I personally define "language" as a system of body actions that are generally supplemented by sound, representing one or more "meaning" or "message" (logic datum) for an organism itself and/or other organisms, while logic datums (data) can be grasped emotionally and/or cognitively (as a "think").

I would say that besides communicating by general-body-language and maybe also by some yet to be discovered other forms of signal communication ("telepathy-like" communication forms), the following earthly organisms are generally vocal-communication-abled organisms;
Thus their language is consisted by at least general-body-language AND vocal talking:

  • Cats that vocally communicate by meow based words and yowling/howling and gargling
  • Dogs that vocally communicate by barking and yowling/howling and shouting in a threat-like manner
  • Dolphins (I feel as if this is a very complicated and controversial topic I know nothing about)
  • Non human humanoids such as apps and possibly also archaic humans
  • Birds (which unlike the above are not mammals) that can communicate by types of consonant-vowel combinations and/or singing and some can also talk similarly to a human

One could further speak about grooming and/or accessories (seeing sense), pheromones and/or perfuming (smell sense), tasty food gifts one finds moral to eat (taste sense) but these expand beyond sound and touch.

My question

With the possible exception of talking birds,
what is the essential difference between human languages to other earthly animalia organism languages,
(especially vocally)?

  • 2
    Um, since no other animals now alive on earth have languages, this question has no answer. The only difference is that between something that actually exists and something that doesn't exist.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 0:09
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    First, "the essential difference" implies one characteristic: dunno if that is what you mean, but you're likely to get a list rather than a single essential thing. Second, I think you're most likely to get ideological answers rather than "technical" answers. Plus, I assume you means "animal communicative systems".
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 0:09
  • Before asking such a question you've got to be absolutely sure as for what exactly you mean by "language". As far as I know there's no universally 100% acclaimed by everyone definition of language. Does your definition of language include music, mathematics, programming languages, traffic signs, tattoos, offensive gestures, DNA? Mine does, because as for me, language is a system of signs, so the difference between languages is just the complexity of that system. I'm sure many will disagree with me, but that's OK, there's no universally 100% acclaimed by everyone definition of language.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 0:43
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    Why is this labeled 'voice-biometrics'? And not 'philosophy of language'?
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 15:38
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    Syntax. Human sentences have a hierarchical structure missing from other animal communication systems.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 20:09

3 Answers 3


There is a classic list of "design features" of human language proposed by Charles Hockett. These are not essential properties of human language, rather, they are observations about human language. There are two properties of human language which are candidates for being essential: conceptuality, and propositionality. Basically, these are that:

  1. We can categorize identifiable aspects of the universe and attach labels to those identifications, e.g. "cat", "reindeer", "follow"
  2. We can form propositions ("The cat followed the reindeer", "A mouse bit a cat"...).

I suppose I would say that propositionality is even more essential, if you want just one property.

  • The last sentence is useless unless you explain "essential". If propositions are sooner essential than propositions, then because concepts are propositions quantified over sets, whereas zero'th order logic propositions don't quantify over sets. I only know ZOL from mathematical logic, basically classic binary logic, so statements like 'false and true equals false; false and true or true equals true' That's more exiting in logics that are not total and I'm not sure how it compares. I suppose sounds in utteance are "identifiable aspects of the universe" and we attach symbols to them even sooner.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 15:32
  • @vectory - "F and T or F" is ambiguous until you know the direction of recursion (re: your other comment on concatenation).
    – amI
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 18:57
  • @aml the notation is standard in maths, also given as T*F+T, in accordance with PEMDAS. I haven't studied parsers, so I'm not sure what you mean, but naively speaking, bracketing and direction doesn't make a difference, as T*(F+T)=T as well.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 19:42
  • @vectory - so sorry, I meant to use your example: F and T or T. There is nothing in that expression that tells whether it should be parsed as (F and T) or T [=T], or F and (T or T) [=F]. Whether the parser gives higher precedence to and, or solves left to right or right to left, depends on the specific language (in English it requires a pause/punctuation).
    – amI
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 5:21

The general consensus is, there isn't just a single "essential difference"—most linguists don't like using the word "language" to refer to non-human communication, because it's so fundamentally different.

But to try to distill it down: all human languages are productive and discrete. In other words, human language is always made up of distinct units, strung together in various ways to produce a theoretically infinite variety of different utterances. As far as I'm aware, there's no evidence of any animal communication system having both of these properties.

For even more specificity, all human languages (possibly with a single exception, which is highly controversial) have recursive syntax, a specific way of connecting those discrete units together, and this has never been convincingly shown to exist in non-human communication.

  • As for recursion, the most simple example might be a tautology. If you don't know what that is: A tautology is a tautology. The problem is--I remember you or someone else here had implied once--that recursion is indistinct from mere concatination, from a behavioral standpoint.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 15:46
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    @vectory Unfortunately, your belief or disbelief in something generally does not make it any more or less real.
    – Draconis
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 21:52
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    @vectory I think a better example of recursion in language is the song There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea
    – Barmar
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 22:08

Some animal "languages" are able to encode fairly complex information - for example, bees can communicate locations with their dances. However, all animal languages are restricted to a very limited domain - they can only communicate about a narrow set of topics in limited ways.

There may be many features that distinguish human language from animal communication, but I would say the most essential one is that human languages can deal with any domain - we can easily extend them to deal with new and unfamiliar concepts that we have not encountered previously. So human language is flexible and adaptable to any situation. There is no evidence of this in any animal communication.

  • 1
    Albert Einstein wrote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” You pick one of the neurologically most simple animals and generalize from that.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 15:12
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    @vectory I gave the example of bees because of how sophisticated the language is within a very limited domain. Animal languages can be very sophisticated, even for simple organisms - but never flexible in the way human languages are.
    – gaeguri
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 15:29

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