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date: 18 September 2019

Animal Communication

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines references to forms of animal communication in ancient Greek and Roman literature. It analyses prose texts from the fourth century BC until the third century AD, which include those of Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Aelian, in order to determine specific types of verbal and non-verbal interaction on the part of certain animals. This chapter also presents some findings from modern research in the natural and social sciences on animal communication and argues that ancient reflections on the characteristics of animal communication are to a large extent influenced by the generic or literary conventions of the texts in which they occur.

Keywords: animal communication, ancient Greek literature, ancient Roman literature, Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Aelian, literary convention


In Graeco-Roman antiquity, the definition of what constitutes ‘language’ or ‘speech’ is frequently connected with a discussion about human reason and intellect; this is mirrored in the Greek word logos, whose semantic spectrum encompasses both ‘reason’ and ‘language’. Ancient theories on the origin of culture often single out verbal communication among the special talents of humans (for references, see Fögen, 2000: 36 with n. 24; see also Dierauer, 1977: esp. 32–5, 125–8, 225–7, 234–8; Ax, 1986: 96–102; Sorabji, 1993: 80–6; Heath, 2005: 6–17). Humans may lack any natural protection such as fur or feathers, but they compensate for such deficits by their intellect, which enables them to create a variety of cultural practices and to establish highly developed communities based upon advanced political organization and social skills. In this context, it is language that tends to be accentuated as the medium that facilitates the coexistence of humans, as it enables them to rely upon complex and sophisticated forms of communication, which animals—often termed zōa aloga (‘unreasoning creatures’)—do not have at their disposal.

However, this does not mean that the Greeks and Romans viewed animals as creatures without any form of communication. As the fourth-century author Ausonius writes:

  • nil mutum natura dedit. non aeris ales
  • quadrupedesve silent, habet et sua sibila serpens,
  • et pecus aequoreum tenui vice vocis anhelat.

Nature made nothing dumb. Birds of the air or four-footed beasts are not silent, even the serpent has its own hissing sound, and the creatures of the sea sigh with faint semblance of a voice.

(Epistles 29.17–19)

(p. 217) This chapter considers a variety of Greek and Roman texts that deal with forms of animal communication. It devotes special attention to the question of how specific types of verbal and non-verbal interaction on the part of certain animals are described. The ancient documents on animal communication discussed here comprise prose texts from the fourth century BC until the third century AD, in particular Aristotle, Stoic fragments, Pliny the Elder, and Aelian. For reasons of space, a number of testimonies such as poetic works or later Greek and Roman grammatical writings have been excluded. The overall picture presented here can nonetheless claim to be sufficiently representative, as it focuses on those texts that deal with the topic in question more extensively. However, it needs to be added that while the majority of the individual sources may be subsumed under the category of technical or even didactic texts, they differ considerably with regard to their specific literary tendency and generic nature, which have an impact on both their style and content.

Before examining selected ancient testimonies, it will be helpful to present some findings from modern research in the natural and social sciences on animal communication.

Modern Research on Animal Communication

Communicative behaviour among animals has been analysed in various disciplines, in particular in ethology. Two comparable approaches may be singled out here: zoosemiotics and bio-communication research. Zoosemiotics, a field founded by the linguist Thomas A. Sebeok (1920–2001), explores the communicative systems of individual species as well as the characteristics of communication in biological systems (see Sebeok, 1963, 1972, 1977). The term bio-communication was coined by the German ethologist Günter Tembrock (1918–2011) to designate forms of the transmission of messages between organisms. Of special interest is the question of what is communicated, how and why, and what kind of prerequisites organisms need to express themselves (see Tembrock, 1982, 2004).

Animal communication, which can be visual, auditory, olfactory, or tactile, has been studied from a variety of perspectives and with regard to numerous species. Despite the diversity of approaches, it is fair to say that the communicative behaviour of certain animals has been documented particularly extensively, above all that of birds, bees, and apes.

Among birds, it is especially parrots who are known for their ability to imitate sounds. Some scholars such as the American ethologist Irene Pepperberg (2000) would even be inclined to argue that the right training enables parrots to move beyond mere imitation. In her own research, she tried to prove that her now deceased grey parrot named Alex had a vocabulary of about 100 English words and was capable of giving predominantly correct answers to certain types of questions; this bird managed to name fifty different objects and attribute to them characteristics such as colour, material, or form.

(p. 218) As for honey bees, it was the Austrian biologist Karl von Frisch (1886–1982) who discovered that they communicate the location of food through dance-like movements (von Frisch, 1965, 1977). In addition to various types of dancing, honey bees have other forms of communication, in particular pheromones.

