This question came into my mind while thinking about the question by JohnDoea: What is the essential difference between human languages to other earthly Animalia languages? I hypothized this could be one big difference, but I am not sure about scientific evidence on it.

There is in fact a form of semantics, as shown for suricates: https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2001.1773 But do (at least some) other species besides humans have a syntax?

Are there any scientific observations of animals using grammar in their communictaion? That means for example

  • violation of the sound order would change the information or make it uncomprehensible.
  • sounds for the same concept to be expressed differ in time, numerus, casus or even genus.
  • Perhaps take a look here.
    – Lance
    Jan 15, 2020 at 13:05

1 Answer 1


In a number of cases, animal sound outputs can be analyzed into "components" that can appear to have structure, e.g. a "song" is multiple "phrases" each of which has some repeated elements e.g. "a b c" "a b c" "a b c"...; then the pattern may change to "a c d a b", then something else (pattern lasting about a minute. Some bird does this at 4:00 a.m. in the summer. Humpback whale output seems to have a similar property, though not a rapidly changing. As you can see from the humpback page, it is suggested that this "suggests a syntactic structure".

As for your specific first question: the problem is attributing "meaning" to these sound sequences. There are various sounds that animals make which can be correlated with an external stimulus as in the article that you linked, but these are atomic sounds – phonemes, as it were. The repeated-pattern sounds such as bird and whale song do not have a discernible meaning other that "Me! Me! Me!". This is completely different from the character of human language than "The child gave a rock to the cat" means something different from "The child gave the cat to a rock" or "The rock gave a child to the cat", which involves syntax (not just physically different signals, but functionally different signals).

  • Even atomic sounds can get an attributed meaning and hence be "words". Think of all the monosyllabic or onomatopoetic words in human languages. When (to stay with the suricates) a sound meaning Nothing but "Me! Me! Me!" ist often enough used when a hawk is attacking - and not a hyena - and in reaction on that sounds the Groups flees, it seems an inefficient and irrational postulation to say this sound would not bear the information "Danger, Hawk". In other words, it has an attributed meaning. But my question was: Is there maybe one out of thousands of cases in which a grammar was observed? Dec 19, 2019 at 21:29

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