The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 7 - The language of Animals by@royaldixon

The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 7 - The language of Animals

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Royal Dixon

The Human Side of Animals

The Human Side of Animals by Royal Dixon is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here: [LINK TO TABLE OF LINK]. Chapter VII: The language of Animals


"Who ever knew an honest brute
At law his neighbours prosecute,
Bring action for assault and battery
Or friends beguile with lies and flattery?"

The fact that all animals possess ideas, no matter how small those ideas may be, implies reason. That these ideas are transmitted from one animal to another, no one can doubt in the light of our present scientific knowledge. "Be not startled," says the distinguished animal authority, Dr. William T. Hornaday, "by the discovery that apes and monkeys have language; for their vocabulary is not half so varied and extensive as that of the barnyard fowls, whose language some of us know very well." The means by which ideas are transmitted from one animal to another can be rightly described by no other term than language.

It is evident that there are many kinds of language: the written; the spoken; the universal, which implies the motion, sign, and form language; the language of the eye, by which ideas are exchanged without words or gestures; and lastly, a mode of expression little known to the human world, but universal among animals. This language is spoken by no man, but is understood by every brute from the tiniest hare to the largest elephant; it is the language whereby spirit communicates with spirit, and by which it recognises in a moment what it would take an entire volume to narrate. In its nature it differs essentially from all other languages, yet we are justified in thinking of it as a language because its function is to transmit ideas from one animal to another. Every form of language is used by animals, and each has its own peculiar language or "dialect" common to its tribe only, though occasionally learned by others. All the emotions—fear, caution, joy, grief, gratitude, hope, despair—are disclosed by some form of language.

It would be interesting to know how the use of the word "dumb" ever became applied to animals, for in reality there are very few dumb animals. Doubtless the word was originally employed to express a larger idea than that of dumbness, and implied the lack of power in animals to communicate successfully with man by sound or language. The real trouble lies with man, who is unable to understand the language spoken or uttered by the animals.

The gesture language is commonly used by many of the tribes of Southern Africa, and some of the Bushmen are unable to converse freely after dark, because their visible gestures are needed as an aid to their spoken words. Only a few years ago there were almost as many different languages among the North American Indians as there were different tribes, and yet each tribe had a sign-language which any Indian in any part of the world might understand. In fact it was so simple that it might be practically mastered in a few hours, and through it one might converse with the Indians of the world without knowing a single word of their spoken language. And this is exactly what the animals do with their universal language.

Who does not understand the meaning of a dog when he approaches his master, after receiving a reprimand for some misdemeanor, with downcast head and lowered tail? Or who could fail to interpret the glee when he has done a noble deed and been praised by his master? His is the language of gesture and look, and is very similar to that in use by our deaf-and-dumb men throughout the world.

The Hindoos invariably talk to their elephants, and it is astonishing how they understand. Bayard Taylor says that "the Arabs govern their camels with a few cries, and my associates in the African deserts were always amused whenever I addressed a remark to the dromedary who was my property for two months; yet at the end of that time the beast evidently knew the meaning of a number of simple sentences. Some years ago, seeing the hippopotamus in Barnum's museum looking very stolid and dejected, I spoke to him in English, but he did not even open his eyes. Then I went to the opposite corner of the cage, and said in Arabic, 'I know you; come here to me.' I repeated the words, and thereupon he came to the corner where I was standing, pressed his huge, ungainly head against the bars of the cage, and looked in my face with a touch of delight while I stroked his muzzle. I have two or three times found a lion who recognised the same language, and the expression of his eyes, for an instant, seemed positively human."

