Talking animal

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For talking animals in folklore and storytelling, see talking animals in fiction.

A talking animal or speaking animal is any non-human animal that can produce sounds or gestures resembling those of a human language. Several species or groups of animals have developed forms of communication which superficially resemble verbal language, however, these are not defined as language because they lack one or more of the defining characteristics, i.e. grammar, syntax, recursion and displacement. Researchers have been successful in teaching some animals to make gestures similar to sign language, however, these animals fail to reach one or more of the criteria accepted as defining language, for example, Koko the gorilla was unable to break away from the here-and-now (displacement) in her signs.

On imitation and understanding[edit]

Clever Hans performing

The term refers to animals which can imitate (though not necessarily understand) human speech. Parrots, for example, repeat things nonsensically through exposure. It is an anthropomorphism to call this human speech, as it has no semantic grounding.

Clever Hans was a horse that was claimed to have been able to perform arithmetic and other intellectual tasks. After formal investigation in 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reaction of his human observers. The horse was responding directly to involuntary cues in the body language of the human trainer, who had the faculties to solve each problem, and was unaware that he was providing such cues.[1]

On formality of animal language[edit]

A "formal language" requires a communication with a syntax as well as semantics. It is not sufficient for one to communicate information or even use symbols to communicate ideas.

Researchers have attempted to teach great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos) spoken language with poor results, and sign language with significantly better results.[citation needed] However, even the best communicating great ape has shown an inability to grasp the idea of syntax and grammar, instead communicating at best at the same level as a pidgin language in humans. They are expressive and communicative, but lack the formality that remains unique to human speech.

Modern[timeframe?] research shows that the key difference is the animal's lack of asking questions and that formal syntax is merely a superficial detail, however Alex the parrot has been recorded as having asked an existential question.[2] There are other differences as well, including poor precision, as shown by Kanzi the bonobo used the lexigram for chase interchangeably with that for get, though this behavior may not be the same for all animals.[3][4] Research supports the idea that the linguistic limitations in animals are due to limited general brainpower (as opposed to lack of a specific module),[citation needed] and that words are created by breaking down sentences into pieces, making grammar more basic than semantics.[5] The statement that syntax is the key difference between human and animal language is dubious.[according to whom?]

Reported cases by species[edit]


Main article: Talking bird


An owner hears a dog making a sound that resembles a phrase, says the phrase back to the dog, who then repeats the sound and is rewarded with a treat. Eventually the dog learns a modified version of the original sound. Dogs have limited vocal imitation skills, so these sounds usually need to be shaped by selective attention and social reward.[6]

  • A dog on America's Funniest Home Videos named Fluffy, made noises that to some viewers resembled "I want my momma" after being asked "Do you want your momma?".[citation needed] Other videos showed other dogs making noises which to some viewers resembling "Run around", "I want it", "I love momma" and "Hello".
  • Odie, a pug who produced noises resembling "I love you" on demand, made appearances on several television shows.[7]
  • Paranormal researcher Charles Fort wrote in his book Wild Talents (1932) of several alleged cases of dogs that could speak English. Fort took the stories from contemporary newspaper accounts.
  • A husky which produces vocalisations that to some viewers sound like 'no' has appeared in the Daily Mail, the Mirror and the Huffington Post, amongst others.[8]
  • A Boston terrier which produces vocalisations that to some viewers sound like 'hello' has appeared in the Huffington Post.[9]


  • The case of a cat who was videotaped speaking purported human words and phrases such as "Oh my dog", "Oh Long John", "Oh Long Johnson", "Oh Don piano", "Why I eyes ya", and "All the live long day"[10] became an Internet phenomenon in 2006. Footage of this cat, nicknamed Oh Long Johnson from one of the phrases spoken, was featured on America's Funniest Home Videos in 1998, and a longer version of the clip (which revealed the animal was reacting to the presence of another cat) was aired in the UK. Clips from this video are prevalent on YouTube. The cat appeared as a character in "Faith Hilling", the 226th episode of South Park, which aired on March 28, 2012.
  • Miles v. City Council of Augusta, Georgia, in which the court found that the exhibition of a talking cat was an occupation for the purposes of municipal licensing law.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Clever Hans phenomenon". skepdic. Retrieved 2008-12-11. 
  2. ^ Jordania, Joseph (2006). Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech. Tbilisi: Logos. ISBN 99940-31-81-3. 
  3. ^ Kluger, J. (2010). "Inside the minds of animals". Time. 
  4. ^,9171,2008867,00.html
  5. ^ Francisco Lacerda: A ecological theory of language acquisition
  6. ^ Adler, Tina (June 10, 2009). "Fact or Fiction: Dogs Can Talk". Scientific American. Retrieved February 19, 2015. 
  7. ^ "the talking pug". Retrieved 2008-12-11. 
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Oh Long Johnson... - talking cat. June 11, 2006. 
  11. ^ "Hoover, the Talking Seal". New England Aquarium. Retrieved 2012-01-25. 
  12. ^ Josiffe, Christopher (January 2011). "Gef the Talking Mongoose". Fortean Times. Dennis Publishing. Retrieved December 23, 2012. 
  13. ^ Chris Berry; So-yŏng Kim; Lynn Spigel (January 2010). Electronic Elsewheres: Media, Technology, and the Experience of Social Space. U of Minnesota Press. pp. 39–. ISBN 978-0-8166-4736-1. Retrieved 19 August 2013. 
  14. ^ "Conversing cows and eloquent elephants". Retrieved 2008-12-11. [dead link]
  15. ^ "Kosik, Talking Elephant, Attracts Researchers And Tourists In South Korea". Huffington Post. October 11, 2010. Retrieved December 23, 2012. 
  16. ^ "Study: Male beluga whale mimics human speech". 23 October 2012. 
  17. ^ "The Story of One Whale Who Tried to Bridge the Linguistic Divide Between Animals and Humans". June 2014, Smithsonian Magazine.  Check date values in: |date= (help)

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