Not that I’ve ever doubted that it’s normal, but it was nice to have it confirmed by this article I read today. I’ve spoken to three dogs so far today, on a variety of different topics. I spoke to one in particular more than the others, as we spent a good part of the day together. I variously asked about his logic behind marking his territory as frequently as he did, indicated the dangers inherent in crossing the road, explained to him where I was going when I left and gave him a rough indication of when I’d return, and generally enquired as to his wellbeing. And I still feel pretty normal. This also applies, by the way, to talking to cats and other pets; plants; and inanimate objects.
Talking to animals and inanimate objects, as well as naming inanimate objects, like cars, are examples of anthropomorphism: the act of prescribing human characteristics to non-human entities. It’s something that most of us do to some extent as children, but it’s generally seen as something to grow out of. However, as the article suggests, anthropomorphism is a strong indicator of social intelligence. It seems that a greater tendency to talk to non-humans is a sign of a mind well-developed to perceive minds and intelligence beyond the self, and therefore to be more aware of the thoughts and feelings of others (pareidolia, the tendency to see faces in inanimate objects, is another example of anthropomorphism).
To me, this is fascinating as an indication of one of the primary functions of language: social cohesion. Of course language is first and foremost about communication, the simple passing of ideas from out of our mind and into the world. But we don’t live alone in the world. To really live successfully, we need to recognise that other people are conscious beings like us, with their own thoughts and desires, and take that into consideration in how we go about our life. And the first basic ways we indicate this awareness of the inner lives of others is through language. By giving others names, and by speaking with them, we connect to them, socialise with them, and that’s how we create a society.
Thinking about this leads me to wonder if language is universal and inevitable for intelligent beings. It seems like it is, because it’s so hard to imagine our life without it. We’d be unable to fulfil so many of the basic functions of life without language. And we can see rudimentary forms of language in some of the more intelligent animals on Earth. But does language seem so fundamental to the workings of society because society’s developed the way it has because we have language? I think that partly at least, we live in social groups because language pushed us in that direction. It’s difficult to identify whether language or sociability came first, and I’m sure the truth is a complex feedback loop in which language and social interaction affect each other. But still I wonder: could it be possible for language not to develop in some situations?
As I said, it seems inevitable to us, but would it be possible, on another planet perhaps, for a species to develop and never communicate beyond simple gestures? It’s quite possible to imagine a species not having the power of speech, and therefore lacking spoken language. But is the development of written language a certainty? Obviously in some cases species might not have the necessary limbs to allow for writing, but even if it’s physically possible to write in some way, is it guaranteed that an intelligent species will develop writing? Could an intelligent species theoretically evolve somewhere else, that didn’t speak, read or write? And if it were possible, what would such a society look like? Would individuals still find some ways to understand that other people are sentient beings, and express that knowledge? Would they still interact and develop in some kind of way?
It’s hard to conceive of really, let alone know how realistic it might be. And I have a sneaking suspicion that intelligent beings, left to their own devices, will always develop some kind of language. Still though, it’s interesting to think about how our ability to name and talk to things helps us to create a functioning society, and we should be grateful that we have this thing we call language which directs so much of our lives, just in case it’s a fluke that we’ve developed it at all!