Video Fix: Do animals have language?


Human beings are not the only creatures that communicate. As we already know, all animals possess the ability to communicate: Indeed, animals have a complex communication system but do they use languages as such?


How sign language innovators


In this week’s Video Fix Dr Michele Bishop explains the four specific qualities associated with language and examines if certain animals use some or all of them to communicate. The four specific qualities mentioned by Dr Bishop are discreteness, grammar, productivity and displacement.

  • Discreteness: language is built up from discrete units (signs, words, sounds) that can be combined in order to communicate new ideas
  • Grammar: it is a complex system of rules that indicate us how to combine such discrete units in our language
  • Productivity: it refers to the ability to produce and understand an infinite number of messages by combining the units differently
  • Displacement: it refers to the ability to communicate about things or events that are distant in time or space

An important writing related to this topic is Hockett’s “The origin of speech” (1960). In his work, American linguist Charles Hockett established a list with thirteen “design-features”, which according to him characterize human language. The three qualities of discreteness, productivity and displacement mentioned by Dr Bishop are part of this list.

According to Dr Bishop there are animals who display some of the qualities, e.g. with their waggle dance, the bees exhibit the property of displacement and great apes like chimpanzee have learnt a modified sign language and demonstrated discreteness, as they are able to combine multiple signs into phrases. The video shows other examples of animal communication systems that display some of the qualities required to be considered a language but none actually gathers all four.

We invite you to watch the full video and find out more about the connections between animal communication and human language!

You might also be interested in some our previous posts:

Written by Iris Rinner – Terminology trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament, BA in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures from the University of Sassari and MA in Specialized Translation from the University of Vienna.


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