Every one familiar with the habits of dogs believes that they have a language. Certain shepherds are quite particular about the company their dogs keep. This story is told of a couple of shepherds meeting in a market-place in Scotland, each accompanied by his dog, one of which was a sheep-murderer, the other a faithful and respectable dog. They seemed to strike up a great friendship, "and soon assumed so remarkable a demeanour in their conversation that their owners consulted together on their own account, and agreed to set a watch upon them. On that very evening both dogs started from their homes at the same hour, joined each other, and set off after the sheep." It is unquestionable that these dogs had a sufficiency of language to understand each other. The criminal had invited his innocent young friend to join him in his mischief, and they agreed upon the time to meet and each kept his appointment. It is likely that there was not an audible sound uttered during their conversation, but that they used the language of look and gesture, and while it was not understood by their masters, it was entirely comprehended by themselves.

Another instance of canine language is given by John Burroughs, who says that a certain tone in his dog's bark implies that he has found a snake.

There is an old maxim which says: "The empty wagon makes the most noise," and it is interesting to note that the loudest-mouthed and most loquacious of all the animals are the lemurs, who are the least intelligent members of their great family. They chatter, scream, squeak, and grunt from morning till night, and two of them can make more noise than a cageful of apes and monkeys. The orangs and chimpanzees, on the other hand, exceptionally wise and gifted linguists, seldom utter a word or cry, except under extraordinary circumstances, and then briefly.

Prof. Richard L. Garner, who has spent much time in studying the language of animals, has attracted a great amount of attention through his special study of the anthropoid apes. He has lived among these animals in a steel cage in their native haunts and has used a phonograph to record their language. Prof. Garner told recently of an exceptionally intelligent ape, named Susie, whose home used to be at the Zoological Park, under the care of the Zoological Society, and he claimed that Susie could speak "in her own language" at least five words. They were "yes," "no," "protest," "satisfaction" and "contempt."

Mr. George Gladden, writing in the Outlook on the chimpanzee's voice, did not exactly commit himself as to his belief regarding this matter, but he says: "Now, although Mr. Engeholm (for four years in charge of the Primates House in the New York Zoological Park) has not been able to discover that his apes use any language, correctly speaking, he is confident that the chimpanzees Susie, Dick, and Baldy comprehend the definite meaning of many words, and that their minds react promptly when these words are addressed to them in the form of commands. This capacity is more highly developed in Susie than in any other of the apes in this particular group....

"It is difficult, of course, to determine from the commands which an animal will obey precisely how many words employed in these commands are plainly understood; but I have endeavoured to do this tentatively in the case of Mr. Engeholm's commands to Susie, all of which I have seen her obey repeatedly and promptly."

Mr. Gladden enumerates about forty-three commands which he claims to have seen Susie obey promptly. And he further states that the belief which many students of animal psychology hold that an animal gets more of the meaning of a command from the gesture which accompanies the command than he does from the actual words by which he is commanded, is false, and he adds, "as to this, I can testify that of the forty-three commands ... thirty-six may be, and generally are, unaccompanied by any gesture whatever. How, then, does Susie comprehend those commands unless through her understanding of the meaning of the words in which they are conveyed?"

The distinguished phrenologist Gall had a dog whose memory was remarkable, and he thoroughly understood words and phrases. "On this subject I have made," says Gall, "the following observations: I have often spoken intentionally of things which might interest my dog, avoiding the mention of his name, and not letting any gesture escape me which would be likely to arouse his attention. He always exhibited pleasure or pain suitable to the occasion, and by his conduct afterwards showed that he understood perfectly well."

Col. W. Campbell in his Indian Journal gives two remarkable instances of language and unity of work among animals which he saw at Ranee Bennore, while he was on a hunting trip. He witnessed, one morning, a striking case of wolfish generalship, which in his belief proved that animals are endowed to a certain extent not only with reason but are able to communicate their ideas to others. He was scanning the horizon one morning to see if any game was in sight when he discovered a small herd of antelopes feeding in a nearby field. In another remote corner of the field, hidden from the antelopes, he saw six wolves sitting with their heads close together as though they were in deep conversation.

He knew at once that they were also seeking venison for breakfast and he determined to watch them. He concealed himself behind a clump of bushes, and the wolves who had evidently already decided upon their mode of attack began their manœuvres: one remained stationary, while the other five crept to the edge of the field and one by one took the most advantageous positions, the fifth concealing himself in a deep furrow in the centre of the field.

