The Hegemony of Human Language

An alerted prairie dog sitting at the entrance...

Image via Wikipedia

A lot of people, even scientifically minded people, view language as a specifically human characteristic.  Sure, your dog understands you.  Duh.  Everyone knows pugs speak English, Mom.

But, this story by NPR does a fascinating job of showing our arrogance about language.  These rodents can discriminate in their warnings.  This indicates, at least to my prejudice, that social animals almost always possess a significant language (more than 300 words – which is I believe the max a dog can understand).  The test for this seems pretty conclusive:

…He had four (human) volunteers walk through a prairie dog village, and he dressed all the humans exactly the same — except for their shirts. Each volunteer walked through the community four times: once in a blue shirt, once in a yellow, once in green and once in gray.

He found, to his delight, that the calls broke down into groups based on the color of the volunteer’s shirt. “I was astounded,” says Slobodchikoff. But what astounded him even more, was that further analysis revealed that the calls also clustered based on other characteristics, like the height of the human. “Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’ ” says Slobodchikoff.

Amazingly, it doesn’t stop there.

I really want to gush more about how fucking cool this is.  But I kinda don’t care enough to drag anyone else through my verbal effluence.  So, listen, enjoy and perhaps discover a new sense of wonder about our globe.


For the full effect, listen to the story


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