Apes have also been popular among researchers studying animal communication, in particular certain types of non-vocal forms (see, for example, Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker, and Taylor, 1998). Researchers have attempted to teach select elements of American Sign Language (ASL) to chimpanzees. A famous example is the chimpanzee Washoe, who learned 132 ASL signs and ultimately managed to connect individual signs to meaningful units. However, it has to be added that it took her half a year to acquire the meaning of no more than two signs. Several claims that have been put forward in connection with the Washoe experiments have been criticized for a number of reasons.

The examples discussed thus far all seem to prove that animal communication differs from human language, whatever its precise definition may be, in a number of respects:

  1. a) Natural languages are characterized by their double articulation, as has been highlighted by André Martinet in his study La linguistique synchronique (Paris, 1965). This means that linguistic elements can be analysed on two different levels: on the one hand they can be subdivided into morphemes, i.e., segments consisting of form and meaning (smallest meaningful units, called ‘monemes’ by Martinet), and on the other hand into phonemes, which have form but no meaning. From the structure of the phonological level, on which numerous different sounds are combined according to specific rules, results the infiniteness of natural languages. Sounds such as bird songs can only be subdivided into meaningful units of the first level, but not into smaller segments which may alter the meaning.

  2. b) Most animals do not need to learn the meaning of signals common among their own species; in many cases this knowledge is either partly or even completely innate.

  3. c) Most forms of animal communication are reflexes triggered by external signals; they are thus based upon a situational stimulus–response pattern. Moreover, the vast majority of animals are unable to freshly combine individual elements of communication according to a given situation.

  4. d) Animals are unable to reach the level of linguistic abstraction and metalinguistic statements, i.e., to talk about language through language. This seems to preclude statements about the past and future. Furthermore, animals cannot express terminological generalizations through symbols.

  5. e) The production of certain signals among animals is gender-specific. In some species, for example, mating calls are only produced by either males or females, but not by both.

The differences between human language and animal communication have often been pointed out in linguistic studies. In the nineteenth century, it was scholars such (p. 219) as Jacob Grimm, William Dwight Whitney, and Georg von der Gabelentz who thematized the characteristics of animal communication; in the early twentieth century, Otto Jespersen and Jan Baudouin de Courtenay continued the discussion (see Fögen, 2007b: 43–5, with full references), which still forms an integral part of modern linguistics and language philosophy.


The most illuminating and systematic ancient source on animal communication is Aristotle (384–322 BC). In the first book of his History of Animals Aristotle offers a more general systematization of species according to physiological, biological, and social criteria such as their lifestyles, activities, and habitats as well as their character. In this context he differentiates very briefly between mute and vocal animals without providing any further details (History of Animals 1.1.488a32–488b2). Much more extensive is a section in the fourth book of the same work, which is devoted to the treatment of the voice of animals (History of Animals 4.9.535a26–536b23; see especially Ax, 1978, 1986: 119–138; Zirin, 1980; Labarrière, 1993, 2004: 19–59). Animals have ‘voice’ (phōnē) only if they are equipped with a specific physiological apparatus, namely lungs and pharynx. What they generate with the help of other organs is not phōnē but ‘sound’ (psophos), as for example in the case of insects that produce sounds through membranes. Among animals having tongues and lungs that possess phōnē, albeit a weak one, are snakes, tortoises, and frogs. The croaking of the latter is described as a type of mating call, which can also be found among other animals such as goats, pigs, or sheep.

It is birds that come closest to human speech, in particular those that have a broad or a fine and thin tongue (History of Animals 4.9.536a20–32; similarly Parts of Animals 2.17.660a29–b2). The following passages are exceptionally intriguing: (1) In certain birds, the voice of the male is different from that of the female, while in others it is the same. Such a gender-specific criterion is also postulated for the discussion of ‘voice’ among all other species; in a later section, it is combined with the criterion of age (History of Animals 5.14.544b32–545a21; see also Generation of Animals 5.7.786b7–788b2). (2) The size of a bird has an impact on the variation and frequency of its song; the smaller it is, the more polyphonous and prone to singing it tends to be (physiological criterion). (3) The mating season is the time of year during which all birds sing most often (temporal or seasonal criterion). (4) Certain utterances are motivated by special circumstances such as fights (situational criterion).

