The Language of Animals

Cynthia - Portland, Oregon
Entered on July 25, 2006

I believe in being multilingual. Learning other languages opens the mind, giving us exposure to other ways of seeing the world.

It is especially helpful to me, because I am a veterinarian. I’ve learned to be fluent in dog, cat and pretty good in horse. I can get by in cow, sheep and avoid major misunderstandings in parrot.

It hasn’t hurt me with people, either. Although I often have stop and rethink when people bring up the old Will Rogers Quote. You know the one about vets being smarter than doctors because animals can’t tell you what is wrong? Clients often repeat it, I guess because they want to give me a compliment. Instead it always gives me pause. Owners always seem to bring it up after I’ve just spent the last few moments listening to what their pet had to tell me. I always feel like the owner is butting in, interrupting a pretty interesting conversation.

Oh, I know that language is something humans invented, and that only humans have the real McCoy. What animals have is something much more rudimentary. Call it “communication.” One difference is that animals don’t have words, so they don’t have semantics: symbols that stand for concepts. A bark is just an expression of mood or emotion, not a statement of fact.

On the other hand, I’ve been known to argue that they use syntax. Take a dog that bows down in front leaving her hind-end high with her tail wagging. If that dog growls, it isn’t nearly as scary as one that just growls. Just watch two dogs meeting for the first time and you will see a whole dictionary of body language writ large in ear, lip and tail positions.

Not to mention just the look in their eyes. I get more truth from that in an instant than I get from reading the whole of The New York Times op ed page.

Still, animals have a lot to tell us, and not just about their health. I think we can learn about how to experience nature using different senses and different values. And I think we can learn that there are other kinds of minds and other ways of living and enjoying our world.

And if we learn that, we have to take our so-called culture of life seriously, and more broadly — that is, it should include more than just one species. We aren’t the only living things on this planet, just the ones having the most impact.

I believe that if we all tried, at least, to learn another language we would be better world citizens. We could start with dog — it is the easiest to learn. And there is no shortage of teachers; dogs are ever so willing to help out. We would have to admit there are other beings out there, and that these other beings are as invested in life as much as we are. Then if we started to imagine other beings I believe we will have to open our hearts as well as our minds. We will have to think about saving the earth for everything, not just everyone.