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Are We Unique?

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© Ian Hooton / Photo Researchers, Inc.

Smiling face of a 6-month-old baby boy being lifted up by his father.

Many animals communicate with each other. But not all communication is language. True language involves more than just exchanging information. Language includes symbols, such as words, and syntax--rules for combining symbols to express new ideas that no single word can convey. While some animals make sounds and gestures with symbolic meanings, they cannot combine symbols to generate unlimited new meanings, as humans can.

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© AMNH / Rod Mickens

What Animals Can Do

Animals share information through gestures, vocalizations and other forms of communication. Most animal calls are instinctive, like human laughter. But some animals, such as birds, make complex patterns of sound that are learned, not innate. A rare few can even combine multiple symbols in a single message. But none have the flexible vocabulary and syntax to express any possible thought.

What Humans Can Do

In human language, words are more than just labels for objects. They represent tens of thousands of abstract concepts that help us think far beyond the here and now. We can discuss the past, the future, even things that exist only in our imagination. By connecting words into sentences through grammar and syntax, human language can express an unlimited number of ideas from a limited set of words.

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Photo: Kim Taylor/Naturepl.com

Honey Bee worker with full pollen sacs executing waggle dance, UK. (Apis mellifera)

Video Skin

Cuttlefish communicate nonverbally by creating rapidly shifting color patterns on their skin. The same color pattern can have different meanings depending on the position of the animal's arms. Combining multiple signals in a single message is rare in the animal world.

Sweet Talk

Honeybees communicate about distant sources of food, water and nesting sites to relatives in the hive. Observers crowd around to learn the distance and direction to fly, which are indicated through symbolic "dance" movements.

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© David M. Dennis / Animals Animals

Leaf-cutter Ants (Atta sp), carrying leaves to nest, Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

Chemical Code Messages

Many insects exchange information through chemicals called pheromones. Here, leaf-cutter ants indicate the path to a food source by marking the trail with pheromones. They also use pheromones to send alarm signals and recognize members of their colony.

A Brain for Language

Charles Darwin, a close observer of the babbling of babies, noted that humans have "an instinctive tendency to speak." Our brains seem to be preprogrammed to learn language from birth.

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© Great Ape Trust of Iowa

Bonobo chimpanzee named "Kanzi" uses a lexigram keyboard to communicate

Language: Are We Unique?
Can Apes Learn Language?

If dogs and cats can be trained to recognize a few words, what about our closest relatives, the great apes? While no other species can master human language, our evolutionary cousins the bonobos come closer than you might think.

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