Animal Languages

Eva Meijer

John Murray, £14.99

Eva Meijer is on a mission to redefine the relationship between humans and animals. An author and songwriter who teaches Animal Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, she was surprised by the almost total absence of animals in the Western philosophical tradition, and most of what she did find contradicted her own experiences.

For most of human history, the idea that animals use language in any meaningful way was derided. Anyone who asserted otherwise had some heavyweight philosophical opposition to contend with. Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Heidegger all insisted that because animals could not speak they could not think or distinguish between right and wrong and fell outside the spectrum of morality. The sounds they made were pre-programmed instinctive reflexes: communication, but not language as humans understand it.

Modern research, however, has shown up the folly of relying on human words as the linguistic benchmark. Meijer regales her readers with the amazing linguistic feats of parrots, chimps, gorillas, dolphins, elephants, crows and many other species, revealing a greater sophistication and a far richer inner life than they’re given credit for. Prairie dogs, for example, have such a wide and specific vocabulary that they not only differentiate between a human carrying an umbrella or a gun, and specify the colour of their clothing, but come up with original conjugations like “oval unknown threat”.

Research into animal language is still at a relatively early stage, but there’s enough evidence here to demonstrate that certain animals do meet the laid-down criteria of “language”, showing a strong enough grasp of its underlying grammar to use it creatively and still be understood by others. Meijer’s case is supported by the work of people who have studied animals by developing relationships with them outside the controlled conditions of a laboratory. Academic researchers have scoffed at them in the past, accusing them of anthropomorphism and getting too close to their subjects, but they have gained insights which would have never have been obtained from detached academic study. Meijer continually stresses the importance of researchers and animals learning from each other and developing a common language.

The many documented instances of animals displaying self-awareness and empathy and understanding the concept of fairness also suggest that humans are not the only creatures with a sense of morality, and thus Meijer asserts that animals can and should be incorporated into the political sphere. Obviously, this doesn’t mean dogs voting or pigs standing for parliament, but the granting of differing statuses to animals according to their proximity to the human world, and the representation of their interests. As to what those interests are, this entire book has been arguing that they’ve been telling us that the whole time, if only we would recognise it.

What Meijer is discussing here is a movement, and a field of research, that’s still in its infancy. But it’s a bold and progressive vision of a future just beyond the horizon in which humankind gets better at sharing the Earth by simply learning how to listen.