How do animal communication systems differ from human language? Can primates acquire language?
Animals can communicate in various ways, using both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. However, whether animals can communicate using a form of language is something which can be debated. In order to decide whether an animal has language abilities, the actual definition of language must first be considered.
"A language is a set of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group communicates. Bloch and Trager (1942)
This kind of definition would seem to apply to methods of communication in both humans and animals as regardless of the form the language may take, vocal symbols are used by animals in order to communicate with another member of their species, much like humans. However, there are features of human language which must be satisfied before a type of animal communication can be deemed to be similar to human language. There are five main properties of language, language is creative, highly structured , meaningful, referential and communicative. Can an animals communication system satisfy these characteristics?
Take, for example the vervet monkey. This is an animal which has what can be deemed to be a communication system which displays the characteristics of language. Struhsaker (1967) observed that the monkeys had developed several alarm calls, which can be used to signal to other monkeys that there is a particular type of predator looming. The monkeys essentially use a language code to warn other monkeys of the type of predator that may be approaching. Struhsaker categorised the different alarm calls that make up the vervet monkeys alarm call system. For instance, the ˜chutter' sound warns of the presence of a cobra or puff adder, whereas the ˜rraup' warns of an eagle nearby. Whether or not this kind of communication could be defined as a language depends on how it can