If You Could Talk To The Bunnies

In "Starship Down", the first story I sold, Okalani Yee has to cope with aliens that are intelligent ... technically. "Starship" first ran in Analog, won the Analytical Laboratory Award for best short story appearing in Analog that year, and was reprinted in the anthology Far Orbit. The Myosotians' language is more complex than any animal communication system on Earth, but less complex than any human language. Here's how.

Ask a roomful of undergrads what language is, and they'll say "Communication". But we can be more specific than that. A road sign is communication, but it isn't language.

We can identify a number of qualities that all human languages have. Some animal communication systems have some of them, but none has all of them.

Language is arbitrary

In human languages, a word doesn't have to resemble what it refers to. Some words do — onomatopoetic words like "bang" or "thud" — but most don't. (That's true for signed languages, too1.) This lack of an inherent connection between the symbol and its meaning is called arbitrariness.

Animal communication can also be arbitrary. Vervet monkeys, for example, make different noises when leopards, eagles, or snakes are approaching — and when monkeys hear those calls, they take the right kind of cover to avoid the predator. (Go ahead, click the link! They have recordings!) The calls don't sound like leopards, eagles, or snakes; you have to learn which is which, even if you're a vervet monkey.

Language can refer to things that aren't present

While it might be tempting to say those vervet calls mean "snake", "leopard", "eagle", it's probably more accurate to translate them as "do the snake defense" (or even "jump up and look carefully at the ground"), "climb a tree", and "take cover". Vervets can't use those calls to talk about how glad they are that there aren't any leopards around, or the snake that ate Bob yesterday. But humans can.

Bee dances are often used as an example of animal communication that's not about the here-and-now (or "that exhibits displacement"). When a honeybee finds food, it returns to the hive and performs a crawling movement that tells other bees which direction to fly, and how far, to get to the flowers (or garbage can).

But does that really count? The pollen might not be right there in the beehive, but the dance signals bees to go looking for it immediately. (And the information the dance conveys isn't useful later, since the direction is based on the location of the sun.) It's as much of a stimulus and response as the vervet monkey calls.

Words can be infinitely recombined

Individual words, in human languages, mean things. There are also rules for combining those words to get additional meaning. "The dog bit the baby" doesn't mean the same thing as "the baby bit the dog". Furthermore, there's no upper limit on how long a grammatical sentence can be — you can always tack on the equivalent of "and then" and keep going2.

Animal communication just doesn't do this. Often it has no structure at all — vervet calls can't be broken down into smaller meaningful units, or chained together into larger ones. The bee waggle dance does combine two separate meaningful units, for direction and distance, but that's all it does.

The aliens that couldn't say "if"

Has a grammar — and before you cavil at "infinite" combinations, remember there's no upper limit on sentence length; you can always tack on "and" or "if" and keep adding words.

The Myosotian bunny language is arbitrary, can refer to things that are distant in time and space, and has a grammar — but it's still can't say everything a human language can. Specifically, the bunnies can't talk about hypotheticals: "If I were a bunny ..."

Ultimately, the problem isn't the bunnies' language. The language is limited because their minds are limited. We can't just give them a new language, à la Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao; they'd be just as incapable of understanding the word "if".

And the bunnies don't even see why it's a problem.

1. ASL books and classes often include mnemonics for signs to help learners remember them, and a lot of learners make the leap from "this sign means America, and it looks like the stripes on the flag" to "this sign means America because it looks like the stripes on the flag." (Or "because the fingers are united, like the states" — the existence of two incompatible explanations tells us that the connection between the sign and the meaning isn't obvious at a glance.)

The ASL mnemonics are like kindergarten alphabet books where C is a curled-up cat, and S is a snake. You can find a resemblance between the two if you look, but that's not part of the association most people are making between symbol and meaning. In contrast, words like "boom! pow!" don't need to be explained, even when you see them for the first time. (back to article)

2. It's been claimed, controversially, that the Pirahã language doesn't do this. (back to article)

Credit where credit is due: the road sign image is from the US Department of Transportation website, and "S is for Snake" from ActivityVillage.co.uk.

Written on September 30, 2015