We humans prefer verbal, that is to say spoken, communication. Although one often hears talk of the “language” of bees, apes, dolphins or whales, a great number of researchers have recognized that their communication cannot really be described as language. Many scientific investigations have confirmed that the vocal (acoustic) codes of all other species are not only simpler, they are also more limited compared to human speech. It is unlikely that future research will discover an animal species whose means of communicating deviates from this pattern. In addition, human language is open, meaning we can add a limitless number of new words with new meanings. Animals, in contrast, communicate about a very limited number of topics. They can discuss “here” and “now,” but usually not “yesterday,” “next week,” “over there” or “in Sweden.”
When apes, cats or other animals communicate with sounds, a single sound usually corresponds to a single “word” with a specific message within certain contexts or situations (one that the hearer often interprets as a meaning). The words of human speech, in contrast, are composed of multiple small parts, like the consonants and vowels (phonemes), that contribute to the overall meaning. We can change the meaning by changing one of these parts, such as with cat and bat or house and mouse.
Animal sounds depend on their context, and though they may be meaningful, they do not consist of smaller parts that themselves can change the meaning of the sound, such as the consonants and vowels of human speech. If a cat first says “mew” and then says “meow,” the two sounds do not necessarily mean different things. A communication code with thousands of different meaningful sounds needs, among other things, a very complex apparatus such as the human voice box with which to produce those sounds—something that simply does not exist in the animal kingdom. Or does it? The most recent research suggests that many animal species do have a kind of “languageness” that is not exactly like human language, but which is not necessarily simpler or less successful as a communicative code.