Dr. Egnor explains, “
In his discussion of why only humans have language, science writer Tom Siegfried gets a lot right, but he misses the crucial reason. … Siegfried is right that many non-human animals have the physiological apparatus needed to form words. Yet they have no language. They can make and respond to signs—gestures, grunts and the like. A dog, for example, can respond appropriately to simple words directed at him (“Sit!” “Fetch!”). But all animal communication is symbols, that is, signals that point directly to an object. In this case, the object is a simple expected action the animal is to perform immediately.
What animals cannot do is communicate using abstractions. They cannot use designators,—words employed abstractly as language. For example, a dog can be trained, by reward and punishment, to stay when told, “Stay!” He associates the sound “s-t-a-y” with a behavior and performs the behavior. But he doesn’t know what you mean when you say “Let’s stay a bit longer on the beach,” “He extended his stay in Peru,” or “The judge issued a stay of the eviction order.” Animals can only think concretely. More.
Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon, professor of Neurological Surgery and Pediatrics and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, Neurological Surgery, Stonybrook School of Medicine
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See also: Why speech is unique to humans