Primates and Language
“‘The use of language for thought vastly amplifies the level of intelligence that can be
achieved […] Unlike animals, people have ways of representing hypothetical and highly abstract
situations to themselves.
This is only because we possess spoken language that our technology and
culture are so much advanced’” (R.E. Passingham, Burling 36). The complex languages that humans
have acquired have created a distinct difference between themselves and the rest of the animal
With the use of language, humans can interact with others at a level that is not comparable
even to apes, the animal with the most comparable level of communication of the animal kingdom.
feel that it is irrational to
search for a relationship between human language and primate calls, even
though many researchers, such as Cheney and Seyfarth, are searching for the “language-like aspects
of primate calls” (Burling 27).
However, I do feel that there is a significant relationship between
primate calls and human nonverbal communication.
To find relationships between human and primate communication, human communication
must first be defined accurately before comparing the two.
In human communication there are two
[Language is characterized] by pervasive contrast […and] gives [humans] tens of
thousands of absolutely distinct words. There is no limit on the number of absolutely
distinct sentences that [humans] can create.
Graded intermediate positions between
the distinctive sounds, words, and sentences of a language are impossible.
is a digital system of communication constructed from contrasting signals. (Burling 28)
In language, there are distinct words to describe emotions, actions, moods, etc; therefore, it can be
described as a digital system of communication. Language is a form of communication that must be
This means that each person’s form of language will be dependent on the community that
surrounds the individual.
The second form of human communication is known as the “gesture-call system”, which
consists of communication techniques that are nonverbal.
The “gesture-call system” includes both
visible and audible types of communication.
This includes laughs, sobs, smiles, screams, and sighs.
“All humans share these as a result of their common genetic inheritance” (Burling 29). This type of
communication differs from language because these signals vary “in both form and meaning, along
continuous scales” (Burling 28). In the “gesture-call system”, there are analogue signals that
continuously differ and blend into each other, which does not happen in the digital system of
language. For example, “laughs grade into giggles, giggles may grade into snorts, snorts into cries
of objection, cries of objection into cries of anguish, and cries of anguish into sobs” (Burling 29).