The Biological Basis of Language
Is human language an extension of other forms of communication, or is it a unique attribute of humans? In investigating animal communication, we explore the extent to which aspects of language may be innate. Animals have a variety of communication systems that go beyond the scope of this book. We will explore just a small set of interesting systems. Communication is the transmission of a signal to covey information (Pearce, 2008). Communication has an element of intention that differentiates it from mere informative signals. A sneeze is a signal that may mean someone has a cold, but it was not communication. However, telling someone that you have a cold is communication.
Figure 4.1 Bees Dance
Perhaps one the most intriguing communication methods found in nature is the complex system of dances in honey bees. As seen in Figure 4.1, a bee waggles in a figure-of-eight shape to communicate the direction of sources of nectar relative to the sun. The rate of the waggle represents distance (von Frisch, 1950, 1974). This behavior suggests that complex neural networks are not a necessity for communication to occur.
More complex brains such as primates use a variety of signals from visual and auditory signals to olfactory and tactile sensations. Vervet monkeys have been observed to make sounds to that differentiate between predators on the ground and those coming from above. The difference is seen in the interpretation of these calls by other monkeys in terms of whether they rush into the trees or the ground (depending on the type of predator).
Both of the above-mentioned methods of communication differ from language in that they are temporally linked to particular stimuli. Signals are linked to particular stimuli (nectar or predators) and produced only in their presence. Therefore, what features of language can be used to distinguish it from animal communication? How do we define language?