First there was the myth than animals did not use, let alone make, tools. Then the assumption that animals do not have culture was proven wrong. A significant step in the growing realization that all animals, including humans, are more alike than different goes beyond the concept of animal communication to the discovery and analysis of animal language. Many of us talk to our pets as a matter of routine and wish they could talk back. Human English is used for voice commands. An adopter might ask “Where did you come from?” or “Why are you scared?” A veterinarian might ask “Where does it hurt?”and “How long have you had the pain?” Aided by technology and a lifetime of research on the complex, sophisticated language of the Cynomys gunnisoni prairie dog, Constantine ‘Con’ Slobodchikoff, Ph.D., sees the day when pets will be able to talk back with language translated so humans understand. There will be an app for that.
In an interview with Megan Garber for The Atlantic, Slobochikoff discussed the concepts in his 2012 book, “Learning the Language of Animals, Chasing Doctor Dolittle.” The animal behaviorist and university professor explains “My Discourse System Theory suggests what we really should be looking at is the whole biological system that’s involved in language production, language reception, language interpretation. For example, we have all of these specialized structures for language: we have vocal cords, we have a larynx, we have specialized structures in our brain, our lungs are adapted for manipulating air in certain ways. Other animals have similar kinds of structures that are adapted for producing these signals. And once we look at that, language makes more sense from a neurobiological and anatomical evolutionary standpoint. Once we start looking at the continuity of these systems, we can see the evolutionary continuity.”
Many researchers and animal behaviorists have worked with species who can use sign language, respond to body language, and be taught other manners of communication for human interpretation. However, Slobodchikoff and his student teams have made breakthrough discoveries about prairie dogs and their sophisticated innate communication system that can identify the species of an approaching predator and provide descriptive information about the size, shape, and color of an individual animal. They can communicate rectangle and triangle and circle. Prairie dogs also have the ability to communicate about things that are not present, called “displacement”, and to construct new words referring to novel objects or animals in their environment, which is called “productivity.” Prior to his study, only humans have been recognized with these abilities within a communication system. Slobodchikoff and his colleagues are breaking down the grammar of prairie dogs through computer technology to better understand the nature of their vocalizations in comparison to the phoneme system used by humans. They have been able to find how vocalizations are put together to construct word-like structures and then to form sentences.
Artificial intelligence techniques enable keeping and analyzing records of prairie dog calls, “The prairie dogs could say something like ‘thin brown coyote approaching quickly.’ Then we could tell the computer something we wanted to convey to the prairie dogs. The computer could then synthesize the sounds and play it back to the prairie dogs. So I think we have the technology now to be able to develop the devices that are, say, the size of a cellphone, that would allow us to talk to our dogs and cats. It’s probably five to 10 years out. But I think we can get to the point where we can actually communicate back and forth in basic animal languages to dogs, cats, maybe farm animals and maybe lions and tigers.” In his blog, Dr. Con states “The border collie Chaser knows upwards of 1,000 words in English, and the border collie Rico knows upward of 200 words in German. So the bottom line is, it is likely that dogs have a language, just like the prairie dogs, dolphins, chickadees, honeybees, and ants that I talk about in Chasing Doctor Dolittle have their own forms of language.”
Dr. Con applies his research to dog training and animal behavior issues. He related to Garber, “Most problems are because of the lack of communication between animal and human. The human can’t get across to the animal what the human expects, and the animal can’t get across to the human what it’s experiencing. And if we had a chance to talk back and forth, the dog could say, ‘You’re scaring me.’ And you could say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that I was scaring you. I’ll give you more space.’ Once people get to the point where they can start talking to animals, I think they’ll realize that animals are living, breathing, thinking beings, and that they have a lot to contribute to people’s lives.”
— Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.” Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.