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This page highlights stories and information that shows that animals are capable of Language.

This page is part of a section concerning animal sentience which relates true stories, information and accounts of animal sentience.
For an introduction: Animal Sentience Stories

Emotion Love Altruism Empathy Pleasure Intelligence and ingenuity
Friendship Jealousy Grief Language


 Sixth Sense

Animals Have a Sense of beauty

Animal Morality Mental Health  

Click the links above to go to read stories and information that highlight these characteristics and abilities in animals.


Firstly what is language?

If you wish to be pedantic for a means of communication to be considered a language it has to consist of syntax, that is words put together to form phrases using ordering rules that affect meaning.  Are animals capable of this type of language? Consider the case further on in this webpage of Rico the Boarder Collie

However non scientifically, language may have a far broader definition and may consist of signs, signals, gestures and utterances used to communicate or even methods of communication beyond our perception.

Therefore with these definitions in mind I will here use the term language to refer to any type of communication between animals whether it is the taught sign language of apes or natural language of the signalling used by rabbits for instance or the various utterances or gestures used by the many creatures whose stories and accounts appear below. Or maybe the unseen silent  communications that pass between animals that we are not aware of and which many may wish to call telepathy. I will though discuss the last possibility on a separate webpage.

Human beings are not unique in their ability to communicate, other animals and even plants communicate with each another. Human language though may be exclusive to humans inasmuch that it is a symbolic system of communication that is learned and not inherited, at least as far as we know. Personally I would not wish to make such a declaration that animals do not learn their various ways of communications, such as for example the instance of birds song which is a learned form of communication. For more concerning bird song as a form of leant language either scroll down a little further or click here to read what Darwin wrote in the section on Language in The Descent of Man about bird song.

Articulate use of language may be unique to the human animal however this does not mean that animals do not communicate with one another and with members of others species. Most guardians of companion animals have a kind of two way communication with their dog, cat or rabbit.

In his book The Descent of Man Charles Darwin compares the mental faculties of man with those of the "lower animals".

In the Descent of Man, written twelve years after the publication of On the Origin of species, Darwin responds to opinions put forth by Alfred Russell Wallace a contemporary of Darwin who independently proposed a theory of evolution by natural selection that prompted Charles Darwin to publish his own theory. Wallace wished to exempt man from the theory of evolution, instead believing in a non-material spiritual origin for the higher mental faculties. He considered that the human mind was too complex to have evolved gradually. The evolution of human mental faculties was at that time a major bone of contention.

In The Descent of Man Darwin makes a comparison between the mental faculties of man and the" lower animals", he focuses less on the question of whether humans evolved than he does on showing that each of the human faculties considered to be so far beyond those of animals—such as moral reasoning, sympathy for others, beauty, and music—can be seen in kind (if not degree) in other animal species.*1)

‘There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties… The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.’
Charles Darwin

Referring to Language and citing several contemporaries Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man wrote:

This faculty has justly been considered as one of the chief distinctions
between man and the lower animals. But man, as a highly competent judge, Archbishop Whately remarks, "is not the only animal that can make use of language to express what is passing in his mind, and can understand, more or less, what is so expressed by another."  In Paraguay the Cebus azarae when excited utters at least six distinct sounds, which excite in other monkeys similar emotions. The movements of the features and gestures of monkeys are understood by us, and they partly understand ours, as Rengger and others declare. It is a more remarkable fact that the dog, since being domesticated, has learnt to bark in at least four or five distinct tones. Although barking is a new art, no doubt the wild parent-species of the dog expressed their feelings by cries of various kinds. With the domesticated dog we have the bark of eagerness, as in the chase; that of anger, as well as growling; the yelp or howl of despair, as when shut up; the baying at night; the bark of joy, as when starting on a walk with his master; and the very distinct one of demand or
supplication, as when wishing for a door or window to be opened. According
to Houzeau, who paid particular attention to the subject, the domestic fowl
utters at least a dozen significant sounds.

