Anthropology 104 – Essay 1

Communication Does Not Mean Language

Every creature on the planet communicates. From vocal communication to body language, every species has their unique “alphabet” of sounds and movements that convey meaning to other members of the same species and sometimes to others as well. But communication alone neither implies nor makes language. When it comes to the use of language, one species stands alone on the pinnacle of communication: Homo sapiens – human beings.

As Nancy Bonvillain explains in the introduction to Language, Culture, & Communication: The Meaning of Messages (Sixth Edition) that, “Language is an integral part of human behavior. It is the primary means of interaction between people.” (Bonvillain, pg 1) Language in this way is the step beyond communication – it is the refining of communication beyond the base animal level. There are three primary properties that distinguish human language from animal communication: infinite productivity, arbitrariness, and the use of prevarication.

Prevarication is, put simply, the practice of lying. Deliberately misleading people in order to achieve a personal gain or with malicious intent. It is something human beings are taught from a very young age is “wrong,” in a cultural and social context. And yet still many of us lie on a regular basis for various reasons. Animal communication, however, does not leave room for prevarication. Though sometimes their actions may come across in a way that seems like lying, they are not actually capable of the higher thought processes that denote why a human being might lie.

This is not to say that animals are not capable of deception – many animals use deception as a means of self-protection (camouflage, feigning injury, etc.), but deception is not the same as lying. In some cases such as the camouflage of a butterfly’s wings appearing like the eyes of a predatory bird, the deception is without conscious thought – a side effect of simply living. In others, such as the way a ground-nesting bird will feign an injured wing to lure a predator away from her nest or chicks, the deception is a result of evolution and instinct. And in still others, such as a dog being walked in the rain feigning squatting to urinate without actually doing so, so that their owner will take them back inside and out of the rain (speaking from personal experience in this example), the “lie” is a result of the animal associating certain actions with certain behaviors. The dog knows that if it does one thing, another should happen based on previous experience, therefore it mimics the cause and hopes for the effect. None of these situations – even the last one – is actual prevarication. And none of them are prevarication as a result of using language. Therefore, animal communication does not allow for prevarication, and human language does. The abstractness of human language can make it even easier for a human being to practice prevarication.

Human language is abstract. A book is called a book because the English-speaking speech community as a whole has decided that an object full of pages with words on them, bound in a convenient to read manner is called “book.” Animal communication does not normally assign “names” to things. There are some exceptions – recent studies have shown that dolphins have names for each other, comprised of whistling clicking sounds and a pattern of bubbles released from the mouth or blowhole. There is no definite evidence for this behavior in other animals, however animals do show a proficiency for understanding humanity’s need to name things.

Companion animals are able to associate human words with things consistently – including themselves. We talk about an dog learning its name without real thought behind what an amazing thing it is that this creature that does not understand the abstract nature of language can learn that when a person says “Spot,” the dog itself is the one being referred to. However, while this shows that animals can pick up on our abstract language and interpret it, there is no real proof that animals have abstract language of their own. Instead, most animal communication seems to be situational.

An example of this is shown in an experiment where dog growls that were made in two different situations – defending food (“food growl”) and defending territory (“stranger growl”) – were recorded and then played back to other dogs. “The researchers played these different growls to a dog who was approaching a juicy bone. The dogs were more hesitant to approach if they heard the food growl rather than the stranger growl.” (Hare, pg 1) This proves that the growls obviously not only have meaning to the dogs, but that the meanings can be put into context by the sound alone – the dog knows when the sound relates to the current situation, and ignores the input when it does not. This brings up another question involving the final unique piece of human language: human language is infinitely productive.

To be infinitely productive, human language processes a finite set of elements – the sounds able to be produced by the human vocal apparatus, and the range of motion of the human body – which it then uses to produce an infinite number of meanings and combinations. It also means that a human can hear an abstract idea – such as, “Build three things” and can decide for themselves what “things” means, and then build three things. Maybe they’ll be the same things, or perhaps they’ll be different things – and it’s doubtful that any two people would have the same concept of what three things to build at any given time.

Is animal communication infinitely productive? For the most part, animal communication does not show evidence of it. With one notable potential exception: dolphins.

In a NOVA program in recent years, two dolphins shared a spotlight. The animals’ trainers were trying to see if dolphins could conceive of a concept, rather than simply repeating rote behaviors on command. First, the dolphins were taught a hand signal that the trainers decided on – this signal meant “create.” (NOVA, transcript).

Each of the two dolphins showed proficiency with this concept when tested on it alone. They would swim away from their trainers, and do something that was not one of their normal tricks, though it may have incorporated items or movements of some of the tricks.

The real test, however, was a test of both communication and creativity. In their training, the dolphins both already knew the signal for “together,” used to encourage the animals to perform the same trick at the same moment. When the commands were combined, however, the dolphins would have to communicate in order to coordinate whatever trick they decided to “create.”

When given the dual commands, the dolphins proved that their cognitive processes and communication are likely much more developed than we’ve considered. When they dove underwater cameras and sound equipment picked up vocalizations – the normal clicks and whistles we associate with dolphins. Then the two dolphins surfaced on their backs and raised their tails in a half curl at the same moment, in perfect coordination. The dolphins had communicated with each other, coordinated the new trick, and then performed it perfectly.

Is dolphin communication infinitely productive? This experiment indicates that it may be. Or, if it is not, it is on the way there. However, to a layman’s observance, it certainly seems like the dolphins in this study utilized displacement to discuss their upcoming trick, infinite productivity to decide what they were to do at the same time in a future moment – even if it was only a few moments into the future, and coordinate their movements to perform the trick they had created moments earlier.

Does this mean that dolphin communication is actually a language, fitting the same strict parameters as human language? The answer is still currently “no,” as the animal’s behavior can be explained away by pure intelligence rather than true infinitely productive language. Do animals communicate? Yes. But that communication does not fit all the defining factors of human language.

Therefore, in at least the areas of abstractness, the ability to prevaricate, and the infinite productivity of language, human language stands alone above all animal communication. Perhaps science will eventually prove that another species has a true language – but until then, the line is drawn and maintained. Human language is a form of animal communication – but animal communication is not a language.



Bonvillain, N. (2011). Chapter 1: Introduction. Language, culture, and communication: the meaning of messages (6th ed., pp. 1-6). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Hare, B., & Wood, V. (2013, February 8). What Are Dogs Saying When They Bark? [Excerpt]: Scientific American. Science News, Articles and Information | Scientific American. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from

ScienceNOW, N. (2011, February 9). NOVA | How Smart Are Dolphins?. PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from