Word! The Language Column
Body, Language

Illustration: A speech bubble with different arms and hands showing different gestures
Menschliche Gesten sind nicht universell. Ihre Bedeutungen können je nach Sozialisation auseinandergehen | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Dialect, dance, sign language, gesture – other animals communicate in surprisingly diverse ways. Manon Hopf gives us the lowdown.

By Manon Hopf

Like the humpback whales in increasingly noise-polluted seas, birds sing louder in the cities too – and no one would dispute that they are singing: every species of bird has its own melodies, most of which are innate behaviours. For instance the song of a blackbird is made up of many smaller sequences or melodies. Each one always sounds identical in its own right, but the order is constantly varied by individual birds. Some species are able to learn new tunes to augment their repertoire – and depending on where those particular birds live or spent their formative years, their song sounds different: they are singing in dialect. These dialects last a lifetime and reveal where the birds come from – the same as with people. Sperm whales, dolphins and even bees have dialects. And as a matter of fact, monkeys in a friendship can develop the same vocal tics.

New vocalising

On the other hand, not a lot of people know that a male mouse can sing as well – and his songs become increasingly complex when he cannot see the mouse he desires, the reason for his singing, but can only smell her. Baby sac-winged bats practise their singing at a very young age, in a sort of babbling phase, like human babies. Many other animals prefer certain types of music over others – for example cats enjoy string and piano music. Cellist David Teie composes music for other animals and uses sounds that resemble suckling kittens or cats purring for his album Music for Cats. So it’s anything but caterwauling. Then there are other animals with particular vocal talents – ravens can imitate the voices of humans and other animals, using sounds such as dog barking in an appropriate context. And Koshik, a bull elephant in South Korea, can enunciate five words in Korean by placing his trunk against his tongue.

Some animals vocalise – then again others enjoy dancing. For example some rats love to hang out with their rat friends for a good old laugh together. They dance, favouring the same tempos as human beings. Whether their preference is for dancing or laughing is a matter of character, just like it is with people. But not all other animals that move around to music on internet videos can actually dance. In order to dance they need a sense of rhythm, the ability to synchronise themselves with the beat – and an idea of when the next beat is coming. Probably the best-known dance language of other animals is that of honey bees. This dance has little to do with the right notes or a sense of rhythm. The primary functions of bee dances are to exchange information about food sources or vote on a new nesting site. Yes, that’s right: other animals practise democratic voting procedures.

Sign language

So language is by no means just vocalisation and writing. German Sign Language (Deutsche Gebärdensprache; DGS) wasn’t recognised as a language in its own right until 2002. It involves hand signals, body language and posture, and is a visual-manual language. DGS also has different dialects and words. Around 200 different sign languages exist worldwide, with grammar differences and a variety of vocabularies. And there is sign language poetry – for example the literature initiative handverlesen, which is campaigning for a new understanding of literature that includes visual, signed texts. Modified sign language was also used in research as a means of communication with apes. Washoe the chimpanzee could sign hundreds of words, and combined them to form creative new expressions – for instance “water” and “bird” for “swan” and “cry hurt food” for “radishes”.


After all it’s not only people who communicate using facial expression and body language, other animals do this too. While facial expression works primarily over a short distance, body language can be used to communicate across greater distances. Dogs wag their tails, while cats flick theirs – and mean the opposite. Human gestures aren’t universal either. Their meanings can diversify depending on socialisation. Elephants flap their ears as an expression of arousal and joy. This creates a slapping sound against the skin. It catches the attention of other elephants, who then communicate. Furthermore elephants sense – or hear – infrasound and vibrations through their feet, allowing them to receive alarm signals from other herds over distances of up to 10 km. This infrasound, known as rumbling, is made using the vocal folds in the larynx, and can be as loud as a thunderstorm or a pneumatic drill. The size of the elephant as a resonant body plays a key role here. They amplify or receive the infrasound by pressing their trunks against the ground – but it’s their feet that give away the direction of the signal. For us humans this infrasound is such a low frequency that we can barely hear it, as a vibration at most. Elephants use infrasound to find a partner in mating season – what must that feel like: love poetry that goes through your feet?

your infrasound comes in
waves of lament over me: cover
my tongue with earth
& leaves when it cries out through the ground
at this moment turn to me
your dog-ear let it listen
let it burn

Chemical signals

Some hear through their feet, while others smell through their antennae – insects are the most biodiverse class of other animals. They communicate via visual and auditory as well as chemical signals. With the help of information chemicals – or pheromones – not only do they look for partners, they also convene gatherings, distract individuals, lay trails to mark out a route, and raise the alarm. These signals can communicate beyond species – intentionally, by serving as protection from predators, or unintentionally, by revealing their location to those very same. Information can also be exchanged between insects and plants. For instance plants that are attacked by insects alter their fragrance patterns in such a way as to attract other predatory insects, which in turn gobble up the plant-eaters – in other words they transmit a sort of cry for help. And who’s to say that we humans are the only ones to utilise “useful plants” – maybe certain plants also make use of us to spread their seed?

my body a nest
that we have shared
left no trace of
pheromoon: better not
follow me
[leading you by the nose]


Knowledge about the languages and communication channels of other animals, insects in particular, is often used against them, their own languages are used against them. As soon as researchers identify the communication signals used by pests, these signals are then used for control purposes. Who knows, maybe some insects started marking the end of their messages with a signal even millions of years ago – a little over-and-out? And how does this knowledge about other animals and our proximity to them change our behaviour – after all, the cognitive dissonance is great: the distinction between mouse and mouse model.

This has not always been so, and things aren’t the same everywhere either – humans deal with other animals differently in many indigenous cultures. With empathy, with understanding, with respect. With the ability to shatter and question their own perspectives. To take other animals seriously and value them, both as speakers and listeners – after all, it’s not just people looking at the world and at other animals: other animals and the world are looking back at them too. Francis of Assisi viewed other animals as autonomous beings and individuals, and addressed his sermons to the birds– but what are the birds preaching to us?

rrrrrgida rrrrra dada
da dagida da da
d drrrr daaaadiga
d drrrrda drrrtschicka


Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.