In her adventures in Wonderland, Alice talks to many different creatures including a rabbit, a mouse, a caterpillar, a dodo, a lizard, a cat and others. But how can they understand her? Does your pet understand you?
- Girl and Cat, 1791
- John Russell
- © Tate
The question of whether or not animals have language has puzzled scientists for decades. Through observing animal behaviour it seems that animals communicate with each other. For example, the song of birds, the changing colour of chameleons, and the dance of bees. But is this really language?
Scientists have tried to teach language, such as sign, to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom – the great apes, including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang-utans. Some could learn the signs for around 250 words. One remarkable bonobo could even understand new commands he had not heard before which were up to eight words long. But is language just about vocabulary?
Although apes can learn the meaning of words scientists doubt they can learn the rules of grammar. These rules allow humans to create an infinite number of novel sentences by combining words in a unique way. How many sentences can you make out of the following words?
Let me know in the comments…