The Animal Speaks

Image from Georg Bocksay and Joris Hoefnagel, Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta (1561-1596)

Astrid Guillaume

The Animal Speaks

Human history has not displayed much concern for animals, often due to economic reasons, political and religious ideology, and scientific ignorance. This has been true, as well, in the Humanities, also known as the Human and Social Sciences (HSS). Of course, animals are present in art history or comparative literature curricula; they are studied as themes or characters in literary texts, myths, tales, fables, and legends, in works of art, and in their relations with humans. However, non-human animals also have cultures of their own. They communicate with each other via intraspecific languages and with humans and other species via interspecific languages. Linguistics could cover the array of these interactions in their communicative complexity and multilingualism. However, to date, animals remain absent from linguistic studies.

Humans have a great power of speech, mostly vain and false. Animals have little use of speech; however, it is always useful and true.

—Leonardo da Vinci

Ending Anthropocentric Linguistics

The way we talk about animals is quite revealing. Even though the human being is biologically an animal, we place “humans” on one side and “animals” on the other. And even when we become aware of this fallacy and talk about “human” and “nonhuman animals,” we remain deeply anthropocentric, describing all animals with the same word even though, say, vertebrates, invertebrates, mammals, insects, reptiles, viviparous and oviparous animals have little in common with each other.

Still, whatever the differences among these animals—including humans—may be, they have at least one thing in common: they all communicate. They all use signs to interact and express themselves, some with pheromones, others with sounds, colors, smells, gestures, silences, traces, modifications of their environment, positions in space, or a combination of these. All these signs are forms of communication that make sense and have clear meanings that vary according to context. By their arrangement, they may become sentences, syntax, grammar. In action, they are verbs. They all are part of a semiotics of non-human cultures, whether related to human culture or not.

Linguistic and grammatical terminology, formerly reserved exclusively for humans, deserves to be reviewed under the prism of a semiotics applied to animals—a zoosemiotics. The French Society of Zoosemiotics, a scientific association founded in 2018, aims to study these signs, with or without emitted sound, with or without corporal expression, to better understand the languages of animals, their dialects and multilingualism, and to develop a real zoolinguistics.

Ending the Singularity of the Human

In 1859, Charles Darwin established the difference between humans and animals as one of degree, not of nature. This nuance was key as it enabled the development of zoobiology and ethology, the discipline that studies the behavior of animals. Since then, research has advanced in remarkable ways. After the discovery of DNA, some primates were proven to share 99% of their DNA with humans, a discovery that has further shaken any notions of the “the singularity of the human.”

In parallel with biological and ethological research, technological progress has enabled us to explore invisible and inaudible realms: microscopes and telescopes have opened the universe of the infinitely small and large, cameras have offered unsuspected scenes of animal life, and microphones have recorded sounds inaudible to humans, on land and under water, revealing, for example, the vocal exchanges among cetaceans and fish.

However, while zoobiology and ethology have taken advantage of these advances and greatly developed over the last twenty years, certain disciplines in the Human and Social Sciences, especially the linguistic sciences, have remained wilfully oblivious. In France, for one, studies on animals remain highly discouraged in these disciplines.

More-Than-Human Sciences?

René Descartes considered the animal a machine, and his disciple, Nicolas Malebranche, proclaimed that “in animals, there is neither intelligence nor soul as we ordinarily understand. They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it, desire nothing, fear nothing, do not know anything.”[1] Following this basic axiom until recent times, the Human and Social Sciences have understood consciousness, reflection, sensitivity, emotivity, personality, and individuality as characteristics restricted to the human being, granting no place to the animal as a communicating individual, a living being who thinks, dreams, and (re)acts.

What is more, the “human” has been constructed in opposition to the “animal.” Often, the animal merely served to define the human in a process of unjustified opposition, only summoned to showcase the animality of a human being still too wild, not yet “humanized” enough. And the epithet of “animality,” which could be more appropriately named “monstrosity,” has become commonplace to describe the most atrocious acts committed by humans, acts that an animal would often be unable to accomplish.

