What is talking?
Talking is using words in order to express a meaning.
What is a word?
A word is a sound, or combination of sounds assigned to a particular thing.
Having set that out I will state that in my opinion, animals can and do talk. Just because they do not talk in such a complicated way as we do does not mean they
are not talking.
Take birds, for example. Birds sing. Some birds have songs that are beautifully melodic and musical. Take the British robin for example. He isn’t just singing because at last winter is over and it’s a nice sunny day, so he feels happy. No, he’s saying to all other male blackbirds ‘I’m here and this is my patch, so stay away.’
At the same time, he’s advertising to all female robins that he is a good catch.
Songbirds emit up to 20 different sounds that tell of fear, hunger or alarm an
d warnings to fledgelings. (The Free Dictionary.com)
OK, so perhaps that is communicating and not talking. After all, we communicate an awful lot without saying a word, so let’s look a little deeper.
Anyone who had a cat or a dog can usually catch on pretty quickly what their various sounds mean. One meow for ‘I’m hungry’, and a different one for ‘Let me out, I need a pee.’ If your cat always makes the same sound for the same thing, is that not what a word is?
I have no idea what all the sounds made by Herring gulls mean, but they have such a wide variety that I would like to find out if they use them for particular things. I do know that young herring gulls make a little squeaking noise to beg for food from their parents. Is this a ‘word’ meaning ‘food’ or ‘I’m hungry’? It’s not used at any other time as far as I am aware.
What made me think of this was something I was reading in a book called ‘Proust and the Squid’ about how we learn to read. It told of monkeys that when danger was spotted, used a particular call for a leopard and a different one for an eagle, the two main predators. They had also combined the two to mean ‘get out of here fast.’
If the sounds are made exclusively for those things, and as I read it, they are, then are they not ‘words’?
An article in ‘Dr Goodword’s Office’ on ‘Can Chimpanzees Speak’ (Alphadictionary.com) decides they cannot. It states that chimpanzees that learned to sign cannot form complex sentences. they would say ‘Give John Banana’ or, ‘Car hit man.’ The writer states that these are not truly speech because there are no morphemes (-ing, -ed, at, I, she etc). I hesitate to disagree with the writer, but I am going to anyway. The chimpanzee is communicating its desires or information using, in this case, signs and not sounds, but I would say it’s talking.
Just because an animal can’t make the same sounds that we do, does that mean it can’t talk? That would be like saying the French can’t talk because they don’t use the same sounds that we do for specific things. (‘chien’ for ‘dog’, ‘livre’ for ‘book’.)
OK, I’ll admit that animals can’t hold conversations in the way we understand them, nor express complex ideas, but they do talk to each other using ‘words’ and we are being rather superior in thinking they can’t talk. Dr Goodword’s Office seems to have the definition of speech as a rather complex achievement, involving sentence structure and all parts of speech.
Your cat ‘tells’ you what she wants by her meow. The pygmy sloth ‘tells’ all around he’s feeling randy by a particular call. (I heard that one on the Radio 4 the other day.) The young herring gull ‘tells’ its parent it wants food by squeaking. If these sounds are used specifically for that particular thing, then it fits the definition I made above of what a word is.
I think it all depends on your definition of talking, and there may be a difference in speech and talk. Perhaps animals can talk, but what they say is not speech.
My conclusion? Animals can talk (but your cat will never make a speech).