What is language? A simple tool we are the best at, for now…

We are a lot of animals on planet Earth to be equipped with one body, one mind, two eyes, two ears, one larynx and one tongue. Some animals display two sets of eyes; some have long tails, sharp teeth, strong carapaces. Some others are capable of seeing in the dark quite well or of uttering sounds on the ultra-wave length. Some display impressing one hundred and eighty degree semi-circles of feathers. Some can run very fast, others are very slow. Humans, among other unique capacities of theirs (hum, yes, by the way, we ARE animals), have what is called language.

Not language as in “Hey ! Careful ! Predator coming ! Run !”, but language as in “Hum, I would bet at least two of my last soccer trading cards that this piece of art here was painted in a lighter blue color than the one we saw at the museum last year. You remember, that painting with the long spear going through that stupid basket full of oranges ?” This kind of language.

Signs can be used instead of speech. One doesn’t need to get sounds out to be using a real, tangible, misunderstanding-proof language. Sign languages have grammar rules, accents (yes, accents) and all that’s required. So, what is language exactly ? Are non-humans who don’t have our vocal cord abilities capable of communicating as well as we are ?

The language of real animals

If one day you ever meet my dog Popeye – who is very cute, nice and intelligent – and if you showed him a carrot, you would for sure see that he remembers what it is and how good it is. (By the way, carrots as treats are very good for cleaning dogs’ teeth in place of long and cumbersome toothbrushes.) You could then go further into communicating with him. You could tell him the word ‘carrot’ without even showing him the carrot anymore and you would see the same enthusiasm in his response to you.

If however you wanted to mention the word ‘carrot’ so that Popeye would only remember what you’re talking about and nothing more, you would then have a hard time explaining to him that you’re not in fact going to give him the sweet carrot, that you only mentionned it like that, for the sake of it. Big misunderstanding time in that case, I can tell you in advance. Many animals do have memory of words and dogs more particularly “understand all we tell them” indeed, but only as long as we act upon our words immediately thereafter.

Other animals that are very interesting to study for their languages include non-exhaustively dolphins, ants, ravens, chimpanzees and bees.

And for computers, what is language ?

As regards computers, even though you would get less emotional feedback from them, you may be impressed by their communication capabilities. You type a phrase, the computer answers; you type another one, it answers again, and quite pertinently so moreover most of the time. Scientists, especially scientists specialized in artifical intelligence, have already been working for years on trying to give computers the total gamut of our magical interactivity powers and my bet is that our computer friends will most probably very soon bridge the gap between their logical bits and our linguistic ambiguities.

For the moment, animals and computers don’t master real languages. We, humans, are in fact animals but, whether we also like to admit it or not, we are superior ones. The text you’ve just read, understood and hopefully enjoyed reading is a written hard proof of it. We are so intelligent in fact that we may well be in the process of developing electronic entities that will think faster, more creatively than we do and “that” may eventually tell us in a very understandable manner that they now are the superior ones.

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