Is the internet changing the way we speak?

Is the internet changing the way we speak? The answer is surprisingly complicated! Check out the great interview I did with Dillon Thompson from In the Know about how the internet and TikTok are affecting language!

Book List: Animal Communication & Cognition

The study of animal communication and cognition has flourished in recent decades, with researchers learning all sorts of astonishing things about the cognitive capabilities of everything from dolphins to elephants to octopuses to primates.

This page is a curated list of some great books about animal communication and cognition! I’ll keep this page up to date with any new books I come across, so you can always refer back to it!

🌟 Starred titles are ones that I personally highly recommend!

Note: The links on this page are affiliate links, which means I get a small commission from any book you buy through these links (at no additional cost to you).

Animal cognition: Evolution, behavior and cognition (Wynne & Udell, 2020)

An introductory textbook covering all the latest research on animal cognition. Covers all aspects of animal cognition, with Chapters 11 and 12 discussing communication and language specifically.

🌟 Animal languages (Meijer, 2020) — Recommended!

A book all about how animals communicate—from Alex the gray parrot who knew more than 100 words, to Washoe the chimpanzee who learned sign language, to Noc the beluga whale who mimicked human speech.

The animal mind: An introduction to the philosophy of animal cognition (Andrews, 2020)

An introductory text focused on trying to understand just what animals know about the world, and what they know about the mental states of humans and other animals. Chapter 6 looks at communication specifically.

Animal minds: Beyond cognition to consciousness (Griffin, 2001)

Griffin argues that some animals are consciously thinking beings who are self-aware, looking at a variety of evidence from tool use to communication. Chapters 9 and 10 examine communication specifically.

🌟 Baboon metaphysics: The evolution of a social mind (Cheney & Seyfarth, 2008) — Recommended!

Cheney & Seyfarth have spent years designing groundbreaking experiments aimed at understanding just how much baboons know about the world and about each other. This book summarizes decades of research and paints a picture of the mental world of baboons, including how and what they communicate to each other.

Beyond words: What animals think and feel (Safina, 2015)

Weaving decades of field observations with exciting new discoveries about the brain, Carl Safina’s landmark book offers an intimate view of animal behavior to challenge the fixed boundary between humans and nonhuman animals.

Deep thinkers: Inside the minds of whales, dolphins, and porpoises (Mann, 2017)

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are some of the smartest creatures on earth. This book looks at just how much they know, and how they communicate. Each chapter is coauthored with different leading scientists in the field.

🌟 Other minds: The octopus, the sea, and the deep origins of consciousness (Godfrey-Smith, 2017) — Recommended!

This is one of the most unexpectedly fascinating popular science books I’ve read. You wouldn’t think that cephalopods like octopuses and cuttlefish would be a particularly interesting topic, but these creatures show some surprisingly advanced cognitive traits. Their nervous systems are so drastically different from ours that they may have an entirely different form of consciousness.

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Reading: The singing Neanderthals

I got a new book! I’m reading The singing Neanderthals: The origins of music, language, mind, and body by Steven Mithen (2005). I’ll be posting some of the fun things I learn as I go!

The book is from 2005, so some of the research is a little out of date, but it still looks like a great book! For example, we now know that Neanderthals had the FOXP2 gene, which is associated with language abilities in humans.

Want to read along? Check out the link above!

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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:


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

Further Reading

Clicking the titles below will take you to the product page for that book on Amazon. All links are affiliate links.

Interview: Why would you tell me that?!

Award-winning comedians and broadcasters Neil Delamere and Dave Moore are launching a new podcast next week called “Why would you tell me that?!”, seeking out incredible things they think everyone, including their co-host, should know! In each episode, with the help of a genuine expert, one of them answers the question, “Why would you tell me that?”

Award-Winning Comedians and Broadcasters Neil Delamere and Dave Moore take turns seeking out incredible things they think everyone, including their co-host, should know. In each episode, with the help of a genuine expert, one of them will answer the question, “Why Would You Tell Me That?!”

I had the great fortune of being interviewed by Neil and Dave for the first season of their podcast! We talked about everything from different ways of counting in the world’s languages, to Celtic influences on other languages, to some of the crazy grammatical things that different languages do. Check out the trailer for the podcast above, and be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the episode!

Interview: Profoundly Pointless

This week I gave a fun interview with Nick VinZant of the Profoundly Pointless podcast! The podcast interviews people from a huge variety of jobs and disciplines you might never have heard of, or know little about how they work, and asks some basic questions about what they do.

In my interview with Nick we talked about everything from language change to linguistic discrimination to some of the crazy grammatical things that languages do!

Stay tuned for details about when the episode will air, and in the meantime go check out the Profoundly Pointless podcast!

Numbers are hard

The other day I posted about how English still has vestiges of a base-12 counting system, shown in part by the fact that hundred used to refer to 120 rather than 100. Many, many people commented on this asking why it didn’t mean 144 (12×12) instead of 120.

The reason for this is that Old English speakers were influenced by both the base-12 system of their Germanic ancestors, and the base-10 system that was used in writing, and was borrowed from the Roman empire and Catholic church.

