Ask Glenn

Can animals talk, and what do they say?

Plenty of them can – although not exactly the way we do. We still can’t understand most of them, or what they’re saying, but a lot of it seems to be about food, fighting and lurrrrrve.

Can’t some of them talk we do, like parrots? I even saw a cat say ‘hello’ once on the Internet...

Animals don’t have the same equipment as we do for talking. Many have tongues, of course – but tongues are just for shaping the sounds of words that start as vibrations in our throats. Most animals lack complex vocal cords like we have in our throats, so they can’t make smooth vowel sounds. Parrots and a few other animals can make noises that sound like words, but they’re really just mimicking us, and they don’t really understand what they’re saying.

Cats chatting

How do they talk, then?

Lots of animals can ‘talk’ by making noises that they can understand, even if we can’t. Birds do this when they chirp and sing, cats when they meow and purr, and dolphins when they click and whistle. Many of these noises translate to simple phrases like ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I’m angry’, ‘feed me’ and ‘leave me alone’. But some may be quite complex: dolphins chatter to each other constantly as they play, and seem to give each other instructions when they hunt fish together in groups.

Other animals use signals and sign language to talk to each other. Bees do a complicated dance to tell other bees in which direction to go to find food. To us, it just looks like a figure of eight with a bum-waggle in the middle. But, if the bee ‘draws’ the eight upright, it means ‘head towards the Sun’; if it draws it at an angle, that tells the other bees what angle from the Sun they should head away from the hive at. (So, for example, an eight on its side would mean ‘head off at 90° to the sun’). A gorilla leading a troop through the forest will do a similar thing – by thumping two trees, one after the other. The line between the two trees tells the other gorillas which way they’re headed for the day, and they all understand at once.

Not bad. But that’s not real sign language is it? It’s still just giving directions. What about words and sentences?

Scientists have managed to teach a few chimpanzees some basic, human-style, sign language. But they can only do a few words, and don’t seem good at putting sentences together. It may be that only humans have evolved the bits of brain that deal with making and understanding whole sentences.

Or it could be that animal sentences just look different.

How d’you mean?

Well dolphins and whales have pretty complex brains, too, and we still don’t understand what all their clicks and whistles mean, so they could be talking in full sentences for all we know. Some types of octopus and squid might even be able to do it. Some cuttlefish can hold ‘conversations’ with up to four friends at once, by using different sides of their bodies to make patterns of light and colour 21 – patterns that change so fast we can hardly see them. Could be a lot going on there.

Will we ever be able to understand them?

Maybe, one day. It’s possible that, in the future, we’ll have computers so powerful that they’ll be able to decode the dolphin clicks – even translate Cuttlefish into English.

Crazy. I wonder what they’ll say?

Maybe something like: ‘Do you mind? I wasn’t talking to you...’