There were those, of course, who opposed this trend, shielded, in part, by their fame and public aura. Victor Hugo directed a magazine titled Le Zoophile (in the etymological meaning of one who is a friend of animals, who loves animals), the first publication to position itself in defense of animal rights. In 1850, Hugo helped pass the Grammont law, by which brutalities committed against domestic animals became punishable, a law according to which “shall be punished, by a fine of five to fifteen Francs, and by one to five days in prison, those who have publicly and improperly exercised ill-treatment of domestic animals. The prison sentence will always be applied in case of recidivism.”[2]

In the Figaro of 24 March 1896, Emile Zola established three types of people: “animal friends,” “animal foes,” and “indifferent.”[3] If we apply this classification to the field of linguistics, we can unfortunately see that the field still mostly operates in the range of the latter two categories. “Animal friends” may show interest as a hobby, but usually not at the scientific level, since the career risk remains too high. At French universities, there are no research positions in zoosemiotics, no curricula, no courses, and no academic recognition of the subject. In 1966, French linguist Emile Benveniste foreclosed any discussion on the subject by proclaiming:

Applied to the animal world, the notion of language operates only through an abuse of terms. It is known that until now it has been impossible to establish that animals have, even in a rudimentary form, a mode of expression that has the characteristics and functions of human language. It is ridiculous and vain to seek to find a language in animals that is comparable in every way to that of the human; the basic approach is wrong and irrelevant from the outset.[4]

While many ethologists and zoo-acousticians speak of languages, communications, intraspecific exchanges, dialectics, sentences, and grammar in the context of animals,[5] this statement by Benveniste is emblematic of the way that the question of animal language has been treated in linguistics itself.

Bringing Animals into Linguistics

The problem is caused, in part, by the terminology of linguistics. Since animals do not speak like humans, they cannot have languages. Their phonatory organs do not allow articulated phonemes, which greatly contributes to making them “beasts,” in the etymological sense of the word “bestia.” In addition, animals are “dumb”; they do not speak, and consequently, they do not think. A constructive way of approaching the matter might be to replace the term “language” with that of “communication,” thereby covering all interactive processes of information exchange through signals between two individuals of the same or different species, alternately transmitter and receiver. Such a reorientation, however, would require the field of linguistics to relinquish its current, extreme anthropocentricism.

A thought can exist, and can be expressed, without conventional language, even in the human realm. For instance, the hearing-impaired or those unable to speak avail themselves of other methods of expression and communication that pass through gestures or sounds to be interpreted by others. There can be non-literate languages that function via nonlinear but spatio-dynamic alphabets, such as masked dances in Africa. In addition, the fact that we are not able to semantically analyze or understand the vocalizations of birds or dolphins does not mean that birds and dolphins have no language. It merely means that we do not understand them, at least at present. As French neurobiologist Michel Jouvet has put it, the absence of proof is not proof of absence.

As early as 1973, Roman Jakobson wrote about linguistics that “most recent disagreements are due in part to differences in terminology and partly to a different distribution of linguistic problems selected and reported by researchers […]. In fact, such selection results in confining research to narrow limits and neglecting the topics that have been left out.”[6] Today, we must critique not only the monuments of linguistics, who often are still alive, but must also review all their terminology in light of the scientific developments in zoobiology and ethology. The whole of linguistics must be rethought to understand and work on the languages of animals if it is not to be simply sidestepped by the study of signs via semiotics—a point I further develop in a recent article on zoolanguages and zoodialects.[7]

Linguistics and Lexicology at the Service of Zoosemiotics

A 2017 study of French online dictionaries revealed that definitions concerning sensitivity, language, emotions, and meaning excluded animals, restricting themselves to humans—and musical instruments.[8] This only demonstrates the extent to which awareness of animal intelligence is still lacking in French society today. Far from being arbitrary, words and their definitions have direct and severe implications in legal texts defining animal welfare. Hence the importance of:

  • Analysing definitions, particularly of terms that are related to humans but exclude the animal world to the latter’s detriment, including such basic terms as “thought,” “language,” “sensitivity,” “hypersensitivity,” “well-being,” “malaise,” and “sentience.”
  • Redefining these terms. The current definitions in French dictionaries often date back to the 19th-century lexicographer Emile Littré, taking little to no account of the enormous progress made in ethology in the course of the past 20 years.
  • Inventing new words to specify ethologically attested behaviors.

To illustrate this third point, let us consider the example of babies: until quite recently, there still existed a belief that babies did not feel pain since they could not express it in words, and they were even operated on without anaesthesia. Of course, babies do feel pain. However, like many animals, they do not have an alphabetical language to express pain or well-being, using sounds and gestures instead. Like animals, babies do communicate, dream, and express preferences that vary from one individual to another, from one personality to another. Naming these different types of reactions helps us to recognize them. For instance, words such as “babbling” (spontaneous vocalization by infants irrespective of any auditory experience) or “chirping” (also used for birds, but with a different meaning) help us recognize the baby’s well-being.

