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'Nova' Asks 'What Are Animals Saying?'
April 25, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

PBS’s Nova starts an ambitious new series Wednesday by asking one of the eternal questions: What exactly are animals saying to us? Or to each other?

Nova Wonders: What Are Animals Saying? airs at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings), kicking off a six-week series that will ask other Big Questions like whether we’re alone in the universe and how far can we develop artificial intelligence.

At the risk of a deflating spoiler, Wednesday’s episode does not end with a decoder that tells us what our dog is really saying when it all sounds like “Woof.”

Hosts Talitha Williams, Andre Fenton, and Rana el Kaliouby instead explain the progress we’ve made in figuring that out, and how it could point the way toward someday developing verbal inter-species conversation.

Perhaps because the hosts are all accomplished scientists, and they’re talking to other accomplished scientists, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the explanations here take academic turns.

Williams, for instance, explains at several points the distinction between “language” and other types of sounds.

Even among humans, she notes, most of the sounds we make are not “language” in the sense of delivering specific words in a standard structure. They’re laughing or crying or exclamations or general noises of some sort.

They’re all communication. They just aren’t language, which is a significant distinction because perhaps the sounds made by other animals are the same thing – communication, just not “language” in the same sense as human words.

In fact, the more we study the sounds made by other verbal animals, the clearer it becomes that they convey feelings or ideas.

Observations of apes in their native habitat lead to the same conclusions as controlled studies that measure the mating songs of bird and mice: The sounds and gestures have a definite, understood purpose and meaning.  

Since humans have always considered ourselves the only species that has a distinct language, these animal studies gently suggest that may not be strictly true. The languages of other species may simply take different forms.

Dolphins may speak in differently pitched tones we broadly summarize as songs. Dogs, many of whom we recognize have the ability to understand human words, may “speak” with some combination of sounds and movements.

Human speech, while it is subdivided into thousands of languages, all falls into remarkably similar general patterns. The existence of these patterns, our hosts here tell us, may offer a window into the language of other species – because if their communication also can be broken down into patterns, then perhaps we can find parallels that will help us decode what they’re saying.

If the explanations here get a little wonky, that’s okay. A breakthrough is just as likely to come from crunching analytic data as it from one of us randomly realizing one day that “Woof” really means “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

It also remains possible, of course, that there could be some truth to the old joke that dogs are man’s best friends precisely because we do not know what they are saying about us. In any case, as this Nova reminds us, we won’t stop trying to figure it out.

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The researchers in the video who discussed Zipf's Law seem to be unaware that even random texts exhibit Zipf's Law. See W. Li, ""Random texts exhibit Zipf's-law-like word frequency distribution," IEEE Transactions on Information Theory ( Volume: 38, Issue: 6, Nov 1992 ). Thus no meaningful deductions can be made from the observation that whale's speech also satisfies Zipf's Law.
Apr 26, 2018   |  Reply
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