In BBC Focus, Feb 2017, p, 14, and 16
Language. But as I will attempt to demonstrate here, it is only considered in relation to human language and derives its meaning and worthiness through the link to humans. So how is animal communication represented in the articles?
‘Just call it bat chat’.
This is the first clause in a BBC Focus article titled: ‘Bats’ chirping demystified’. The article posits that bats communicate about food, perching spots or mating. This, it could be argued, is reducing bats’ rich lives to very little. Further, their ‘bickering’ is evaluated as “‘gibberish’, a cacophony of aggressive bat noise”. Evaluating other languages is not restricted to animals’. Attitudes to other languages and the way they sound is informed not so much by an objective, empirical reasoning but grounded in ideologies. For example, when speakers say that French is the language of love or that Italian/Spanish sounds beautiful or German sounds aggressive, there is nothing inherent in the phonology of the language to render these meanings. Similarly, when animal language is reported as ‘aggressive’ it is through ideology that this view is formed.
Nonhuman animal language is not considered as language per se in the articles, and is referred to not in the domain of language but in the domain of a noise-like system. Only human language is spoken about in the domain of language and linguistics: “The grunts, barks and wahoos of baboons contain vowel-like sounds similar to human speech“. In this example we can see that baboons are not considered to speak only grunt and bark, and bats only chirp, while speech is reserved for humans. Baboons do not produce vowel sounds, but rather vowel-like sounds.
“After analysing 1,335 spontaneous vocalisations produced by 15 male and female Guinea baboons… researchers found that baboons produce five sounds used in human speech“. Here again baboon language is reduced to mere ‘vocalisations’ and ‘sounds’ and these are not a language in itself, but only a fragment of the rich human speech. (sarcastic tone)
Reinforces ‘us’ and ‘them’ stance
‘Baboons use vowel-like sounds, just like we do’.
While the articles equate baboon language sounds with humans, highlighting similarity to human speech rather than differences, the overall stance suggests animal sounds to be the origin of (human) language, accentuating the “evolutionary discrepancy” between humans and animals.
Promotes the human-supremacist worldview
Animal language, specifically that of baboons, is reported on using rudimentary lexis: “The grunts, barks and wahoos of baboons…”. This supremacy can be seen in human languages as well where certain languages were thought of as inferior to others. Many tribal languages have been described as ‘simplistic’, and certain language varieties have been looked down on as ‘wrong’ and less prestigious versions, for example, AAVE (African American Variety English) and MLE (Multicultural London English).
Researching animal language is of secondary interest when it is examined in relation to human activity. And the worthiness of their language abilities seems to increase with their zoological classification.
Arguably, this narrative of hierarchy and human hegemony contributes to the ever-growing divide between human animals and nonhuman animals and entrenches animal inequality further. Claims such as ‘Bats’ chirping demystified’ position humans as powerful and does not promote understanding of other sentient beings. Animals are still talked about in unequal terms: bats do not speak, but chirp, their language is not understood but demystified. On the animal ‘world’ there is no veil that needs uncovering, but humility and respect from humanity.
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