The habitual use of articulate language is, however, peculiar to man; but he uses, in common with the lower animals, inarticulate cries to express his meaning, aided by gestures and the movements of the muscles of the face. This especially holds good with the more simple and vivid feelings, which are but little connected with our higher intelligence. Our cries of pain, fear, surprise, anger, together with their appropriate actions, and the murmur of a mother to her beloved child are more expressive than any words. That which distinguishes man from the lower animals is not the understanding of articulate sounds, for, as every one knows, dogs understand many words and sentences. In this respect they are at the same stage of development as infants, between the ages of ten and twelve months, who understand many words and short sentences, but cannot yet utter a single word. It is not the mere articulation which is our distinguishing character, for parrots and other birds possess this power. Nor is it the mere capacity of connecting definite sounds with definite ideas; for it is certain that some parrots, which have been taught
to speak, connect unerringly words with things, and persons with events. (52. I have received several detailed accounts to this effect. Admiral Sir B.J. Sulivan, whom I know to be a careful observer, assures me that an African parrot, long kept in his father's house, invariably called certain persons of the household, as well as visitors, by their names. He said "good morning" to every one at breakfast, and "good night" to each as they left the room at night, and never reversed these salutations. To Sir B.J. Sulivan's father, he used to add to the " good morning" a short sentence,
which was never once repeated after his father's death. He scolded violently a strange dog which came into the room through the open window; and he scolded another parrot (saying "you naughty polly") which had got out of its cage, and was eating apples on the kitchen table. See also, to the same effect, Houzeau on parrots, 'Facultes Mentales,' tom. ii. p. 309. Dr. A. Moschkau informs me that he knew a starling which never made a mistake in saying in German "good morning" to persons arriving, and "good bye, old fellow," to those departing. I could add several other such cases.) The lower animals differ from man solely in his almost infinitely larger power of associating together the most diversified sounds and ideas; and this obviously depends on the high development of his mental powers.

As Horne Tooke, one of the founders of the noble science of philology, observes, language is an art, like brewing or baking; but writing would have been a better simile. It certainly is not a true instinct, for every language has to be learnt. It differs, however, widely from all ordinary arts, for man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children; whilst no child has an instinctive tendency to brew, bake, or write. Moreover, no philologist now supposes that any language has been deliberately invented; it has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps. (53. See some good remarks on this head by Prof. Whitney, in his 'Oriental and Linguistic Studies,' 1873, p. 354. He observes that the desire of communication between man is the living force, which, in the development of language, "works both consciously and unconsciously; consciously as regards the immediate end to be attained; unconsciously as regards the further consequences of the act.") The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language, for all the members of the same species utter the same instinctive cries expressive of their emotions; and all the kinds which sing, exert their power instinctively; but the actual song, and even the call-notes, are learnt from their parents or foster-parents. These sounds, as Daines Barrington has proved, "are no more innate than language is in man." The first attempts to sing "may be compared to the imperfect endeavour in a child to babble." The young males continue practising, or as the bird-catchers say, "recording," for ten or eleven months. Their first essays shew hardly a rudiment of the future song; but as they grow older we can perceive what they are aiming at; and at last they are said
"to sing their song round." Nestlings which have learnt the song of a distinct species, as with the canary-birds educated in the Tyrol, teach and transmit their new song to their offspring. The slight natural differences of song in the same species inhabiting different districts may be appositely compared, as Barrington remarks, "to provincial dialects"; and the songs of allied, though distinct species may be compared with the
languages of distinct races of man. I have given the foregoing details to shew that an instinctive tendency to acquire an art is not peculiar to man.

With respect to the origin of articulate language, after having read on the one side the highly interesting works of Mr. Hensleigh Wedgwood, the Rev. F. Farrar, and Prof. Schleicher and the celebrated lectures of Prof. Max Muller on the other side, I cannot doubt that language owes its origin to the imitation and modification of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals, and man's own instinctive cries, aided by signs and gestures. When we treat of sexual selection we shall see that primeval man, or rather some early progenitor of man, probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing, as do some of the gibbon-apes at the present day; and we may conclude from a widely-spread analogy, that this power would have been especially exerted during the courtship of the sexes,--would have expressed various emotions, such as love, jealousy, triumph,--and would have served as a challenge to rivals. It is, therefore, probable that the imitation of musical cries by articulate sounds may have given rise to words expressive
of various complex emotions.

I think that it is generally accepted that dolphins communicate with one another by emitting a variety of sounds. Furthermore these sounds are unique to each species. New research shows the possibility that dolphins of different species communicate with one another by using a common language.

Research into dolphins has revealed some interesting behaviour regarding language. Different species of dolphin communicate with different sounds however it has been observed that when dolphins of different species meet they attempt to find a common language.  Two species of dolphin, Bottlenose and Guyana, often meet to socialise in the waters of Costa Rica, each has a unique set of sounds but when they meet together these sounds change to what may well be an intermediate language. These findings indicate that dolphins modify their communication methods not only with one another but with members of other species.

More information about this possibility

Bottlenose and Guyana are two separate dolphin species. Each species has its own calls and sounds. An American researcher studied the two dolphin species interacting off the coast of Costa Rica. Laura May-Collado from the University of Puerto Rico found when the two separate dolphin species interacted they used a third communication style, created for those shared moments. She was near Costa Rica’s Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge off the coast when she made the discovery.

Read more:

Bottlenose and Guyana are two separate dolphin species. Each species has its own calls and sounds. An American researcher studied the two dolphin species interacting off the coast of Costa Rica. Laura May-Collado from the University of Puerto Rico found when the two separate dolphin species interacted they used a third communication style, created for those shared moments. She was near Costa Rica’s Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge off the coast when she made the discovery.