Words of this type must also be introduced for animals where they do not yet exist. Even though we know that the frog croaks, the crow caws, the cow moos, and the cat meows, precision is necessary when one begins to be interested in the delicacy of expression of each species. For instance, the cat meows, spits, fells, and purrs, but within these variations of sound exists a multitude of other variants that express fear, contentment, envy, aggression, demand, and so on, variants for which which we have no words, and of which we therefore cannot speak with precision.

It suffices to have a cat at home to realize the richness of cats’ vocal variations. Cats purr in a certain way depending on everyday situations: they purr out of well-being, they purr out of fear, they purr to calm themselves, they purr because they are in pain, and they purr to manipulate their surroundings. The same holds for meows: cats meow in different ways to express different feelings. These sounds are singular, with a personal tone of voice, according to individuals and species. In the case of the Siamese cat, a particularly expressive cat breed, there are at least 70 variants of meows per individual. These are all signs and methods of communication that do not have lexical existences; researchers who work on audible animal expressions call these by their numbers because no words exist to describe them.

  • Finally, the study of different interspecific, intraspecific, metaspecific, and extraspecific languages needs to be developed within a general framework of zoosemiotics that is open to zoodialectology[9] and different forms of human-animal multilingualism. Corpora must also be developed to define how humans address animals, encompassing different languages, lexicons, intonations, and historical periods.

Towards a Zoolexicology

The usage of human-specific terminology to define animal communication is anthropocentric, at best imprecise, at worst incorrect, and in all cases reductive. To qualify variations of cetacean sounds, researchers like Mark Fisher, an acoustics engineer in California, create “wavy mandalas” or wavelets, usually employed in the field of signal processing. This entails the transformation of audio recordings into spectrograms that show varying curves according to the intensity of the transmitted signal. The sound is thus transformed into images that allow us to capture the subtleties in each emitted note, revealing vocal signatures for each individual.[10]

The dances of bees, the vocalizations of birds, the poetic songs of whales, the cries of primates, the sounds and ultrasounds of dolphins and other cetaceans, the screams, roars, and infrasounds of elephants, and the pheromones in most terrestrial animals all contain possibilities of expression and interindividual communication. Lexicology and semantics, associated with semiotics, have a great contribution to make in mapping out this field. The French Society of Zoosemiotics is currently working with the French Language Delegation (DGLFLF) within the French Ministry of Culture to ensure the creation of adequate terms in French. Through our Commission of Terminology and Neology on Animal Cultures and Animal Behavior, we work along three axes:

  • Sound tracking and non-sonic languages of animals.
  • Study of the grammaticalization of these languages (sequencing and semantization).
  • Establishment of terminology and neologisms around these zoolanguages and emotions.

When Silence Makes Sense

While mainly addressing signs, zoosemiotics also addresses the absence of signs. Silence or mutism make sense in zoosemiotics. They can be analyzed as an expression of misery, a contextual obligation to be silent, an isolation to be understood, or a punctuation in a process. Such processes involve absences or breaks: how to interpret a silence, a break, or a stop? The context can offer clues, of course, but so can the history of the animal, for instance in the form of trauma revived by a sign, sound, or odor.

Also, whether the expression contains a sound or is muted, it passes through signs and behaviors arranged in a chronology, thereby opening up to the notion of syntax. In animal communication, we encounter a wide range of possibilities that may work through sounds but also through a multitude of behaviors and silent body signs. These corporal signs “speak” as much as, if not more than, a human language. Arranged among themselves, they constitute the alphabets of whole languages for humans to discover and learn.

A Sensitive Zoosemiotics

Crucially, zoosemiotics does not simply concern human understanding of animal languages, but also human recognition of the sentient animal as such. A better understanding of animal languages enables a better understanding of animal thought and the different personalities of individual animals. The widespread absence of linguistic research on the various forms of animal language, thought, and intelligence has contributed to the societal and legal denial of certain faculties, such as sentience, to animals,[11] thereby contributing to the suffering of animals in various everyday contexts. Research in zoosemiotics therefore has the potential to raise awareness of animal welfare and alleviate the abuse to which animals all too often fall victim.

