Imagine a parent explaining to their child that they ought to say “thank you”. They are at a restaurant, the food arrives, and the child doesn’t say anything. The parent gets angry, “very well, I won’t buy you any ice cream now!”. Essentially, the parent intends to make the child respond to his spoken words as well as to the waitress’ action of putting food on the table. Is this a behaviour we see in nonhuman animals?
In my recently published letter, The Behaviour of Language, I note that only humans make others respond to signals. Many people fail to grasp this observation because the actions of animals appear to be meaningful. Like the parent, we tend to see the waitress as making a statement; with her action of bringing food, the waitress ‘signals’ something to the family sitting at the table. Similarly, if chimpanzee A approaches chimpanzee B to obtain food, we might perceive B’s sharing behaviour as a ‘gesture’.
However, this sociocentric perspective is the essence of myth. In biology, signals are actions or structures whose purpose is changing the behaviour of other organisms. The waitress in my example does not necessarily try to change the child’s behaviour; putting food on a table might not signal anything or be a meaningful ‘gesture’. Chimpanzee A is also just trying to get some food, and B’s sharing is just a reaction. It is when a chimpanzee produces a gesture (e.g. he extends an arm) and the targeted chimpanzee responds to this action that a signalling interaction occurs, in other words, communication.
Language (spoken, gestured, written or otherwise) is obviously composed of signals. As a receiver, you do not have to respond to a spoken command, a hand gesture or the present text, even though these signals are produced with an (conscious or unconscious) intention that you respond. In this way, language fits into an evolutionary continuum of traits we may call communicative traits. However, the essence of language is a communicative trait that nonhuman animals do not possess, which is that of making others respond to signals, as opposed to merely signalling and expecting them to respond.
Chimps or bonobos are very good at learning to respond to our signals. They are even capable of making others react after a signal, especially in laboratory conditions (e.g. they pressure a human into giving them food after they have requested it). This fools many researchers into thinking that they are capable of language. However, nonhuman apes cannot make others respond to signals or establish signal–response relationships, which involves an awareness of signals and their effectiveness.
Again, many confuse the notion of ‘making respond’ because they see meaning in all social actions and reactions (sometimes in all natural events). From this sociocentric perspective, these actions have an intrinsic power to make others respond or react. Animals are interconnected in a society of sorts, and they respond or react automatically, because they have evolved to do so. Instead of speaking of language as a kind of signalling behaviour, then, we speak of behaviour as a kind of language, the ‘language of behaviour’, and we see no discontinuity between nonhumans and humans.
Indeed, it is because we perceive the world through language that we lack an ability to see what language is in itself and how it arose from a world without language. Somehow ‘language’ (a certain grammatical, rational or socio-cognitive ability) arose within an already established, meaningful relationship (‘society’) and the fact that human beings are intent on making others respond to signals must have a different explanation. However, I consider meaning a result of language, rather than the other way around. Meaning and human cognition are rooted in the behaviour of language.
I invite you to discuss my letter here.