It’s not at all uncommon for languages to have mixed systems like this. French, for example, shows vestiges of a base-20 system for numbers from 60–80 (e.g. soixante-dix ’70’ is literally ‘sixty-ten’ and quatre-vingt ’80’ is literally ‘four-twenty’). Languages will often have a pivot at a smaller number, using that smaller number as a base until reaching the base. Igbo (a Niger-Congo language spoken in Nigeria), for example, is base 20, but uses base 10 for numbers smaller than twenty. Here’s the Igbo word for 32, literally ‘twenty and ten and two’:

ohu ìri àbu̩ò̩
twenty and ten and two


The origin of counting systems

Not all languages count by 10s. Some count by 5s, or 6s, or 8s, or 12s, or 20s, or even by 60s! But how do these counting systems emerge? Check out the video to find out!


Grammaticalization in Somali and the development of morphological tone (Kaldhol & Stausland Johnsen)

I attended an interesting talk at the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) conference today titled ‘Grammaticalization in Somali and the development of morphological tone’, by Nina Hagen Kaldhol (University of California, San Diego) and Sverre Stausland Johnsen (University of Oslo). Here’s a quick summary!

The Somali language is a member of the Cushitic language family spoken in the Horn of Africa. This talk is about Northern Somali in particular, which has become something of a standard. It’s also a tonal language, meaning that differences in pitch change the meaning of the word. Somali has two tones: high (H) and low (L). When writing Somali in a Latin writing system, H tones are indicated with an acute accent over the vowel: <á>.

One of the ways Somali uses tone is to mark grammatical gender. In the following examples, a H tone on the ultimate (last) vowel of the word indicates that the noun is grammatically feminine, while a tone on the penultimate (second to last) vowel indicates that the noun is grammatically masculine. (Technically these rules apply to moras rather than vowels. Short vowels have 1 mora, long vowels have 2.)

ínaninán‘boy / girl’
qaálinqaalín‘young camel’ (M / F)
daméerdameér‘donkey’ (M / F)

Historically, there were two rules about tones in Somali:

  1. The H tone always occurs on the ultimate or penultimate mora. This means that tone in Somali nouns is demarcative—it demarcates the ends of words.
  2. There may only be one H tone per word. When the number of tones per unit is limited in some way, we call this a cumulative tone system.

Another way Somali uses tone is to indicate grammatical differences such progressive aspect or negation. (Aspect is a technical term for the temporal structure of an event. Events can be repetitive, continuative, habitual, punctual, progressive, etc.) In the following examples, you can see how different tonal patterns are associated with certain grammatical differences. The progressive examples in (c) and (d), for instance, have a H tone on the stem cún- ‘eat’, while the other examples do not. (See the List of Abbreviations for explanations of the abbreviations.)

(1) cun-aa

(2) cun-ó
    'not eat'

(3) cún-ay-aa

(4) cún-ay-ó
    'not eating'

Did you notice a problem with these examples, however? They don’t obey the two tone rules listed above! Example (3) has a H tone at the left edge of word (violating Rule 1), and Example (4) has two H tones (violating Rule 2).

How did this happen? Why did the tone rules change? Kaldhol & Stausland Johsen propose that the system changed when certain two-word constructions became merged into one word over time, a process known as univerbation. (Note: Univerbation means two words becoming one, not necessarily two verbs becoming one. The Latin word verbum meant ‘word’, not ‘verb’.)

Here’s how Kaldhol & Stausland Johsen explain it: Somali originally had a verb hay meaning ‘have’. You could use it in phrases like cúni hayaa (literally ‘I have eat’) to mean ‘I am eating’. Over time, however, the two words became fused into cúnayaa, and speakers reanalyzed the -ay part as a suffix indicating progressive aspect. This process where full words get reanalyzed as grammatical affixes is called grammaticalization. The result is that the H tone that was originally on the first word now got stuck in the middle of the word rather than the end, so speakers just started to associate that H tone with progressive aspect. Now, the progressive aspect suffix -ay adds a H tone to the mora before it. When an affix adds a tone to something beside it, this is called a floating tone.

This same process of grammaticalization also resulted in cases where two H tones occur on the same word. The negative suffix in Somali is with a H tone. When the word hayó ‘I do not have’ fused with cúni ‘eat’, the result was cúnayó ‘I am not eating’, with two H tones.

Kaldhol & Stausland Johsen give a number of other examples and pieces of evidence supporting their proposal. Overall, this was an interesting, well-presented talk with a clear and simple point, nicely illustrating one way that morphological tone arises over time. Thank you Nina Hagen and Sverre!

If you’d like to see the slides for this talk, Nina Hagen has generously made them available on her website here!

Note: This post is my best attempt at representing this research faithfully and in a concise way, but I cannot always guarantee its accuracy, since this is neither my research nor my area of expertise. My goal here is simply to spotlight research I find interesting! Please contact the original researchers with any questions about this research.

List of Abbreviations

POSpositive / affirmative
PRESpresent tense