Animal linguistics: A primer

Mélissa Berthet, Camille Coye, Guillaume Dezecache, and Jeremy Kuhn.

[Full paper at PsyArXiv]


The evolution of language is investigated by various research communities (including biologists and linguists) which engage in comparative works to highlight similar linguistic capacities across species. So far though, no consensus exists on linguistic capacities of nonhuman species. Rather, vivid debates have emerged, mostly fuelled by misuses of linguistic terminology, irrelevance of analysis methods and inappropriate behavioural data collection. The field of ‘animal linguistics’ has recently emerged to overcome these difficulties, notably by increasing exchanges and collaborations across disciplines, in an attempt to reach unique methods and terminology.

This primer on ‘animal linguistics’ is a tutorial review on the study of animal communication using both linguistic and biological methods, aimed at both the linguistic and biology communities. Specifically, it aims at accompanying researchers from either of these fields to collect data, run analyses and draw conclusions step by step, and in a way that could satisfy the other research community. To this end, it first exposes the linguistic theoretical concepts of semantics, pragmatics and syntax, and proposes the minimal criteria that are to be fulfilled to claim that a given species displays one – or several – linguistic capacities. Second, it reviews relevant methods successfully applied to the study of animal data. Third, it proposes guidelines to detect and overcome major pitfalls commonly observed in the collection of animal behaviour data. As observed in the past history of science, research traditions can be fragile if not sustained by collaborative communities. We believe this article to represent a milestone towards mutual understanding and fruitful collaborations between linguists and biologists.