Read more:

Bats not only make friends, but communicate with one another

Gerald Kerth told Discovery News that these bat buddies mirror human ones. Despite all of their "daily chaos, the bats are able to maintain long-term relationships," he said.

"We do not work, play and live together with the same individuals all the time during the day and week," he explained. "But nevertheless, we are able to maintain long-term relationships with our friends and our family despite our often chaotic and highly dynamic social lives."

Kerth, a professor at the University of Greifswald's Zoological Institute, and colleagues Nicolas Perony and Frank Schweitzer monitored colonies of the bats over a period of five years. Male bats of this species are solitary, but females roost together in bat boxes and tree cavities. They preferred certain companions over the

In addition to resting together, "colony members exchange information among each other about suitable roosts, make flexible group decisions where to communally roost next, groom each other and profit from communal roosting through warming of each other,"

Read more:

Also see on this website Animal Sentience Stories:Altruism

Interspecies communication

It appears that in some cases animals can effectively communicate in ways not possible for humans,  at least in a complex way, and that is interspecies communication

In 2008 Moko, the name given to a bottle nose dolphin by locals at Mahia beach on the east coast of the North Island New Zealand, who is well known for playing with swimmers, saved the day by helping two beached Pigmy sperm whales who had repeatedly beached. A conservationist and a group of other people had unsuccessfully  tried for over an hour and a half to get the whales back into the sea just as both the whales and their human helpers were exhausted and about to give up along came Moko who communicated with the Wales and led them back to sea.

Mr Smith said that just when his team was flagging, the dolphin showed up and made straight for them.
"I don't speak whale and I don't speak dolphin," Mr Smith told the BBC, "but there was obviously something that went on because the two whales changed their attitude from being quite distressed to following the dolphin quite willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea."

He added: "The dolphin did what we had failed to do. It was all over in a matter of minutes

A story of interspecies communication

A unique form of communication appears to have developed between a Tortoise and a hippopotamus who was orphaned and traumatised by the loss of his mother during a tsunami which hit the Kenyan coast on December 26, 2004. A strong bond has developed between the unlikely pair who have their own way of communicating.

While Owen's attraction to Mzee may be explained by a baby's need for a mother figure, tortoises are not known for affectionate or social behavior, Kahumbu said.

Nevertheless, Mzee follows Owen around, nudges him to go for walks, initiates play in the water, and even stretches his neck out so Owen can give him a lick.

There has been growing evidence of physical communication between the pair, with Owen nibbling Mzee's back feet to get him to walk in a desired direction. The two have even developed a sort of vocal communication of their own, Kahumbu said.

The vocalizations are not the honking of hippos or the grunts and hisses of tortoises, but rather a soft whimpering that emanates from one and is mimicked by the other.

"It's very high pitched; definitely not a stomach sound, as some had suggested," Kahumbu said. "They're vocalizing towards each other."

What the animals are trying to communicate is not yet understood, but researchers think it is a contact call made to get the other's attention.

This story also appears in this website in the section on Altruism

Are these cats communicating?

The two talking cats


Crocodiles may not speak but they know their names

Two crocodiles in the UK  have been taught to recognise their own names.  Paleo and Suchus were given food whenever they acted in the right way, that is whenever they recognised their own names. “They are very intelligent and started responding to their names in just a few days,” said Tom Cornwall, the aquarium's manager. Read more:

Rabbit communication

Rabbits appear to make little sound. You may get the occasional growl if you pick up your rabbit if he or she really doesn't want be picked up but with the exception a scream that rabbits issue when in extreme fear or pain you do not get much in the way of communication, at least by our perception of the concept of communication by means of sound. But rabbits do communicate it is just that most people are not very adept at bunny language.

Rabbits are very social animals living and cooperating in warrens of many hundreds of individuals. For this to happen some form of communication must take place. From the house rabbit society in response to a FAQ Should I get another rabbit, the subject of rabbit communication is very well addressed

The need for companionship can be met partially by a human, but once you live with a bonded pair or trio you will see that even the most devoted human cannot quite fill the bill. Bonded pairs are rarely out of each other's sight. Humans will never be completely fluent in Rabbit. Rabbits talk to each other constantly, not so much with sounds as with movements. There are large movements such as dancing and grooming, and there are quite small communications of breath and slight shifts in position. You can sense some of this quiet conversation by lying on the floor beside two talkative rabbits. The bond between human and rabbit also can be deep and joyful. In fact, the closer we become to our rabbits, the more clearly do we understand their need for a friend of their own kind.

Just because communication amongst animals may not be understood or even perceived by ourselves does not mean that it does not exist, it is perhaps simply beyond our comprehension or our ability to observe.