The French Society of Zoosemiotics

The French Society of Zoosemiotics was born out of all the concerns listed above. It aims to develop five axes of research:

  1. Intraspecific languages (exchanges between individuals or groups of the same species).
  2. Interspecific languages (exchanges between individuals or groups of different species).
  3. Metaspecific languages (around/beyond species: lexicon, terminology, neology, zoolinguistics).
  4. Semiotics of non-human animal cultures (transmission of practices).
  5. Semiotics of human cultures in relation to non-human animal cultures (history, art, literature, society, law, philosophy, politics, sociology, religion, psychology, advertising, communication, animaloid robotics, artificial intelligence, etc.).

Towards Humanimalism

Humanimalism is a humanism that encompasses the animal, a humanism that is fully aware of the reciprocal enrichment of the encounter between humans and animals, a humanism that protects the habitats of all animals, a humanism that scientifically integrates the languages, intelligences, and thoughts of animals, all in order to better (re-)encounter and respect them. With this guiding principle in mind, I have been involved in the development of a Declaration of the Rights of the Sentient Being (DDES).[12] Conceived by a European (mainly French) team and composed in French, the Declaration has been translated into several languages. Article 10, for which I am responsible, defines the tenets of humanimalism as follows:

  1. All sentient beings have the right to interspecific relations based on respect in a relationship of equals.
  2. These relations will be established on the discovery and recognition of specific intelligences, languages, and sensitivities.
  3. These relations generate sharing, common languages, self-consciousness, and consciousness of others. They will be conducive to the construction of a global common intelligence and sentience.
  4. This common intelligence and sentience will have the common good as its goal.

Humanimalism aims to develop respectful and reciprocally agreed interactions between humans and animals, placing them in a relationship of trust and sharing. The goal is a world that moves away from anthropocentrism[13] and is enriched by humanimal contact, a humanimalized world.

ASTRID GUILLAUME is a semiotician who serves as Maître de conférences at Sorbonne University. She is a Chevalier (Knight) of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres, an award by which the French state recognizes significant contributions to the humanities and arts. Since 2019, Astrid has served as the Founding President of the French Society of Zoosemiotics.

dePICTions volume 3 (2023): Critical Ecologies

[1] Nicolas Malebranche, Œuvres complètes, volume 1, “De la Vérité,” Paris: Imprimerie et Librairie de Sapia, 1837, 245, translation mine.

[2] See Ilyana Aït Ahmed, “Histoire et héritage de la loi Grammont, première loi française sur la protection des animaux,” La Fondation Droit Animal, 6 January 2023 [8 July 2023], translation mine.

[3] Emile Zola, “L’amour des bêtes,” Le Figaro, 24 March 1896, quoted in Nouvelle campagne, Paris: Bibliothèque-Charpenthier, 1897, 85-97, translation mine.

[4] Emile Beneviste, Problèmes de Linguistique Générale 1, Paris: Gallimard, 1966, 56, translation mine.

[5] See primatologist Luca Morino, who refers to 450 words used by gibbons in Le langage très élaboré des gibbons, franceinfo, 6 January 2016 [8 July 2023].

[6] Roman Jakobson, Essais de linguistique générale, volume 2, “Rapports internes et externes du langage,” Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1973, 11, translation mine.

[7] Astrid Guillaume, “Zoolangages, zoolangues, zoodialectes: Précisions contextuelles et définitions,” in Texto ! Textes et cultures XXVI.2-4 (2021): 1-28 [8 July 2023].

[8] Astrid Guillaume, “Animal: ‘être sensible’ unanimement désensibilisé. Sémiotique du sensible,” in Revue trimestrielle de la Fondation Droit Animal, Ethique et Sciences 81 (April 2014): 35-37 [8 July 2023].

[9] See the studies on birds’ dialects conducted at the Laboratory of Ethology, Paris Nanterre University.

[10] Frédérique Josse, “Océans: comment communiquent les cétacés,” GEO online, 18 March 2016 [8 July 2023].

[11] Astrid Guillaume, “Les animaux, ces êtres doués de ‘sentience’,” The Conversation, 17 October 2017 [8 July 2023].

[12]Déclaration des droits de l’être sentient,” Médiapart, 15 May 2018 [8 July 2023], translation mine.

[13] Astrid Guillaume, “Les débats sur le spécisme,” in Le Cercle Psy, Hors-série N°7 (November-December 2018): 110-113 [8 July 2023].