‘Speech’ (dialektos) is defined by Aristotle as the articulation (diarthrōsis) of phōnē with the help of the tongue. Vowels are produced through voice and larynx, consonants through a sufficiently mobile tongue and lips (History of Animals 4.9.535a31–b3; Parts of Animals 2.16–17.659b27–660a29). Aristotle further remarks that ‘voice’ (phōnē) varies predominantly with regard to pitch but is otherwise consistent within a species. ‘Speech’, however, differs from one species to another, and even the same species may (p. 220) have different dialektoi according to the region they inhabit; it is thus possible to distinguish between regional variants of ‘utterances’ of the same species in a manner analogous to human speech. Quails are referred to as an example; their articulation is said to differ from one region to another (History of Animals 4.9.536b8–14). That dialektos needs to be formed by training, whereas phōnē is bestowed by nature (phusei), is illustrated by the case of the nightingale that teaches her offspring to sing (History of Animals 4.9.536b17–19).

From these passages it becomes clear that in Aristotle’s view humans as well as those birds that possess a certain anatomical and physiological disposition have dialektos. Yet even if certain species may have voices that seem to imply more sophisticated forms of communication, they do not fall under the category of human language (logos). ‘Speaking’ birds such as parrots, whose tongues are commonly described as human (anthrōpoglōtton), are grouped together with those animals that have a talent for imitation, the so-called mimētika (History of Animals 8.12.597b25–28; on parrots see also Ctesias, FGrHist 688F45.8; Ovid, Amores 2.6; Statius, Silvae 2.4; all discussed by Fögen, 2007b: 61–5). This demonstrates that such birds are not conceived of as producing human language, which would entail the active and independent production of utterances.

For Aristotle, genuine ‘language’ is an exclusively human feature, unless humans are deaf by birth; such people have phōnē but not dialektos (History of Animals 4.9.536a33–b7; see also Generation of Animals 5.7.786b20–22), and in that respect, they are comparable to children who do not yet have full control over their tongues. A crucial part of human socialization is language acquisition, which is characterized as the gradual training of the movement of the tongue and thus as an elimination of uncontrolled articulation (History of Animals 4.9.536a33–b7). Furthermore, there is a semiotic aspect: as can be seen from the definition of the onoma in De interpretatione (2.16a19–29) and of the stoicheion in the Poetics (20.1456b22–25 and ff.), it is the conventionality of human language and its potential to combine sounds into more complex units that distinguish it from animal communication. According to Aristotle, animals have neither onomata nor symbola, even though they are capable of conveying meaning (sēmainein). However, unlike human symbola, which are based upon arbitrary assignments, the meaning of animal signs seems to be ‘natural’ (phusei), as for example in the case of the expression of emotions (see Ax, 1978: 262–9; 1986: 129–37).

That logos is something specifically human has not only physiological and semiotic reasons, but also an ethical basis, as Aristotle explains at the beginning of his Politics: whereas the ‘voice’ (phōnē) that reveals pain and joy is common to both animals and humans, it is only ‘language’ (logos) that enables humans to have an exchange about values such as justice and injustice or useful and harmful things. This implies that, thanks to their dialektos, certain animals such as birds are capable of the transmission of information, but that they are unable to negotiate any ethical or political issues. This is not to say that there are no social animals, but it is language as a societal force that gives man the status of a zōon politikon (‘political creature’) par excellence (Politics 1.2.1253a7–18). Connected with man’s pronounced social nature is his talent for rational (p. 221) deliberation and memory. While there are animals that have memory (mnēmē) and an ability to learn (didachē), a long-term memory is said to be restricted to humans (History of Animals 1.1.488b24–27; see also Metaphysics A.1.980a27–b29), as is ethical awareness (Nicomachean Ethics 6.13.1144b).

The Stoics

The Stoic Diogenes of Babylon (c.240–150 BC) was the author of a treatise Peri phōnēs (‘On Voice’), which can only be reconstructed from the account of the much later writer Diogenes Laertius (for a more extensive discussion of the Stoics’ views, see Ax, 1986: 138–211). According to his testimony, Diogenes of Babylon defines the term phōnē as a percussion of air or the proper object of the sense of hearing (Diogenes Laertius 7.55). In his view, human language differs from animal communication in two respects: first, it is not produced by a natural impulse (hupo hormēs) but by reason (apo dianoias); second, it is articulate (enarthros). When Diogenes adds that human language reaches maturity at the age of fourteen, he underscores that man does not have articulate phōnē by birth, but that it develops over time. From phōnē he distinguishes two other terms: lexis and logos. A voice that consists of letters and is articulate (phōnē engrammatos) constitutes a verbal expression (lexis) and stands in opposition to mere sound (ēchos). However, not every lexis is meaningful (sēmantikos): an articulate expression such as blituri does not signify anything and therefore cannot claim the status of a logos. For that reason, the expression of a sound (propheresthai) needs to be distinguished from a meaningful utterance (legein), which issues from the mind (Diogenes Laertius 7.56–7). The term dialektos also occurs in Stoic theory as summarized by Diogenes Laertius, but it has a narrower meaning than in Aristotle, referring to national and regional variants of lexis (Diogenes Laertius 7.56; see Ax, 1986: 201, 210). To conclude, man possesses language because he is a rational being. Since animals do not have any conceptual notions, they produce no more than sounds evoked by natural impulses. This understanding of language results from Stoic anthropology, which most vigorously denies reason to animals.