But rabbits do communicate with us at times by means that we do understand, such as the story recently of the rabbit who saved his owner and her daughter from certain death in a house fire by jumping on and pawing at the chest of the sleeping human until she awoke to alert her that the house was on fire. Sadly the brave rabbit died

The following, website, The Language of Lagomorphs: What Your Rabbit is Saying and How to Speak Back, has a human interpretation of rabbits communication. A good guide to communicating with your bunny but keep in mind rabbit language may be far more complicated when it takes place only amongst rabbits and may differ between domesticated and wild rabbits

In his book the universal kinship J Howard Moore says the following about the language of monkeys and how every species has their own means of communication to convey thought and feelings.

The chattering of monkeys is not, as is vulgarly supposed, meaningless vocalisation. It is language. It is meaningless to human ears for the same
reason that the chattering of Frenchmen is meaningless to Americans because human beings are foreigners. The conversation of monkeys is to convey thought. Every species that thinks and feels has means for conveying its thoughts and
feelings, and the means for this exchange, whether it be sounds, symbols, gestures, or grimaces, is language. As Wundt somewhere says : ' If psychologists of to-day, ignoring all that an animal can express through gestures and sounds, limit the possession of language to human beings, such a conclusion is scarcely less absurd than that of many philosophers of antiquity who regarded the languages of barbarous nations as animal cries.' Mr. Garner, who has so long and so sympathetically associated with monkeys, has been able to translate a number of their words and to enter into slight communication with them. Among the words he has been able to understand are the words for 'alarm,' 'good- will,' 'listen,'  food,' ' drink,' ' monkey,' and ' fruit.' According to him, the simian tongue has about eight or nine sounds which may be changed by modulation into three or four times that number, and each
different species or kind has its own peculiar tongue slightly shaded into dialects. There may be more discriminating students than Garner, but few certainly who have approached their favourite problem with more feeling and humanity. Every
one should read his beautiful book on ' The Speech of Monkeys.' ' Among the little captives of the simian race,' says he tenderly, in closing his chapter on the emotional character of these people, * I have many little friends to whom I am attached, and whose devotion to me is as warm and sincere, so far as I can see, as that of any
human being. I must confess that I cannot discern in what intrinsic way the love they have for me differs from my own for them ; nor can I see in what respect their love is less divine than is my own.'

More about animal communication

There is now research into animals who use sound to communicate and though such sound may seem rather limited, animals nonetheless use certain sounds to convey information. Some species it seems are able to use and understand simple grammar.  Putty-nosed monkeys, can combine their calls to create a sequence that carries a more complex meaning says Dr Klaus Zuberbuhler, an expert in primate communication .

In the conditions of a laboratory*2 some primates have demonstrated an ability to understand human language. A male bonobo is reported to have the ability to understand about 3,000 words and simple sentences. He is a very intelligent animal if we consider that he is being tested on human language systems and not his own natural way of communicating.  This is an important consideration of course and it is a mistake to think that an animal does not have the ability to communicate simply because he or she uses a different system and expression of language.

Many mammals, as those of us who care for them know, are quite able to understand language even if they cannot talk.

There is the case of Rico the border collie . Though he can only bark or growl he knows the name of  over two hundred toys and understand simple syntax says researcher and animal behavioural expert Professor Julia Fischer.

You can learn more concerning the above facts and other information about animal communication in the BBC article Animal world's communication kings
By Rebecca Morelle

This page  will be updated and added to when further information and stories are found. If you have a story to tell about animal Language please consider including it here by e-mailing Christine Contact


*1) Wikipedia The Descent of Man

The major sticking point for many in the question of human evolution was whether human mental faculties could have possibly been evolved. The gap between humans and even the smartest ape seemed too large, even for those who were sympathetic to Darwin's basic theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, the "co-discoverer" of evolution by natural selection, believed that the human mind was too complex to have evolved gradually, and began over time to subscribe to a theory of evolution that took more from Spiritualism than it did the natural world. Darwin was deeply distressed by Wallace's change of heart, and much of the Descent of Man is in response to opinions put forth by Wallace. Darwin focuses less on the question of whether humans evolved than he does on showing that each of the human faculties considered to be so far beyond those of animals—such as moral reasoning, sympathy for others, beauty, and music—can be seen in kind (if not degree) in other animal species (usually apes and dogs).


Please note: that this website does not support or condone animal experiments of any kind , however if it helps to increase our understanding of animal sentience we will comment upon such research.



* I have endeavoured to provide accurate references for stories found on the internet however some of the stories are so frequently repeated that the original source is not easily identifiable. If you see any story here that is yours for which you have not been credited or have not given permission for its inclusion please Contact me.


Credit Photo: (c) 2008 by Wanda Embar, Vegan Peace. Picture taken at Farm Sanctuary.

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Important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

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