To us modern folks it seems perfectly natural that we, the highly evolved primates that we are, would eventually develop a sophisticated means of communication (beyond throwing feces). Linguists, scholars, and language experts will tell you that humans have a monopoly on language, and that no other creature uses it. That is not to say that other animals do not communicate. On the contrary, practically every organism on earth communicates in some form, even plants. But do crickets have a language in their dulcet chirping sounds? Are howler monkeys speaking to one another, or are they just signalling danger or mating calls? How would we ever know?
In 1971, Penny Patterson began working with a gorilla named Koko, and communication was established when Koko learned sign language. Over the years, Koko has learned over 1000 signs and appears to have about 2,000 words in her vocabulary, according to the Gorilla Foundation website. Koko can apparently tell someone when she is tired or hungry, but also that her favorite color is red, and how she felt when she lost All Ball, her first kitten. We humans have, in our arrogance, assumed that only we have true emotions or the means to express them. But it appeared that Koko was entirely capable of expressing her grief. Decades later, the project still manages to amaze the world.
During an episode of “A Way With Words” that aired in October 2016, a listener called to ask whether his parrot really understood language, or was it simply imitating it. Host Grant Barrett, after listening to the caller’s story, maintained his view that animals, at least parrots, do not use language even though they may be capable of communicating. So what is a word, as the caller put it? What is the difference between a sound and a word? Huh? Meh. Ack! These are all sounds you can make, but do they mean anything? Of course they do, within some context. For instance, “huh” in the States usually means, “can you repeat that?” “Meh” is more modern, and I believe it is used to convey ambivalence. “Ack!” is from Bloom County, and I think it means “ack!” You’d have to ask Bill the Cat.
Perhaps we are unique. It is possible that even though Koko can communicate with her human handlers, she may not truly understand the meaning of the words she uses. For now, we cannot know either way. The only means of understanding what is going on in her brain is through her language. But that’s true for any human as well. We struggle with our words. They’re on the tip of our tongue. The mind usually works a lot faster than the connection to the muscles in the face and tongue that allow us to form words. Speech and writing can only transmit a finite amount of information, even with the massive collection of text we have at our disposal. Most of what has been written by humanity has been abridged by the limitations of our ability to focus our thoughts and transmit that information to the page or elsewhere.
This brings me to music. Music has been referred to as a language. Indeed it has its own “alphabet”, musical notation. Like any language, many aspects of it have evolved over the centuries, seeing changes in style, notation, and the use of polyphony – more than one voice or instrument at a time. In the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writer Steven Spielberg explored the notion that extraterrestrial life might be able to communicate with other intelligent life by using tones in sequence and patterns. Music. The ships arrived at various times around the globe and delivered a “message” in the form of a unique and now familiar melody. In the film’s climax, there ensued a lively exchange of musical notes in seemingly random patterns. (Randomness is in the ear of the beholder.)
Spielberg’s concept of how two very different species might communicate was probably the first of its kind. Others would follow. If we are ever visited by aliens, I like to think we’d have a chance at not being completely annihilated. How will we understand them when we have so much trouble understanding one another? Hopefully whoever has the ability to travel from the stars to get here has also listened to our broadcasts over the decades. If they have, they will have heard everything, or almost all of our vast catalog of recordings, everything from elation to heartache. I’m guessing the music might have spoken to them far beyond the words’ ability to do so.
But Koko doesn’t sing. She signs. Sign language might bridge the gap, assuming the extraterrestrials have hands or appendages of some sort. For all we know, jellyfish are from space, and they have been trying to tell us something important all along. From where we stand, come to think of it, how could we ever hope to understand? We need to reach out, pushing against the boundary of what we think we know about the universe, blundering into the unknown in hopes of the happy accident of a breakthrough. How long did we wait before we made contact with our nearest neighbors? Is it as simple as Spielberg made it look? Is it just a matter of making the right sounds in the correct order, hoping to make some sense? Isn’t that exactly what language is?