A similar approach can be identified for Chrysippus of Soloi (c.280–208/04 BC), Diogenes of Babylon’s teacher. As Varro reports in the sixth book of De lingua Latina, Chrysippus thought that certain birds such as ravens and crows, as well as children, are unable to produce real words. Bird sounds and children’s utterances do not amount to real speech (loqui), but only to quasi-speech (ut loqui), because there is no rational motivation behind their sound production and because they do not have any awareness of the correct serial arrangement of sounds or syntax (De lingua Latina 6.56). Implicit is a differentiation between pure vocal utterance (logos prophorikos) and meaningful inner language based upon reason (logos endiathetos). Only fully developed humans are able to connect audible sound productions with inner concepts, whereas children and birds have logos prophorikos but not logos endiathetos (see Mühl, 1962: esp. 8–16; Matelli, 1992; Labarrière, 1997).

(p. 222) On a very basic level, however, the Stoics attribute certain forms of communication to animals, in particular in the case of symbiotic relationships. According to Chrysippus, the long-shaped bivalve (pinnē, Lat. pina) is alerted by the sea crab through a bite as to when it needs to close its shell in order to catch the little fish swimming in the immediate vicinity and then share them with the crab. Given the difference between these two animals, their joint strategy for procuring food is regarded as remarkable by Cicero, who provides an account of the Stoic arguments. In the same passage, it is also considered whether this type of symbiosis exists by nature or whether it is based upon an agreement and has developed over time (Cicero, De officiis 2.123–4 [= SVF 2.729]). Despite their admiration for such practices and habits in the animal world, there can be no doubt that the Stoics do not classify such phenomena of non-vocal, non-verbal communication as language.

In the first century AD, the philosopher Seneca emphasizes that despite their lack of language animals have certain skills that serve the preservation of life (Epistles 121.24; on instinct and the Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis, see Dierauer 1977: 199–224 and Sorabji, 1993: 122–33). That their voice does not transcend the level of mere sound production has physiological reasons: their tongues are not as flexible as those of humans. Moreover, the authoritative part of the soul (hēgemonikon, translated into Latin as principale), which leads to the production of meaningful speech among humans, is not sufficiently well developed and refined in animals (De ira 1.3.7). The voices of some animals may surpass that of humans in several respects, such as that of the dog with regard to its volume, that of the bull through its vigour, or that of the nightingale through its charming sound; but the lack of reason (ratio), which brings humans close to the gods and whose correct use leads them to a fulfilled life, prevents them from having real language (Epistles 76.9–10).

This firm distinction between animals and humans did not remain unchallenged. The following authors engaged more extensively with this opinion and took the Stoic concept of logos prophorikos and logos endiathetos as their starting point (see Tabarroni, 1988: 108–111; Sorabji, 1993: 81–4; Glidden, 1994: esp. 136–48; Labarrière, 1997): Plutarch (c.45–125 AD), especially in his works De sollertia animalium and Bruta animalia ratione uti, further Sextus Empiricus (fl. end of second century AD) in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism (1.62–78) and Against the Professors (8.275–6, 8.285–8), and Porphyry (c.234–305 AD) in the third book of his treatise De abstinentia.

