November 11, 2012

Can Non-Human Creatures Talk the Human Language?



Can non-human creatures speak? Are they able to learn human language?

Scientists have long debated these questions.

A zoo elephant in South Korea, can speak Korean out loud, researchers say. The pachyderm is capable of saying “hello,” “good,” “no,” “sit down” and “lie down” — all by using its trunk to do the work of lips in a process scientists don’t fully understand.2

Witnesses in the case of the cussing cockatoo said they often hear the bird saying a variety of obscenities, plus a low-pitch screech that gets louder and louder until the bird begins to cuss repetitively.1


Scientists who investigated an Asian elephant, Koshik, verified that the beast can imitate human speech, pronouncing words in Korean, and those who know the language can readily understand Koshik. He accomplished this in a very unusual way — using his trunk stuck inside his mouth…Elephants cannot use their lips to make sounds like humans do, since their upper lips are fused with their noses to form their trunks. Instead, Koshik somehow controls the sounds coming from him by moving his trunk inside his throat.2

The judge in the case of the cussing cockatoo determined the bird’s owner was found guilty of violating the Warwick, Rhode Island’s, noise ordinance. He said that the focus of the case was not on what the bird said but on the noise it made.1

However, duly note that what the bird said was sufficiently recognizable as swearing.1

Can non-human creatures speak in human language?

Alex, an African Grey parrot, knew his colors and shapes. He spoke more than one-hundred English words, and had his own brand of one-liners he used to establish himself in TV shows, scientific reports, and news articles as perhaps the world’s most famous talking bird.

The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains,” said Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College who works with dolphins and elephants.4

Two records of animals speaking the human language of their culture are found in the Biblical Pentateuch:


1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3: NIV)


21 Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. 22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.

24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.

26 Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. 28 Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”

29 Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

“No,” he said.

31 Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.  (Numbers 22: NIV)


Two animals, a pygmy chimp and an orangutan, were able to hold conversations with humans.

The chimp, named Panbanisha, has a vocabulary of 3,000 words and can construct sentences ranging from, “Please can I have an iced coffee” to discussing videos she has watched with the scientists who look after her at Georgia State University’s language research center in Atlanta.

Twenty-year old Chantek, an orangutan at Atlanta zoo, has a 2,000-word.vocabulary. Among its first spoken words were “Please buy me a hamburger.”3

However, neither speak orally,as the human does or the cockatoo and elephant allegedly do. Panbanisha talks through a computer that produces a synthetic voice as she presses symbols on a keyboard, while Chantek’s vocabulary is in sign language. Chantek is expected to master the voice synthesizer.

All of which make me wonder when I will be able to have an intelligent conversation with some non-human creatures. And I ask: when they learn to speak as humans do, will we discover that they are more intelligent than we humans are?



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  1. My cat Einstein learned to speak the word “Ma”. from me. Every time I say it he will repeat it. Now if I can think of an action to associate with it he will be able to request whatever that might be. I tried to think of a word that would use the sounds cats make already, and Ma seemed to be a good fit. It took one day of repeating, and praise when he said it, for him to learn.

    Comment by Jane Driver — November 12, 2012 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

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