offensive message.
 A copy of this may be forwarded to this list as well.  (H. Schiffman,

For more information about the lgpolicy-list, go to

This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list