A representative passage from Plutarch’s De sollertia animalium may be singled out here (19.973a–e). Starlings, crows, and parrots, which manage to learn how to speak, are adduced as evidence that they also possess logos prophorikos and an articulate voice (phōnē enarthros). Plutarch refers to Aristotle’s account of the learning skills of nightingales (see ‘Aristotle’) and adds an anecdote about a jay (kitta), which was able to imitate all kinds of sounds, including human language (anthrōpou rhēmata), animal sounds (thēriōn phthongous), and the sounds of musical instruments (psophous organōn). After this bird had heard the sound of a trumpet during a funeral, it remained silent for a certain period of time. It had not lost its voice or its ability to hear, but was silently practising its imitation of the sound of the trumpet, which it then reproduced meticulously. For Plutarch, this story proves that such a form of self-instruction presupposes not only (p. 223) an eagerness to learn but also a rational operation, which, due to a conscious selection of what is being uttered, goes beyond blind imitation. According to this view, birds do not imitate sounds randomly but instead consciously reflect on what they want to convey. Plutarch’s position that animals also have reason contradicts Stoic doctrine very clearly and has a number of consequences, in particular with regard to how humans perceive and treat animals (see Newmyer, 1999, 2005; Giebel, 2003: 198–208). On a moral level, this implies that humans may use animals for their own purposes, but should refrain from any inconsiderate or cruel behaviour towards them.

Pliny the Elder

No other Roman author has written as extensively about the natural sciences and related disciplines as Pliny the Elder (c.23–79 AD) in his Natural History (see Fögen, 2009a: 201–64, with further literature). Books 8–11 of his monumental work are dedicated to the treatment of animals, whereas the preceding Book 7 concentrates on anthropology and repeatedly presents man as an imperfect creature. For the purpose of this overview, Book 8 on land animals and Book 10 on birds, but also Book 11 on insects, are particularly relevant.

In Book 7 Pliny briefly deals with human language acquisition, which he describes as a gradual process that is comparable to many other skills that humans need to learn (Natural History 7.4). They are not fully able to articulate themselves until the age of seven (Natural History 11.174), and their voice reaches its full potential at the age of fourteen (Natural History 11.270). The diversity of human languages and their sheer number have a great fascination for Pliny (Natural History 7.7).

Among animals that have at least a passive ‘linguistic’ competence Pliny ranges not only several birds, but also elephants and lions. Book 8 of the Natural History begins with a comprehensive description of the elephant (Natural History 8.1–34; see Giebel, 2003: 87–94; Fögen, 2007a: 185–8), which is said to be the largest amongst all land animals and, with its mind and senses, closest to humans; for that reason it understands the language spoken in its country, is obedient and quick to learn, and even possesses certain moral virtues (Natural History 8.1; see also 8.12–13 on pudor and 8.15 on iustitia)—qualities that have induced other authors to suggest the existence of a common bond between elephants and humans (Cicero, Ad familiares 7.1.3: quandam…cum genere humano societatem). With reference to the former consul C. Licinius Mucianus, Pliny reports the case of an elephant that purportedly learned to write in Greek (Natural History 8.6), without questioning how this could have been possible anatomically. This passage demonstrates that Pliny sometimes has a rather uncritical attitude towards his sources and is prepared to include even those pieces of information whose value may be limited; however, it needs to be added that there are numerous instances in the Natural History where he censures his predecessors and their dubious methods very harshly (Fögen, 2009a: esp. 207–11, 233–54, 257–64).

(p. 224) In his section on lions (Natural History 8.41–58) Pliny states that they understand the meaning of humans’ attempts to mollify them. For example, lions are inclined to show clemency towards humans beseeching them to be spared, above all if these individuals are female. As he indicates, this passage is based upon the story of a woman who was attacked by lions and managed to placate them by referring to her weak sex. Given the lack of further empirical evidence, Pliny admits that this may have been a singular incident that does not prove that lions always react in this way (Natural History 8.48). At any rate, what is clear to him is the fact that the mood (animus) of a lion can be recognized from its tail: no movement signifies gentleness, slight movement can be interpreted as flattery, and heavy wagging is a sign of wrath (Natural History 8.49; similarly 11.137 on the ears of horses, which are apostrophized as indicia animi).

An unidentifiable animal called leucrocota, whose body parts are said to be reminiscent of those of a wild donkey, stag, lion, and badger (Natural History 8.72), supposedly has the gift to imitate the human voice, and in this respect resembles the hyena, which employs its imitative skills to attract humans and then kill them. Pliny makes it quite clear that he is not prepared to believe such accounts and emphasizes that a great many strange tales (multa mira) are narrated about animals such as hyenas (Natural History 8.106). At the same time, one may argue that these anecdotes are interesting from an anthropological perspective, as they reveal that the ancients perceived the sounds produced by such animals as threatening and tended to ascribe a certain mischievous quality to them.

