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See Inside October/November 2006

Can We Talk?

Dogs understand "fetch" and "leash," whereas apes can combine hand-signed words into short sentences. So what special skill did humans bring to the language game?

Poetry, perfumed love notes, intimate e-mails and latenight phone messages have been the choice forms of communication for humans in love. Stags, on the other hand, have to rely on a simple, full-throated roar to convey their desire. True, the stag's primitive bellow is effective--smitten females approach while rival males look for cover. Likewise the cries of dogs, cats and birds all serve these animals well as simple forms of communication.

Even so, it does not take a degree in linguistics to realize that a massive gulf in complexity exists between a male deers amorous cry and "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Not surprisingly, then, humans have long felt a sense of superiority as the planets only masters of language arts. But for scholars of language evolution, this apparent singularity was a source of confusion. If other animals can roar, bark or squawk but cannot talk--or do anything remotely similar--then the many characteristics required for language appear to have evolved in humans from almost nothing.

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