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Ask the Researchers

Ask the Researchers

If whales can communicate with one another, do they have a language? Does the presence of a language imply thought? (Gerda Maisa Jensen, via Facebook)

WIKICOMMONSThe manner by which whales communicate acoustically seems sophisticated, complex and versatile.   Communication – defined as any behavior that affects the behavior of another individual – is, however, a broader concept,  far more widespread throughout the natural world than language. Symbolic language, likely restricted to humans, is but an extreme example of this principle. Whether sounding an alarm or signaling for food and sexual receptivity, alerting to detract predators or to lead the herd as it migrates, all animals communicate in one way or the other – be it chemically, acoustically or visually. Certain types of animal communication, such as the alarm call of the vervet monkey (in response, specifically, to the presence of leopards, hawks, or snakes) could suggest instances of “referential communication.”  Though the monkeys in these cases produce appropriate escape responses, we can explain their process of communication without assuming that each call is a response to the presence of any particular predator, or interpreted by the monkeys hearing it as “representative” of that predator. Any discussion about the relationship between thought and language is more complex because it revolves around a stricter definition of the meaning of “thought.” If the thought in question is “symbolic thought,” a relationship to language would exist. But in this case we must also define “language.” Indeed, whenever there is an element of what we refer to as “symbolic” in the realm of communication, the tendency is to employ the term more loosely

Specialist consulted:
Eduardo Ottoni, Institute of Psychology of the University of São Paulo (USP)