“Scientists are experimenting with artificial intelligence in order to decode and interpret animal vocalizations such as barks, growls or howls into a language which humans can understand.”*
“So many people would dearly love to talk to their dog or cat or at least find out what they are trying to communicate. A lot of people talk to their dogs and share their innermost secrets. With cats I’m not sure what they’d have to say. A lot of times it might just be “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone”
Professor Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University speaking to The Guardian.
Rapunzel the Conversational Cat
My brother has proper conversations with his cat Rapunzel. Not unusual among those of us who have companion animals, you might think. When I say ‘conversations’ though, I mean proper two-way, back and forth discussions on matters of serious import, along the lines of “What do you think of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, Punzel?”
Punzel: “The woman doesn’t know what she’s doing. Please don’t talk to me about Brexit. I’m depressed enough as it is by the state of the world.” And so on.
Of course Rapunzel doesn’t actually say that. She’s a real cat, not one in a fairytale, in spite of her name. My brother helpfully speaks her lines for her. He thinks she’s a socialist, but maybe he’s got her all wrong. When she does meow for herself, what is she saying? It could well be, “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone.” She may even be a closet Tory. Without the key to unlock cat-speak, no-one will know.
Dr Dolittle & Zoolingua
For those of us who couldn’t live without animals somewhere in our lives, the tale of animal-loving Dr Dolittle is particularly captivating. The story goes that Dr Dolittle’s parrot Polynesia teaches him the language of the animals. The good doctor opens his home to an ever-growing menagerie of animals whose speech only he can understand, until – the final straw for his long-suffering sister who keeps house for him – the arrival of a crocodile. A creature too far. She gives her brother an ultimatum – me or the animals. I love it that he chooses the animals!
Don’t we all want to be Dr Dolittle? What if we really could understand every word our cats, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits utter? Well now maybe we will be able to do just that, thanks to something called Zoolingua, a project born from Professor Siobodchikoff’s work with other furry little creatures.
Meet the Prof & the ‘Villagers’
It’s true to say Con Siobodchikoff is the world expert on North American prairie dogs, having studied them closely for 30 years. Prairie dogs are not dogs at all of course. They are rodents, but every bit as fascinating as the canines in our homes. What Prof Con discovered over three decades is that the animals use “a sophisticated communication system that has all the aspects of language”.
These engaging little creatures live in ‘villages’ of underground burrows, and take it in turns to stand guard, watching out for predators. With hundreds of hours of recordings of prairie dog chatter, the Prof and his team discovered that whoever is on lookout uses particular calls for different predators, and the other ‘villagers’ respond according to the type of call.
Deciphering Prairie Dog-ese with AI
Using advanced artificial intelligence to analyse the recordings, they found that the little rodents have specific ‘words’ for ‘human’, ‘hawk’, and ‘coyote’, and their language is sophisticated enough to distinguish between coyotes and domestic dogs.
Professor Con noticed that there were interesting individual variations in calls about specific dangers. So although there was a distinct call for ‘coyote’, for instance, there were also varying elements around the call. He began to wonder if the calls might be doing more than specifying the threat as a coyote. Could they actually be describing the coyote?
The Prof had four human volunteers walk through the prairie dog village in identical clothing except for the colour of their shirts: one wore blue, the next yellow, then green, and finally grey. Analysis of the rodents’ calls revealed they were indeed describing each individual human, and not just in terms of shirt colour:
“Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’” says Slobodchikoff.
The prairie dogs’ linguistic ability turns out to be astonishing. When the team placed a picture of a large black oval near the village, the animals created an entirely new alarm call for it. The team took the picture away, and later brought it back. The little rodents all voiced exactly the same alarm call in response to it. It appears the components of the new call are describing the size, shape and colour of the oval in ‘words’ already part of their rich vocabulary. If that is not language, I’d like to know what is.
Prairie dog villages in different locations have their own dialects. The Professor says that the animals he has studied for so long in Gunnison AZ are unlikely to understand Mexican prairie dogs, and vice versa. But then, it’s pretty unlikely they will ever need to!
Prairie Dogs Love to Chat
Most fascinating of all, it seems they love a good gossip. “Prairie dogs also have what I call social chatters, where one prairie dog will produce a string of vocalizations, and another prairie dog across the colony will respond with a different string of vocalizations.
“If animals seemingly as simple as rodents have a language replete with nouns, adjectives, syntax and dialects, think what higher-order animals might be saying”
the Prof concludes.
Guilty of Arrogance?
It is such a giveaway of our skewed perspective on our own status relative to other creatures, that there exists a long history of measuring nonhuman animals’ intelligence by their ability to understand and use OUR languages. Well-known examples are Koko the gorilla, Alex the parrot, Tilda the orangutan, Noc the beluga whale, Koshik the elephant, and Chaser, the border collie who knows more than 1000 words.
But thankfully we are now beginning to grasp that, in the words of evolutionary biologist Seeder El-Showk:
“Like every other kind of life on Earth, we may be unique but we are not special”
– even when it comes to language. All nonhuman animals that live in social groups exhibit complex behaviours. And complex behaviours require complex communication. Thankfully we are starting to take, can I say, a more respectful approach, attempting to unlock the secrets of the nonhumans’ own languages, their conversations with each other. And, being fascinated, and humbled, by what we are finding out about their complexity and sophistication, thanks to the work of dedicated zoologists like Prof Siobodchikoff.
Not Quite There Yet
“We know a lot more than we knew a few decades ago, but we’re still a long way from two-way communication,” says Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory in Mississippi.
So best not get too excited just yet at the prospect of understanding your enigmatic feline as well as he/she gets you. Perhaps a read of Professor Slobodchikoff’s book, “Chasing Dr Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals” can give us a few pointers. As yet we don’t have access to the kind of sophisticated AI that is helping him unravel the secrets of the prairie dog. Wait till the Prof has succeeded in converting his system into a handy pocket-size translator of dog-, cat-, or guinea pig-ese. Won’t that be a wonderful thing – a bestseller for sure.
It has to be said though, his Zoolingua is still very much a work in progress. Even the Prof thinks it might take 10 years. But watch this space!