Equally disparaging is Pliny’s judgment on two testimonies concerning animals whose ‘speaking’ belongs to the category of prodigies acting in a political context: the dethronement of King Tarquinius was announced by a speaking dog and a barking snake (Natural History 8.153); a speaking bull induced the Roman Senate to hold its assemblies in public. Speaking animals as omens commonly signal an exceptional situation or a perverted, topsy-turvy world in which superhuman powers are at work; it is not surprising that they often occur in historiographical texts (see, for example, Livy 3.10.6, 24.10.10, 27.11.4, 35.21.4; Valerius Maximus 1.6.5; Tacitus, Histories 1.86.1).

Book 10 of the Natural History focuses on birds. There are certain species that are capable of imitating the voices of other animals such as the ‘bull’ (probably the bittern), whose name is derived from its imitation of the bellowing of cows, and the so-called anthos (perhaps the yellow wagtail), which supposedly mimics the whinnies of horses (Natural History 10.116). Later on, Pliny talks about birds that imitate the human voice and ‘speak’ (the term used here is sermocinari), such as parrots, magpies, and ravens (Natural History 10.117–24). The reason for their gift of speech is the broader tongue of these birds—a point apparently adopted from Aristotle (see ‘Aristotle’). Yet in order for them to acquire words, and to some extent even phrases, a specific teaching method is required: the speech training should ideally be conducted in a more secluded and quiet area, where the birds do not get distracted by any other sounds. Individual words to be learned by the animals need to be repeated again and again; to motivate them, they are to be given rewards in the shape of bits of food.

(p. 225) It is striking that some animals in Pliny’s books on zoology are almost anthropomorphized. This can be observed for the elephant (as mentioned above), but even more so for the section on the nightingale (Natural History 10.81–5), whose musicality is so extraordinary for Pliny that he calls it an ‘art’. Accordingly, Pliny believes that their singing presupposes an elaborate training and presents the sketch of a singing lesson, during which the bird teacher vituperates its pupil and motivates it to improve its performance; he also refers to the existence of heated singing contests among nightingales (Natural History 10.83). While it cannot be denied that Aristotle also included a brief description of an older nightingale instructing its offspring how to sing (History of Animals 4.9.536b17–19), his comments are far less detailed than Pliny’s and lack a tendency towards an anthropomorphization of the birds.

Book 11 of the Natural History is devoted to the treatment of insects, which are said to exhibit an impressive perfection despite their smallness (Natural History 11.1–2). Among other things, Pliny also discusses the various forms of sound production among insects. In the section on bees (Natural History 11.11–70) he uses some material from Aristotle. Four paragraphs of this book are dedicated to the analysis of the sounds of cicadas (Natural History 11.92–5). He differentiates between ‘mute’ (mutae) and ‘singing’ ones (canorae), a distinction motivated by type-specific and gender-specific criteria: unlike their larger brethren, smaller cicadas are mute, and in both types it is only male cicadas that sing. Among the singing ones there are gradual divergences. Even geographical aspects need to be taken into account, as there are some regions in which cicadas do not produce any sound.

The way in which Aristotle and Pliny scrutinize forms of animal communication is just one example of the differences between the two writers. Physiological explanations are much more frequent in Aristotle than in Pliny. The differentiation between sound, voice, and language, which constitutes an essential criterion for Aristotle to distinguish between various species, does not occur in Pliny. On the whole, the History of Animals and other Aristotelian works containing reflections on the characteristics of animal communication and human language tend to be more systematic and stringent than the Natural History. This is partly due to the fact that Aristotle prefers an empirical method over interweaving his narrative with paradoxa and mirabilia. By contrast, Pliny the Elder follows a different literary strategy because he writes for a less scholarly readership. He does not want to address a circle of specialists but instead an educated audience of interested laymen (Natural History praef. 6–7 and 11); he therefore needs to find the right balance between instruction (docere) and diversion (delectare). In conformity with the topical character of the prefaces of ancient technical literature (see Fögen, 2009a: esp. 26–34), however, he explicitly denies the inclusion of more pleasing elements such as digressions or a more complex style (Natural History praef. 12–13). At the same time, Pliny is by no means a mere paradoxographer who completely ignores scientific findings and excessively indulges in implausible stories. It is, therefore, not the case that his paragraphs on animal communication are without any ‘scientific’ value; they just need to be read with the context of his literary agenda in mind.

(p. 226) Claudius Aelianus

A much more pronounced tendency towards the paradox and wonderful is discernible in the work on the peculiar nature of animals (Peri zōōn idiotētos [De natura animalium]: ‘Characteristics of Animals’) and to some extent in the ‘Colourful History’ (Poikilē historia [Varia historia]) by Claudius Aelianus (c.170–222/230AD; see Fögen, 2009b, with earlier literature). This also applies to passages in which the author looks at forms of animal communication.

