When you hear a cat meow, a bird chirp, or even a goat bleat you’re hearing a sound that is practically indistinguishable from the others. But scientists have discovered that various animal noises have their own proper “language” and even regional dialects. While the language may not function or sound anything like that of humans, it has been confirmed that creatures can recognize out-of-towners by the way they speak.
Birds are very sensitive to the minute details of the notes they sound when meeting other birds. Experiments where domestic birds were kept in isolation resulted in them forming their own dialect unique to that group. An experiment keeping domestic finches separate from wild finches examined the finer points of this language and how it might spread. One of the birds in captivity was exposed briefly to a recording of wild finches singing in their native habitat. The bird responded with interest, and soon began mimicking the recording. When it returned to its cage with the others, it expressed its new found dialect in front of the others and soon all of them were singing according to the “rules of grammar” the first had heard from the recording.
In 1987 the New York Times outlined an article exploring the reasons behind why different birds may sing different languages. The study suggested that birds who were known to migrate would often mate with others that had the same or similar songs. The evolutionary reasoning for this was believed to be a desire to keep the birds from the same regions together while migrating.
And according to a new study by scientists at Queen Mary University of London, the other goats in a single group help decide the way the goats sound when they bleat. This social order shapes the way communication occurs almost as much as their genetics. And with the revelation, scientists have begun looking into the accents of goats, and their relation to one another. Just as regional dialects can tell linguists something about their country’s history, the migrating patterns of goats and other animals could have been strongly affected over time revealing much about where various herds can trace their lineage.
So if the composition to human dialect is similar, what about the language itself? Linguists and experts of various species have determined that while animals do communicate, the correct term for the behavior isn’t likely language. While humans have sounds that string together with their own meanings (or as we call them words), animals have a far more contextual language based on external stimuli. This would make it impossible for animals to refer to abstract concepts or even events and creatures not present at the moment.
The limitation in language is interesting, however, as it suggests that the birds and other creatures who adopt new dialects may be revealing more than just a learned mimicking of their fellow feathered friends. They may be saying more than we realize in a wide variety of dialects.