The sixth, which had made no previous movements, dashed at the antelopes. The swift, graceful creatures, trusting in their incomparable speed, tossed their heads as if in disdain of so small an enemy and galloped away as though they were riding on the winds with their enemy far behind. But as soon as they reached the edge of the field, one of the hiding wolves sprang up and chased them in an opposite direction, while his fatigued accomplice lay down to recuperate. Again the light-heeled herd darted across the field, evidently hoping to escape on the opposite side, but here again they met another crafty wolf who chased them directly toward another of the pack. The chase had begun in earnest, the persecuted antelopes were driven from place to place, a fresh enemy springing up at every turn, till at last they became so terrorised with fear that they crowded together in the center of the field and began running around in diminishing circles.

During all this performance, the wolf which was hidden in a furrow in the centre of the field had not moved, although the antelopes had passed around and over him dozens of times. He well realised his time for action had not yet come and crouched closer and closer awaiting a signal from his fellow hunters to spring into their midst, and down one of the weakened antelopes.

At this point Col. Campbell shot one of the wolves, and the other five ran away and allowed the antelopes to escape. Surely no human combination could have shown greater reason and concerted action than was shown by the wolves under such conditions. Each had a particular post assigned, and evidently some means of communication was used in indicating their respective locations. Each had a definite part to play in the complex scheme—so that their language quite evidently expressed abstract ideas. That these ideas were carried out shows that the wolves were capable not only of laying ambitious plans for capturing prey, but of carrying them out as well.

"That beasts possess a language, which enables them to communicate their ideas," says Thomas Gentry, "has been clearly shown. It is just as apparent that they can act upon the ideas so conveyed. We have now to see whether they can convey their ideas to man, and so bridge over the gulf between the higher and the lower beings. Were there no means of communicating ideas between man and animals, domestication would be impossible. Every one who has possessed and cared for some favourite animal must have observed that they can do so. Their own language becomes, in many instances, intelligible to man. Just as a child that is unable to pronounce words, can express its meaning by intimation, so a dog can do the same by its different modes of barking. There is the bark of joy or welcome, when the animal sees its master, or anticipates a walk with him; the furious bark of anger, if the dog suspects that any one is likely to injure himself or master, and the bark of terror when the dog is suddenly frightened at something which he cannot understand. Supposing, now, that his master could not see the dog, but could only hear his bark, would he not know perfectly well the ideas which were passing through the animal's mind?"

There is no doubt that animals understand something of our human language. They may not be able to comprehend the exact words used, but it is evident they get the meaning to a certain extent. I once had a small Mexican dog sent me from Mexico; he seemed not to understand what was said to him, until a friend called who spoke to him in Spanish, whereupon he showed his delight and became at once a friend to the man who spoke his own language.

The Rev. J. G. Wood tells the following incident, which forcibly illustrates the ability possessed by animals to commune with each other. "While I was living in the country with a friend, a most interesting incident was observed in the history of the dog. My friend had several dogs, of which two had a special attachment to, and an understanding with, each other. The one was a Scotch terrier, gentle and ready to fraternise with all honest comers. The other was as large as a mastiff, and looked like a compound between the mastiff and the large rough stag-hound. He was fierce, and required some acquaintance before you knew what faithfulness and kindness lay beneath his rough and savage-looking exterior. The one was gay and lively, the other, stern and thoughtful.

"These two dogs were often observed to go to a certain point together, when the small one remained behind at a corner of a large field, while the mastiff took a round by the side of the field, which ran up-hill for nearly a mile, and led to a wood on the left. Game abounded in those districts and the object of the dogs' arrangement was soon seen. The terrier would start a hare, and chase it up the hill towards the large wood at the summit, where they arrived somewhat tired. At this point, the large dog, who was fresh and had rested after his walk, darted after the animal, which he usually captured. They then ate the hare between them and returned home. This course had been systematically carried on some time before it was fully understood."

