Ferris Jabr has recently written a highly illuminating article for The New York Times Magazine titled, Can Prairie Dogs Talk? (May 12, 2017), on the pioneering work of Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, an emeritus professor of biology at Norther Arizona University. Professor Slobodchikoff has been analyzing the sounds of prairie dogs for more than 30 years, and he thinks that they possess a form of genuine language. Specifically, he claims that when they give alarm calls for different kinds of predators, they identify not only the type of predator, but also its size, shape, color and speed. In other words, their messages do not consist merely of nouns; instead, they are more akin to descriptive phrases. In a follow-up interview with Professor Marc Bekoff (Psychology Today, May 14, 2017), Slobodchikoff argues that since the rate at which the alarm calls are produced tends to correlate with the speed of travel of the approaching predator (hawks, for example, elicit only a single bark because they are so swift), prairie dog talk also contains something analogous to a verb in human language. Most surprising of all, prairie dogs are capable of coming up with new alarm calls for abstract objects which they have never seen before, such as an oval, a triangle, a circle, and a square. And if that were not enough, it turns out that prairie dog calls, like human language, are composed of phonemes. Indeed, Slobodchikoff even declares that prairie dogs have the most complex language of any non-human animal.
Professor Slobodchikoff contends that it is only pure prejudice on the part of “human exceptionalists” (many of whom are linguists and philosophers) that prevents scientists from describing prairie dog calls as true language, rather than mere “communication.” In addition, many people’s thinking is still influenced by Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, which ranks humans at the top, followed by “higher” mammals such as apes and then “lower” mammals such as mice (and of course, prairie dogs), with birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish lower down in the pecking order, and with insects, worms and one-celled animals at the very bottom. Such a view, argues Slobodchikoff, is speciesist and profoundly primatocentric. It is time for scientists to cast aside their prejudices and recognize that humans are not the only animals that can talk.
Is Slobodchikoff right? In today’s post, I’d like to explain why I’m inclined to be skeptical of the claim that prairie dogs are capable of anything like language.