Some pet owners seem to be able to speak to their cats or dogs. Is there any evidence that animals understand human languages?

EDIT: By understand, i mean understanding of spoken language and relatively long sentence. We are not talking about understanding of some reserved, isolated words (like run command or attack command for dogs). It's more like understanding of discourse with all methaphors and grammatical constructions and perhaps all this Sprachspiel (Wittgenstein).

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    Yes, i know about primates (human-primate communication) and communication between animals (bee dances, whale songs, birds songs, meerkat signals). But i've especially interested about communication between human and domesticated animals (like cats and dogs). I think i should edit my original question..
    – bokryonok
    Sep 4, 2013 at 14:30
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    Understand, especially in the context of animal subjects, has a very broad range of meanings. You're up against the Turing test at one end of the range, and the Kluger Hans phenomenon at the other end. I tend to think that humans and pets can achieve either a convincing imitation of real understanding or the real thing -- in the appropriate circumstances, like anything else. But how could one tell the difference?
    – jlawler
    Sep 4, 2013 at 17:01
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    It's still ambiguous. How could a dog understand "language"? Could he understand a romance novel? A poem? A grammar paper? And how could one tell? Certainly dogs can memorize a large number of spoken words for different things; that's been proven. But this is not language; humans don't retrieve dolls on hearing the doll's name spoken. They can, but mostly they have other uses for spoken language, some of which involve human understanding. As Wittgenstein put it, if lions could talk, we couldn't understand them.
    – jlawler
    Sep 4, 2013 at 21:43
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    @bokryonok Even in Turing tests you need to be wary of the Chinese room phenomenon where a man in a room with a Chinese-English dictionary can, given a series of Chinese symbols and enough time, convince the people outside the room that he speaks fluent Chinese even if he doesn't.
    – acattle
    Sep 5, 2013 at 2:18
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    @bokrynok No, it's not - at least not in the way that i suspect you mean. There's an instance of a collie having been convincingly shown to have memorised around 1000 individual words (wofford.edu/psychology/chaser), but that's the most impressive case i know about. There's absolutely zero evidence of any understanding of grammar. I'd recommend reading 'Doctor Dolittle's Delusion' by Stephen Anderson : amazon.com/Doctor-Dolittles-Delusion-Uniqueness-Language/dp/…
    – P Elliott
    Sep 5, 2013 at 10:15

1 Answer 1


There is (to me) almost indisputable evidence that parrots in particular understand and can create sentences and coin words. Look at what Pepperburg did with Alex. And with word buttons, unless the whole thing is faked or the result of random button presses that are presented in videos selectively, it seems very compelling (to me) that the dog Bunny (a poodle mix trained since puppyhood to use them) can make sentences and understands abstract concepts like time. You can watch Bunny on Youtube. She is also not the only dog (or cat) that seems to be able to do this but she does seems to be the most able. The parrot research is decades old but the dog stuff dates from I think not coincidentally the Covid era when bored pet owners started to experiment on their own, sometimes in collaboration with scientists.

This is the Wikipedia article about Alex, the parrot trained and studied by Pepperberg: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_(parrot). Bunny the dog can be searched on Youtube.

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    the soundboard videos are all coming from advocates of the practice, an so, whether intentionally or not, likely only include the best uses of the buttons. Regardless, none of the videos show any indication of grammar, just some understanding of the meanings of individual buttons (similarly primate sign language experiments don't seem to have shown any ability to learn the grammar of sign languages, only the meaning of signs), which may be combined in novel albeit unstructured ways
    – Tristan
    Mar 21, 2022 at 15:15
  • @Tristan: How do you account for the apparent language usage of Alex? Not to mention literally thousands of anecdotes from other parrot owners? It is accepted that crows show cognitive abilities that are on par with human 7 year olds -- why is language so hard to believe?
    – releseabe
    Mar 21, 2022 at 15:51
  • I do not know those cases, and so did not address them. I only addressed the instances of sound boards as with Bunny, and with primate sign language experiments
    – Tristan
    Mar 21, 2022 at 16:30
  • @Tristan: anyone interested in animal use of language would enjoy reading about Pepperberg and Alex -- she is a PHD in chemistry who decided to switch to studying parrots and started doing this almost 40 years ago -- remarkable results.
    – releseabe
    Mar 21, 2022 at 16:52

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