Every animal has a definite language which is quite sufficient to express the desires and emotions of its nature, and to make them intelligible, not only to its own species, but also to other animals and sometimes to human beings. Those which do not actually speak by means of a voice, make signs or mimic understood things so as to be perfectly intelligible. If animals had no language, they could not instruct their young. The young of animals in a civilised country are far wiser than the old ones in wild, uninhabited countries. This can be explained only by the knowledge which the young receive from their parents.

It is not uncommon for animals belonging to widely different species to speak the same language, and thus become great friends. A friend in Texas once owned a cow whose sole companion was a small black goat. One day the young goat followed the cow home from her grazing place, and from that time on they were constant companions, even occupying the same stall in winter, sharing the same food, and always sleeping near each other.

If one shoots a monkey in South Africa, and wounds it, allowing it to escape, there usually come droves of its kinspeople, screaming and chattering the most diabolical language, seeking to revenge the wrong done their tribe. Nothing demonstrates plainer that they have a common language; otherwise, how could they understand that one of their number had been wounded? It is because of the communication of ideas by a common language among animals that hunters so fear to allow a wounded animal to escape at the beginning of their hunting season in certain localities. A wounded bear who escapes, for example, will spoil the entire season for hunters by spreading the alarm among his people.


American Museum of Natural History, New York


American Museum of Natural History, New York


Near our country home in Texas my sister found a very young red deer one morning just outside the garden, and bringing it into the yard, soon had a wonderful pet in this dainty spotted child of the woods. We knew that its mother was not far away, and so we placed salt and food just where the baby was found, to attract the mother's attention. In a few days, we saw the mother, and shortly afterwards five grown deer were seen eating the food we had placed for the mother. Evidently the news had been carried through the pine forests that it was safe for deer to come near our home. My sister's pet grew rapidly, and became a great friend of our yard dog. They often played by running races together, the deer would leap over the fence and the dog would chase him with great delight. Surely, they must have had a spoken common language!

No one claims that in the language of animals there are principles of construction such as we find in the human languages. The term Barbarian means those whose language is only a "bar-bar," and this is really all that the sound of an unknown tongue implied to the cultured Athenians. The neighing of horses, the howling of dogs and wolves, the mewing of cats, the bleating of sheep, the lowing of cows, the chattering of monkeys and baboons is nothing more nor less than their language. And it is quite as intelligible to us as is the chattering of the Hottentots of Africa. Because we do not speak the languages of our animal friends does not take away from the genuineness of the languages; we might as well claim that because our horse does not comprehend what we are saying, that we are not speaking a language!

Animals and men, under normal conditions, have been friends and companions since the beginning of time; and in order that they may convey ideas to each other, it is necessary for them to have some sort of means of communication.

As a matter of fact, animal language is quite often intelligible to man. Their language might be likened to that of a young child that cannot pronounce distinctly the words we commonly use; and yet we get the meaning from the intonation and gesture.

Any man who has ever owned a horse understands the meanings of his various actions and vocal expressions. There is the neigh of joy, upon returning home after a hard day's work, the neigh of distress, when he has strayed from his companions, the neigh of salutation that passes between two horses when they meet, and the neigh of terror when enemies are near. There is also the neigh of affection that is often given to his master when they first meet in the morning. Thus, spoken words are not necessary to express elemental feelings.

Elephants readily understand most of the words uttered by their masters. Menault tells of an elephant that was employed to pile up heavy logs. The manager, suspecting the keeper of stealing the grain set aside for the elephant, accused him of theft, which he denied most vehemently in the presence of the elephant. The result was remarkable. The animal suddenly laid hold of a large wrapper which the man wore round his waist, and tearing it open, let out some quarts of rice which the fellow had stowed away under the voluminous covering.