In an anecdote about the Carthaginian Hanno (Varia historia 14.30), he is said to have acquired a large number of birds and taught them the phrase ‘Hanno is a god’. Once the birds had learned this sentence, Hanno liberated them, hoping that his fame would spread through their singing. Yet the birds forgot what they had learned and sang their own songs. It is evident that this text has rather little to reveal about animal communication; instead the story about birds and their singing serves to condemn Hanno’s transgression of proper human boundaries and thus exhibits a distinct moral component, which is typical of Aelian’s works.

Other episodes in which Aelian thematizes birdsong do not provide much more in the way of wide-ranging insights. He remarks that the nightingale has the highest and most musical voice amongst all birds (De natura animalium 1.43). In a much later chapter he adds that the song of the nightingale, like that of the blackbird, varies with each season (De natura animalium 12.28). In yet another passage the nightingale’s singing is connected with an almost human characteristic, namely the striving for fame, which allegedly induces this bird to develop a particularly intricate song in the presence of others, but not so much when on its own (De natura animalium 5.38). Aelian maintains that ravens have an impressive variety of sounds, the use of which depends on their mood; moreover, they are capable of imitating human speech (De natura animalium 2.51), as are parrots in India, which are regarded as holy animals in that country (De natura animalium 13.18; see also 16.2). They are only surpassed by the Indian mynah, which is deemed as not only more talkative but also more intelligent (De natura animalium 16.3).

Apart from such obvious candidates as birds, Aelian also ascribes forms of communication to other species. Among all larger types of fish, their leaders possess some sort of warning system for dangerous situations: they use specific contact signals with which they alert their shoal (De natura animalium 2.13). Aelian also refutes the hypothesis that fish are entirely mute and lists some species that produce sounds, such as the ‘cuckoo’ (kokkux), whose sounds resemble those of the eponymous bird (De natura animalium 10.11). This is an observation that was already made by Aristotle (History of Animals 4.9.535b14–24), but unlike Aelian, who ignores more scientific details, he provides a physiological explanation for sound production by fish.

Another example of communicative skills among animals is the elephant. Like Pliny, Aelian attributes several remarkable characteristics to elephants that make them similar (p. 227) to humans. Apart from their quickness to learn and their obedience, they have a sense for rhythms and melodies, and even know how to dance. On one occasion, Aelian observes how an elephant used its trunk to write letters on a board, albeit with the help of its trainer (De natura animalium 2.11). While they do not possess any active linguistic competence, they have their own ways of making themselves understood, in particular in situations in which they want to articulate their moral awareness. For instance, an elephant warned the new wife of its trainer non-verbally that the man had killed his rich ex-wife in order to get access to her money. It led her with its trunk to the place where the ex-wife was buried and exhumed the body with its tusks; the passage is concluded with the pointed remark that in this case the animal’s deed replaced the spoken word that the elephant was unable to utter (De natura animalium 8.17). An instance of extreme anthropomorphization of an animal is the story about the elephant Nikaia, which served as the nurse of a baby. From the infant’s mother it had received instructions in Indian, a language which is said to be understood by elephants (De natura animalium 11.14). The fact that this animal took great care of the child implies that it may serve as a model even for humans; once again the moral dimension of Aelian’s narrative becomes evident.

In numerous passages of his De natura animalium the characteristics and skills of animals are compared to those of humans, which include the aspects of sound production and speech. Thanks to the gift of nature, humans as well as animals possess a wide range of sounds and utterances. Among humans this is attested by the large number of individual languages, while in the animal kingdom all species have their own sounds (De natura animalium 5.51). Human language has the potential for the development of rhetoric and persuasion, which Aelian, quite unlike many other ancient authors who praise the social and cultural functions of language (see ‘Introduction’), does not necessarily interpret as an advantage: while humans need to instigate each other to perform good deeds and demonstrate bravery, animals do not require such verbal exhortations (De natura animalium 6.1). For Aelian, language and reason do not automatically guarantee civilized behaviour; all too often humans can be blamed for living irrationally (De natura animalium 7.17). By contrast, animals are frequently capable of certain technical as well as ethical achievements, although they do not have reason or language (see, for example, De natura animalium 2.11, 2.25, 2.32, 3.10, 3.23, 5.22, 6.23, 6.47, 6.59, 7.10); this is precisely what makes them worth being considered in a literary work (see the epilogue to De natura animalium). At the same time, it becomes clear that Aelian does not intend to provide a systematic rubric for zoology. Instead, he is interested in the moral qualities of animals, which may have an exemplary function even for humans—and that includes aspects of communication. While it cannot be denied that the entertainment of the reader, which is a typical purpose of miscellany writings of this period, constitutes an important part of Aelian’s literary agenda, the ethical component of his work should not be underestimated. Aelian’s world view is mainly Stoic, but the functionalization of animals as moral exemplars, as we find it in his works, was also common among Cynic philosophers (see Sorabji, 1993: 160–1).

