Can animals talk to their owners with buttons?

The cat in the video clip below is Russell. Russell is one of the many animals on TikTok who use audio buttons to communicate with their owners. (Check out the list of TikTok creators with animal buttons at the end of this post!)

In the video, we see Russell press the button for ‘help’, and then lead his owner to a toy ball that has snapped off its string. Russell seems to understand the meaning of the world ‘help’!

But is this language?

Linguists often talk about the design features of language—the things that set human language apart from animal communication. An important one of these features is called displacement—the ability to talk about things that aren’t in our immediate surroundings or present experience.

Animal languages (Meijer, 2020)

The animals using buttons to communicate on TikTok show some signs of displacement. They have buttons for names of people, for other animals, or for their favorite toy, and they’ll use the buttons to refer to those things even when they’re not around.

Another design feature of language is called duality—the ability to combine smaller units of meaning into new words and phrases. We see potential evidence of this happening with animals too! In the video below, a dog named Parker hears an ambulance go by and presses buttons for ‘squeaker’ and then ‘car’.

Is Parker combining buttons to create the novel expression ‘squeaker car’? Or is he simply randomly pressing buttons that are related to what he’s experiencing at that moment?

Another feature sometimes thought to be unique to language is prevarication—the ability to make false or meaningless statements (in other words, the ability to lie or make things up). We know that animals can and often do deceive each other, but are they able to express false statements or made-up ideas with their audio buttons? Consider what happens in the following video between two dogs:

@fluentpet

Did Otter trick Bunny into going outside so he could steal her bone? @whataboutbunny #TalkingDog #fyp #SmartAnimals #foryou #DogSiblings #GeniusDog

♬ original sound – FluentPet – FluentPet

In this video, the dog named Otter presses the button for ‘outside’, prompting the owner to take both the dogs outside. The moment the second dog, Bunny, leaves his bone, however, Otter runs over and grabs the bone, and shows no interest in going outside. Was this a clever ploy to draw Bunny away from his bone? Or was the outcome an unplanned but fortuitous accident?

These behaviors have caught the attention of researchers interested in animal communication. In fact, one popular set of “Augmentative Interspecies Communication (AIC) Devices” (i.e., audio buttons) called Fluent Pet was developed by Ph.D. Leo Trottier during grad school precisely so that he and other researchers could investigate the communicative capabilities of pets. The research team is collecting video data from pet owners—including some of the very same videos posted on TikTok—for analysis in their research.

So what do you think? Are these animals communicating? And is this language?


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TikTok Creators Using Animal Buttons

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Published by Daniel W. Hieber, Ph.D.

I'm a research linguist working to document and revitalize endangered languages. I study the crosslinguistic patterns we see in the world's languages. I work primarily with the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana.

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