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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.
On imitation and understanding
The term refers to animals which can imitate (though not necessarily understand) human speech. Parrots, for example, repeat things nonsensically through exposure. It is a form of 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 to involuntary cues in the body language of his trainer or other people who asked the horse questions and knew the answer but were unaware they were providing such cues.
On formality of animal language
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. 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. 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. Research supports the idea that the linguistic limitations in animals are due to limited general brainpower (as opposed to lack of a specific module), and that words are created by breaking down sentences into pieces, making grammar more basic than semantics. The statement that syntax is the key difference between human and animal language is dubious.[according to whom?]
Reported cases by species
- Research done by Dr. Irene Pepperberg indicates that parrots are capable of speaking in context and with intentional meaning. One of Pepperberg's parrots, Alex, an African grey parrot, demonstrated the ability to assemble words out of letters.
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.
- 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?". 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.
- 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.
- In 1715 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz published an account of his encounter with a talking dog that could pronounce about 30 words.
- Don, a German pointer born around the beginning of the 20th century, was a dog that was reputed to be able to pronounce a couple of words in German and became a vaudeville sensation as a result. Although most scientists at the time dismissed Don's capabilities, the author Jan Bondeson puts forward an argument that Don was genuinely capable of limited human speech and criticises the tests that were performed on Don at the time as having serious methodological flaws.
- In 1959 a German sheepdog by the name of Corinna living in Prague spontaneously developed a capability for limited human speech. According to the zoologist Hermann Hartwigg, published under the pseudonym 'Hermann Dembeck', Corinna 'holds the record in modern times for its talking prowess'.
- 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" 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 considered an occupation for the purposes of municipal licensing law.
- Hoover was a harbor seal who repeated common phrases heard around his exhibit at the New England Aquarium, including his name. He appeared in publications like Reader's Digest and The New Yorker, and television programs like Good Morning America.
- Gef the talking mongoose was an alleged talking animal who inhabited a small house on the Isle of Man, off the coast of Great Britain. Fringe authors believe Gef was a poltergeist, a strange animal or cryptid. Contemporary academics believe it was most likely a hoax.
- Batyr (1969–1993), an elephant from Kazakhstan, was reported to have a vocabulary of more than 20 phrases. Recordings of Batyr saying "Batyr is good", "Batyr is hungry", and words such as "drink" and "give" were played on Kazakh state radio in 1980.
- Kosik (born 1990) is an elephant able to imitate Korean words.
- Beluga whales can imitate the patterns of human speech. Noc, a captive beluga whale in the United States Navy's Cold Ops program, could mimic some words well enough to confuse Navy divers on at least one occasion.
- John C. Lilly's assistant Margaret Howe trained a dolphin named Peter to produce several words, including a credible "Mar-ga-ret".
- It is not unusual for goats to make noises that sound like syllables from human words. Some videos of this behavior have ended up becoming popular on YouTube. An example from Tennessee of a baby goat seeming to say "what what what?" got over seven million views.
- Animal cognition
- Animal communication
- Animal language
- Derek Bickerton – Animal Communication Systems researcher
- Human–animal communication
- Human speechome project
- Kinship with All Life – book
- Vocal learning
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- 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.
- "Conversing cows and eloquent elephants". fortunecity.com. Archived from the original on July 24, 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-11.
- "Kosik, Talking Elephant, Attracts Researchers And Tourists In South Korea". Huffington Post. October 11, 2010. Retrieved December 23, 2012.
- "Study: Male beluga whale mimics human speech". 23 October 2012.
- "The Story of One Whale Who Tried to Bridge the Linguistic Divide Between Animals and Humans". Smithsonian Magazine. June 2014.
- Is This Goat Talking? | Yahoo News
In August, Lyndsey Hyde of Tennessee posted a video to Vine featuring a goat that sounds like it is saying "What? What? What?" The 6-second clip went viral with more than 7 million views on the video-sharing app.