Photo from the Ontario SPCA.
Over the years I’ve written a lot about animal communication on this blog. From parrots who learn our language, including syntax and composition, much more easily than we learn theirs, to simians who teach sign language to their children, to ravens who sing themselves to sleep and mimic the sound of flushing toilets just for fun, to hunting packs who wordlessly self-organize to corner prey, to whales who speak to each other in Now Time, the message is clear: We have no corner on language skills, either oral or non-verbal. Our only apparently unique invention is written language, and there’s lots of evidence that it’s the least effective form of communication we have, and the form most prone to misunderstanding.
The word conversation comes from the Latin root meaning “turning with”, and it originally had nothing to do with language, but rather with association. Interestingly, the word convert comes from the same root, which suggests that early human association might have been a mixture of friendly conversation and hostile adversity (from the Latin root ambiguously meaning both “turning [attention] towards, warning” as in advertise, and “turning away from” as in averse). All of this turning in response to others reflects the inherent and ancient power dynamics of all human relationships. [The word relationship, by the way, comes from the Latin meaning “flattened back, brought closer”, while the word association comes from the Latin meaning “joining to” and companionship is from the Latin meaning “having bread with”]. No use of language is required, etymologically, for any of these things.
The word talk, by the way, comes from the same old Norse root as the words tell and tale, and they all refer to story-telling. That is how deeply rooted story is in what we now call conversation. The words discuss and discourse are from the Latin meaning “pull apart and arrange words, analyze.” Convey likewise means “go with” and explain means to “flatten out, simpify.”
The oral “language” of wild animals is generally thought to be a combination of warnings and alerts (when loud and abrupt) and recreational sounds (when soft and drawn out). Think of the sounds of birds and cats and it’s not hard to appreciate which is which, and the value of each. The obvious metaphor is to our human chatter (loud and abrupt, warning and invoking “listen to me!” power dynamics) versus song (soft and drawn out — and incidentally our words for songs all originate in the descriptions of birds).
One could theorize that our human languages arose largely to complement our “body language”, which is all about power dynamics — displays of dominance and submission. As our society became more complex and hierarchical, more sophisticated language was needed to convey instructions downwards, and information on compliance with those instructions upwards, and an oral (and later written) language was a natural choice.
By contrast, when you watch wild animals meeting for the first time, they are generally (unless they have been improperly socialized or isolated) silent at first, feeling each other out, reading the body language, establishing (almost always peacefully) which is the dominant and which the submissive clearly to both “conversants”. They “turn together” with their whole bodies! What happens next depends on the circumstances — in the case of domesticated animals that live permanently juvenile, dependent lives, the next step is often play, which entails dominance/submission games with the conversants taking turns in the different roles, while in the case of adults the next step is usually more businesslike, conveying boundaries or invitation depending on the circumstances. When alone and/or stressed, domesticated animals, like humans, tend to emit lots of loud and abrupt sounds (the dog’s bark), while wild animals tend to emit mostly soft and drawn out sounds (the coyotes’ howl, the songbirds’ trill).
Listen to human conversation at the dinner table, in restaurants, on cell phones and at conferences, and you will witness astonishing displays of dominance and submission, and dismayingly little conveying of information, or explanation. It mostly appears to be about getting attention, appreciation, and reassurance. Most conversations are asymmetrically selfish — one party is seeking attention, and will offer appreciation to get it; the other vice versa. Both get reassurance in the process — that they are important, loved, capable, right.
Wild animals witnessing this cacophony would surely view it as ineffective, inefficient and rather pathetic. Our bodies, faces and hands convey much more than our words ever could, if we could only re-learn to pay attention and “read” them. Dogs know what we’re going to say to them before we speak because we betray it in advance with our body, face and hand language, and probably more articulately.
I wonder whether the reason that we chatter so much, instead of just communicating with body language and enjoying each others’ company in (oral) silence, is that there are so many of us crowded so close together that there is an attention and appreciation deficit, so we have to compete for attention and appreciation and resort to our loud and abrupt oral language to try to get our share of them. The hierarchies we’ve had to put in place to keep us all in line in this crowded and cramped society increase competitiveness and friction, so like dogs in a kennel or chickens in a henhouse we keep turning up the speed and volume to be heard, and to establish our territory. What’s more, compared to most mammals and birds, which seem almost universally beautiful and well-groomed, the large majority of humans seem (even to us) ugly and unkempt (perhaps due to a combination of excessive and undiscriminating breeding, and a relentlessly stressful and unhealthy lifestyle). So while beauty naturally attracts attention and appreciation, those of us not so naturally endowed must obtain our attention and appreciation and reassurance through cleverness, or manipulative dominance, and to establish that takes a lot of loud and abrupt noise-making.
It’s my hope that the world that the survivors of civilization’s collapse find themselves in, will be one in which humans can, once again, simply enjoy each others’ company wordlessly. And if and when they must use words, let those words be poetry instead of rhetoric, argument, even instead of story.
Something deep inside me tells me that if we can learn, again, to listen and pay attention to the soft unhurried songs of all-life-on-Earth, we can discover that, all along, our chatter was unnecessary, unpersuasive, meaningless, and all we really had to do was turn together, without words, and we would know all we ever needed to know.