Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Do horses have language?

The other day I saw this NPR story about a book on chimps and sign language. Since the study done in the book was triggered by Noam Chomsky's theory that language is unique to human beings, the article launched Michael and I into a discussion about whether animals have language.

I personally get annoyed with many people's need to find something that sets us apart from animals. Scientists have also argued that our usage of tools sets us apart, yet there are many examples in nature of animals using tools. Emotion and higher thought are other things that are supposed to set us apart from animals, yet I think that is arguable, too.

The language thing is definitely arguable. I remember learning in college that there is a school in northern Colorado where they're studying prairie dogs; the researchers there have identified more than 100 unique sounds that the prairie dogs use in different combinations, clearly to mean different things.

I believe other animals, including horses, also have sophisticated methods of communication. I have noticed subtle differences in Panama's whinnies and nickers; if I were a horse, I'd probably know what each one meant. I have, however, been able to recognize general differences when Panama is "talking" to me: for instance, a whinny or nicker that is meant as a greeting, versus the sound he makes when he is excited about getting food.

So do horses and other animals have language? Yes, I believe so. Is it sophisticated? I think the answer to this is yes too. Just because we can't always discern the differences in the sounds, doesn't mean there aren't any!

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