Human and animal communication differ in significant ways. Humans possess the ability to be creative with symbols, and current research suggests animals do not, according to Western Washington University professor of linguistics Edward Vajda. Attempts by scientists to teach animals to communicate using human symbols have shown little progress. Although a parrot can say human words, the animal doesn't know the meaning of the words it mimics. Despite this major difference, humans and animals share some basic forms of communication.
According to Vajda, all systems of communication contain units of form that have specifics meaning, linguistically referred to as signs. Word are the most commonly used sign in human communication. Animals also use signs when communicating, but their signs can take a variety of forms, depending on the species. Foxes have 20 distinct forms of vocalisation. Electric eels use a system of electrical impulses to communicate with each other. Each cry or impulse has a distinct meaning to other foxes or eels, much as each human word has a specific meaning. Humans and animals share three basic forms of signs used in communication: sound, odour and body movement.
The greatest similarity between human and animal communication is through the use of sound. Humans convey emotion through the use of words and tone in much the same way as animals communicate emotion through sound. According to an article from Mesa College, scientists have observed wild vervet monkeys use three distinct alarm calls depending on the type of predator they are warning against. When another vervet monkey hears the call, they know exactly what kind of danger is present. Some baby vervets were observed using the alarm cry for an eagle whenever any bird few overhead, but quickly learnt to only use that particular cry when an actual eagle was spotted. This is similar to a child learning to call only one person mama, instead of every female, according to the article.
Although most human communication through odour is almost imperceptible, compared with animal communication, researchers believe odour contributes to human bonding. In an article for the "Journal of Marriage and Family," researchers Erik Filsinger and Richard Fabes suggests that odour communication in humans contributes to family recognition, maternal bonding and mate selection. Similar behaviour has been observed in animals, as odour is used to mark territorial boundaries, warn off intruders and to proclaim a readiness to mate.
The most perceptible form of communication, body language in humans and animals resemble each other in certain situations. Animals cowering in fear share similar characteristics with humans frightened by their surroundings. In a study of ape gestures, researchers Simone Pika and Katja Liebal noted similarities between gestures made by apes to communicate and those made by human infants. Their study determined that apes use specific gestures intentionally to communicate in some ways that are similar to those of children.
- Mesa College: Human and Animal Systems of Communication
- Western Washington University Center for Instructional Innovation's: Animal Systems of Communication; Edward Vajda
- Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on the Evolution of Language; "Differences and Similarities Between the Natural Gestural Communication..."; Simone Pika and Katja Liebal; 2006
- "Journal of Marriage and Family"; Odor Communication, Pheromones...; Erik Filsinger and Richard Fabes; 1985