Animals have the power to make themselves understood by man, especially when they are in distress and wish man to help them. And they often combine to help one another. I was on a sheep ranch in western Texas once when one of the sheep came bleating up to the camp late in the afternoon. She uttered the most distressing calls. A friend, whom I was visiting, assured me that something unusual was wrong. Together we followed the sheep back to where she had been feeding in the pasture, she going forward in short spurts and continually looking back to see if we were coming. She finally led us to an old well, and we heard the plaintive voice of her young lamb that had fallen in. As the well had no water in it, and was only about six feet deep, we secured a ladder and in a few minutes the lamb was restored to its mother. She seemed delighted at the successful outcome of the accident. She had come and told us her troubles and got aid.

Cats are gifted linguists. By mewing they can just as plainly express a desire to have a door opened or closed as if they requested it in so many words. A friend has furnished me with an interesting account of her cat's ability to make herself understood. It seems that the cat, with her three small kittens, at one time slept in a box prepared for her in the kitchen. But one night when it was particularly cold, some one left the kitchen window open, and late in the night the cat went to her mistress's bed and mewed continuously until her mistress arose and went to the kitchen and closed the window. The cat was perfectly satisfied, as she had made her great need understood.

The ability that animals have to make their own language understood by man is not the only linguistic power they possess; as already mentioned, they are also capable of understanding something of human speech. There is no doubt that all domesticated animals understand the human language; the horse, dog, ox, and sheep comprehend a large part of what is said to them, though of course they may not understand the precise words used.

I once owned a rabbit dog, "Nimrod," and if he never understood another word of the English language, there is no doubt that he knew what the word "rabbit" meant. No matter in what manner or way I used the word, Nimrod was ready for a hunt, and yelped with glee at the thought of the chase that he was to have. I tested him over and over again by saying "rabbit hunt" gently; it thrilled him with delight, and while he was not very well educated in other things, he always lived up to his name.

The Rev. J. G. Wood speaks of the great individuality of character which he has observed in dogs, and that they unquestionably understand the human language. "There was in my pet greyhound 'Brenda,' there was in my dear lurcher 'Smoker,' and there is now in my dear lurcher 'Bar,' and in my three setters 'Chance,' 'Quail,' and 'Quince,' a refinement of feeling and sagacity infinitely beyond that existing in multitudes of the human race, whether inhabiting the deserts or the realms of civilisation.

"I cannot better define it than by saying that, if I give these dogs a hastily angered word in my room, though they have never been beaten, they will, with an expression of the most dejected sorrow, go into a corner behind some chair, sofa, or table, and lie there. Perhaps I may have been guilty of a hasty rebuke to them for jogging my table or elbow while I was writing, and then continued to write on. Some time after, not having seen my companions lying on the rug before the fire, I have remembered the circumstance, and, in a tone of voice to which they are used, I have said, 'There, you are forgiven.' In an instant the greyhound Brenda would fly into my lap, and cover me with kisses, her heart tumultuously beating. After she grew old, her joy at my return home after a long absence has at times nearly killed her; and when I was away, the bed she loved best was one of my old shooting-jackets, but never when I was at home."

The impassable gulf which the writers of old created between mankind and the animal kingdom was based mainly upon the belief that animals had no language, but this has been proved a mistake and no longer exists. In the light of modern knowledge and a better understanding of the marvellous theory of evolution, we are thoroughly convinced that there is no break whatever in the long chain of living beings. Man has no art, has developed no thing whatever, no mode of language or communication, that is not to be found in some degree among animals. They are capable of feeling the same emotions as human beings, and are therefore subject to the same general laws of life. No science has been more beneficial than psychology in proving that they are human in all ways; no discovery made by the human mind is so poetical and of such value as that which leads mankind to recognise some part of himself in every part of Nature, even in the language of animals.

This knowledge of all life is recognised by thinking men the world over, removing forever that artificial barrier by which, in his ignorance and prejudice, he has separated himself from his lower brothers, the animals, denying unto them even a means of intelligent communication. This recognition of the existence of a common language will go far toward establishing the universal brotherhood of all living creatures.

About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books. This book is part of the public domain.

Dixon, Royal, 2006. The Human Side of Animals. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from

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