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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Raising a Happy Noise: Not Necessarily Intentional Communication

Everybody knows about chimpanzee vocalizations. The experts have classified them, numbered them, named them, and they can assure you that they are "not language." And because they have not been seen to have the abstract levels of encoding that we expect in language, the experts have concluded that chimpanzees don't "have language", as if language were a possession that one can carry around and display to others and own.

Bow "has language", in the sense that he can spell in Hebrew and English. He also "has language" in the sense that when I say something like "pick that up and throw it away", he knows what I mean. (Whether he'll do as I ask is a whole other question.) I mean, "having language" is not only producing an utterance. It is also decoding the utterance made by another. In all these senses, Bow "has language."

But Bow is also a chimpanzee. And sometimes he has to raise a happy noise. Or an aggressive noise. Or to express his feelings directly. Not every sound a human makes is language, either. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we sneeze. Bow vocalizes. And his vocalizations tend to have the plot structure of a sneeze.

Not every sound we make is entirely voluntary. Cries of fear or joy often aren't. A sneeze, on the other hand, is something we may allow to happen or not quite pull off. So it is with Bow's vocalizations. Sometimes he starts but clearly does not finish. Sometimes the vocalization runs its course, and then he seems relieved and happy.

There is a difference between intentional communication and unintentional signals. Bow exemplifies that difference. He is not trying to tell anyone anything when he vocalizes like this. But this does not mean that we don't learn something about how he is feeling, if we listen.


  1. I think sometimes the experts are too quick to declare that chimps do not have language. Clearly Bow does understand two languages, and it is good you keep point out what he is able to do with language.

  2. Thanks, Julia. I think we all do some things with language but also many things with non-linguistic ways of communicating. Bow is like that, too. I have learned a lot about both language and non-language from Bow.