Every creature on the planet communicates. From vocal communication to body language, every species has their unique “alphabet” of sounds and movements that convey meaning to other members of the same species and sometimes to others as well. But communication alone neither implies nor makes language. When it comes to the use of language, one species stands alone on the pinnacle of communication: Homo sapiens – human beings.
As Nancy Bonvillain explains in the introduction to Language, Culture, & Communication: The Meaning of Messages (Sixth Edition) that, “Language is an integral part of human behavior. It is the primary means of interaction between people.” (Bonvillain, pg 1) Language in this way is the step beyond communication – it is the refining of communication beyond the base animal level. There are three primary properties that distinguish human language from animal communication: infinite productivity, arbitrariness, and the use of prevarication.
Prevarication is, put simply, the practice of lying. Deliberately misleading people in order to achieve a personal gain or with malicious intent. It is something human beings are taught from a very young age is “wrong,” in a cultural and social context. And yet still many of us lie on a regular basis for various reasons. Animal communication, however, does not leave room for prevarication. Though sometimes their actions may come across in a way that seems like lying, they are not actually capable of the higher thought processes that denote why a human being might lie.
This is not to say that animals are not capable of deception – many animals use deception as a means of self-protection (camouflage, feigning injury, etc.), but deception is not the same as lying. In some cases such as the camouflage of a butterfly’s wings appearing like the eyes of a predatory bird, the deception is without conscious thought – a side effect of simply living. In others, such as the way a ground-nesting bird will feign an...