The Language of Animals
What if I told you that you can speak to animals? Even better, what if they can speak to you as well? You might think I’m talking about a fantasy where animals somehow adopt the ability to speak English. However, this is real. I promise.
Anyone who has learned or tried to learn another language knows that words rarely translate directly. Instead, words contain different associations, emotions, and cultural values, even if they’re cognates. As a result, language-learners have to set aside the tendency to translate literally, and instead begin to associate those words with those different feelings and contexts. This subconscious process occurs through the extraction of sentiment and meaning from styles of communication and learning how to adapt to new mindsets. Why does this matter to animal speak? It’s because learning the language of animals is an extreme form of this translation process.
Most humans have the same senses, but the way we use or favour them differs depending on one’s culture or environment. Many English speakers take color for granted – isn’t ROYGBIV scientifically proven? In reality, the spectrum where English speakers derive ROYGBIV is a continuum, and we only differentiate between colors because we’ve been conditioned to see them as separate. In Welsh, the word glas accounts for what English speakers see as blue and blueish-green. Verdant hues of green, seen more in nature, are covered by the word, gwyrdd. Even though humans all depend mostly on eyesight, our experiences of the senses vary much more than we think.
When speaking to animals, the most important first step is to recognize which senses they rely on because their perceptions create their worldview, much like humans (we are, after all, animals too). Similar to humans, birds have impeccable eyesight, which helps them navigate around the world. They also depend on hearing, especially in communicating, and can hear higher frequencies compared to humans. On the other hand, wolves depend primarily on smell, a sense in humans that is notoriously poor. Since wind direction carries scents, wolves prefer approaching an animal upwind so as to surprise their prey when hunting. Understanding this, humans can also use wind direction to their advantage, even if they can’t smell well themselves. In short, speaking to animals requires communicating on their terms.
Not convinced yet? Let me give you an example. In certain Southern African countries, including Botswana and South Africa, there is a tiny bird called the honeyguide. People there know that when it makes a certain call, it wants the humans to follow it. Those humans who understand what it is saying, or rather speak its language, know to follow it. If the humans commit, the honeyguide will bring them to fresh honeycombs, usually lodged in the side of a tree, inaccessible to the honeyguide. The humans are expected to extract the honey and leave some for the honeyguide. People who follow honeyguides know that if they don’t leave any honey for the bird, it may lead them to a predator out of spite next time. It sounds unbelievable, but the phenomenon has been well documented, and similar instances occur worldwide.
While examples like the honeyguide are rare these days, especially because of industrialization and the widespread assumption that humans and nature are separate, you can still speak to animals wherever you are. Birds are possibly the easiest and most important animals to learn to communicate with, despite their reputation for being a bit boring. Like the Honeyguide, all birds have different vocalisms, and humans can learn to interpret their meanings.
Bird species tend to have alarm calls, songs, contact calls, flight calls, begging calls, and other distinct sounds such as the buzz of a hummingbird. Alarm calls can be useful in identifying the locations of predators, even if you can’t see them yourself. In Southern Africa, the alarm of a go-away-bird is no doubt a sign of a lion nearby. They don’t alarm for other predators. Birds’ body language also reveals invisible phenomena. If you see vultures piled onto a tree looking down at something, you can infer both that there is a kill below and also that the predator is still there, otherwise the vultures would swarm the kill. Because birds can see further afield than humans, they will tell you information you could never gather alone. Birds can be our eyes.
Speaking to mammals varies immensely from species to species; however, understanding scent and body language is critical. Of course, many mammals are humans’ natural predators, so it’s hard to establish relationships as amicable as we have with birds with some. However, if we learn their languages, we can learn to coexist.
Elephants are matriarchal and family oriented. In isolation, they are beautiful, peaceful creatures who speak with grumbles, often at a frequency lower than humans can hear. They also, unsurprisingly, have a keen sense of smell. In my own experience on foot, encountering an elephant can be equally beautiful and scary. Because they have poor eyesight, the last thing you want to do is sneak up on them downwind since your movement paired with surprise makes them think you’re stalking them. Flapping ears and charging demonstrate an obvious threat for them and us. However, this situation can be avoided if we know to keep our distance, be silent, and stay downwind. We shouldn’t disturb elephants if we can avoid it.
