In 1998 Eddie Murphy did what most humans only dream about, he talked to animals, and they talked back. While Doctor Dolittle is a treasure mostly reserved for your memories, the idea of chatting with pets isn’t such an absurdity. The Atlantic‘s Megan Garber spoke with Con Slobodchikoff, a a professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University and preeminent scholar in animal behavior and communication, who has spent the past 30 years trying to decode animal language. Slobodchikoff’s research focuses on Gunnison’s prairie dogs whose tendency to stay in one place makes them easy to observe and study. In decoding their language, he has discovered incredible sophistication. The animals use phonemes, basic building blocks of language, and combine them into rough sentence structure. They use these phonemes to identify predators (even down to species, size, and color). But remarkably enough, they also use their language to talk socially.
Slobodchikoff started by looking into the social complexities of prairie dogs which led him to study their alarm calls. By observing the context of the calls and comparing it to the sounds the animals made, he was able to decode meaning and use them as a rosetta stone for understanding the basics of their language.
In his experimentation, Slobodchikoff discovered that the prairie dogs’ ability to create language far exceeded expectations. As he told The Atlantic:
The last experiment that we did was showing the prairie dogs abstract shapes, like circles and triangles. And I absolutely had no idea that they would be able to come up with words for “triangles” versus “circles.” It’s just amazing to me: the more we study them, the more sophisticated the system becomes. So I think that we’re just plumbing the very surface of things, and we’ll find that their language is far more sophisticated than even we know right now, today.
But many questions remain. Even though researches have been able to identify many building blocks of their language, much social chatter lacks the context needed to decode it.
One animal just goes, ‘chatter-chatter-chitter-chatter,’ and another animal in the colony goes, ‘chatter-chatter-chitter-chitter.’ We can show that the chatters and the chitters differ, but what it means, we don’t have any clue. It could be just, ‘chatter-chatter-chitter,’ or it could be, ‘Do you know where Sam was last night?’
Even with the current lack of complete understanding, Slobodchikoff imagines a not-too-distant future where humans might be able to communicate back and forth with all kinds of animals.
A computer science colleague of mine and I are using artificial intelligence techniques to keep a computer record of the call that the prairie dogs were making, analyze it with these AI techniques, and then spit back the answer to us, which potentially could be in English. So the prairie dogs could say something like “thin brown coyote approaching quickly.” And then we could tell the computer something that we wanted to convey to the prairie dogs. And the computer could then synthesize the sounds and play it back to the prairie dogs.
I think we have the technology now to be able to develop the devices that are, say, the size of a cellphone, that would allow us to talk to our dogs and cats. So the dog says “bark!” and the device analyzes it and says, “I want to eat chicken tonight.” Or the cat can say “meow,” and it can say, “You haven’t cleaned my litterbox recently.”
The animal translator still requires at least a decade of research and would be limited to our ability to analyze animals vocalizations and body language (communication through things like odor would require significant advances to decode). But Slobodchikoff predicts communication with dogs, cats, and even farm animals isn’t really all that far off.
In America where 40 percent of households have dogs and 33 percent have cats, conversing with animals would fundamentally change how a huge portion of the population lives. Instead of having fractured understandings of one another, humans and animals would be able to form partnerships. “Once people get to the point where they can start talking to animals, I think they’ll realize that animals are living, breathing, thinking beings, and that they have a lot to contribute to people’s lives,” Slobodchikoff told The Atlantic.
This does open many terrifying possibilites, like maybe your ten cats don’t love you back—no, of course Mr. Flufflepuss and friends love you.