I learned as a child to never ever be seen by a lion even at a distance. They will seek you out. But whatever you do, don’t run because food runs. I could get that tattooed on my forehead. Predators see running as a sign that you are prey. If faced with a lion at close range, the best thing to do is hold your ground, especially in the case of a charge. It’s easier said than done, but it’s the difference between life and death. Unlike lions, cheetahs are very timid in the presence of humans, and I would feel completely comfortable encountering one on foot. Hyaenas depend on the location. I’ve met some on foot that just sauntered away – they’re afraid of height – but I’ve also heard of campers getting their ears torn off by one whilst sitting around the fire. Pro tip: animals have learned behaviors too, so if you think you know one pack, another pack in a different location may act completely differently. Don’t make that mistake.
The trick to learning mammals’ languages is learning each one individually. Lions and cheetahs are both big cats, but they act completely differently. Knowing how they communicate is essential for your safety. Birds are our informants, but mammals are more similar to us, so knowing mammals’ languages can teach us about our own languages and perceptions. Body language is important to humans, and we interpret it on a daily basis. Sight is our primary sense, but what if we strengthened others within our physical abilities? And again, we can always rely on other animals’ senses to compensate for our shortcomings and limitations.
I have much to learn about the languages of insects, amphibians, and reptiles. My own knowledge of ecosystems tends to fall short regarding these creatures, despite my respect for them. I do know that bees can see ultraviolet light which helps guide them to flowers. While humans can’t even agree on how to slice the color spectrum visible to us, bees see an even wider spectrum of color than us. Insects are complex; their languages stray farther and farther from our perception of the world. The more you learn about smaller creatures, the more you understand how numerous and important they are to both humans and the planet as a whole.
So far I have almost exclusively used examples in Southern Africa, and it may not seem as relevant to people elsewhere, but now it is important for me to acknowledge my own shortcomings. I was born and raised in Utah, and I am no stranger to the West’s mountainous forests bursting with aspen and firs, and its sage-ridden deserts full of resilient life. I have tracked moose in alpine riparian ecosystems, and I’ve even spotted a ring-tailed cat in the desert. So why do I focus on Southern African ecosystems? It’s because I was taught these examples as a child. I spent most of my summers tracking wildlife in Southern Africa with guides who specialize in just that, tracking. However, back home I never knew anyone with similar in-depth knowledge about the languages of animals. It’s not impossible to teach oneself these things, but it makes the process much slower and tedious. It depends on trial and error.
I have begun to focus on my local animals to try to learn their languages. There is plenty of information on the habits and body language of our big mammals, but information on the symbiosis between them is harder to find. I have only slowly begun to learn our birds and their calls, but it is up to me to determine which birds alarm for certain animals, and that is no easy feat. There’s an element to human language, however, that may fill in the gaps in learning to speak to animals closer to home.
Folklore. People nowadays sometimes see folklore as merely entertaining, but I would argue that it’s far more useful than that. Tristan Gooley, a natural navigator and author describes how before humans had written languages, they had to transmit information orally. In order for information to be widespread, it had to be interesting and memorable. Folklore was one way to make real information interesting. Coyotes are often described as tricksters in various Indigenous American stories. Some may interpret these narratives as anthropomorphism, but in reality, anyone who has spent time with a coyote will notice they really do have these characteristics. Ravens get a similar reputation in folklore, and any psychologist would confirm that they are super intelligent and prone to manipulation. Stories can serve as guides as we start learning to speak to animals.
Learning the languages of animals can add depth to any nature-lovers experience of the outdoors. While most of us don’t depend on speaking to animals in our daily lives, learning their languages can dramatically alter our perspectives. There are so many limitations to our own sensory perception, but understanding our place in nature can help us bridge some of those gaps. Many people who learn another language, including myself with Spanish, describe feeling slightly different when they’re thinking in that language. I feel more charismatic and lively in Spanish, which I attribute to slight differences in how the world can be described. Likewise, learning the languages of nature can alter us in an even deeper way. The first time you communicate consciously with an animal, you will have a much more profound respect for their point of view. The famous quote by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird sums it up nicely: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb around in his skin and walk around in it.” Learning the languages of nature helps us to critique our own worldviews and the assumptions we take for granted. It invites us to consider very different perceptions of the world and empathize with the animals who share our home.
Sara Swenson was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she learned to be an avid skier, snowshoer, and hiker. An avid naturalist, Sara enjoys wildlife tracking and wildlife photography. She is currently an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, studying International Relations and Spanish. She has also spent time living and working in Medellín, Colombia.