(p. 228) Further Aspects of Animal Communication

While the testimonies presented in the preceding sections cover a variety of significant aspects of animal communication, they do not represent an exhaustive list of relevant points. One may also consider the following areas, which can only be outlined briefly:

  1. a) In ancient comedy certain characters are speaking animals such as in Crates’ Theria and Aristophanes’ Birds, often linked with the idea of the Golden Age and the peaceful coexistence of man and animal (see, for example, Levine Gera, 2003: 61–7, Heath, 2005: 12–16). Under this rubric one may also range ancient reports on humans who were able to communicate with animals; Pythagoras purportedly had the ability to placate animals, at least according to a biography composed by Iamblichus (Vita Pyth. 60–2), who emphasized Pythagoras’s closeness to the gods and his superhuman nature (especially Vita Pyth. 31 and 255).

  2. b) Speaking animals also occur in fables and epic poetry such as the Hellenistic Batrachomyomachia, a short epic parody developed from an Aesopic fable (384 Perry [= 302 Hausrath]). In these literary forms, communication amongst and with animals is taken for granted and does not require any specific explanation. However, prefaces to collections of fables do accentuate this feature as something exceptional: in the prologue to his first book, Phaedrus justifies it with the fictional and entertaining character of his work (Fab. 1 pr. 5–7). In his introduction Babrius briefly justifies the fact that animals of the fable possess speech by referring to its setting in the Golden Age, in which men and animals, but also trees and leaves, were able to communicate effortlessly; in his own epoch, the so-called Iron Age, this would no longer be possible (pr. 1–13).

  3. c) Forms of animal communication are also examined in the context of ancient theories about the origin of language, as can be found in Epicurus’s Letter to Herodotus (Epistula ad Herodotum 75–6, p. 26.7–27.16 Usener) and in the fifth book of Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe (5.1028–90) (see, for example, Glidden, 1994: 140–2). Animal sounds are often compared to the speech of young children, which is not yet fully developed and thus cannot claim the status of human logos, as is indicated, for example, by Aristotle (History of Animals 4.9.536a33–b7), the Stoic Diogenes of Babylon (Diogenes Laertius 7.55), and Pliny the Elder (Natural History 7.4, 11.174, 11.270). This corresponds to the fact that, according to ancient thought, children are not on the same intellectual, physical, and moral level as adults, and in this respect they can be compared to animals (see Heath, 2005: 206–9). It goes without saying that this is a transitory phase, which is overcome by proper training.

  4. d) Also relevant are testimonies on concrete sounds produced by animals, which are regarded as characteristic for a certain species and circumscribed (p. 229) graphematically. One may think of instances such as passages from Plautus’s Menaechmi on the sound of the night-owl (Menaechmi 654: tu tu) or from Petronius’s Satyrica on the cockcrow (Satyrica 59.2: coco coco). Occasionally it is these sounds that lead to the coining of onomatopoetic names given to certain species, in particular birds, such as tutō, identified by the lexicographer Hesychius with glaux (‘owl’), or ulula for the screech owl (on Latin bird names, see André, 1966 and 1967; on Greek bird names, see Thompson, 1936). In the fifth book of De lingua Latina Varro proposes similar examples not only of birds’ names, but also of the terms for ‘dog’ (canis, connected with canere; see 5.99) and ‘bear’ (ursus; see 5.100). In this context, one may also think of the terminological circumscription of animal sounds in the forms of verbs and substantives. Suetonius’s fragmentary antiquarian work Pratum contains a section that lists numerous verbs that designate the sounds produced by animals (fr. 161 Reifferscheid, p. 247–54; see also fr. 161c, p. 312; similarly Aelian, De natura animalium 5.51), for example, sibilare for the hissing of snakes, mugire for cows, grunnire for pigs, and coaxare for frogs; for some species there are even variants, such as fremere and rugire for lions, rudere and oncare for donkeys, as well as latrare and baubari for dogs. Unsurprisingly, more than half of the animals recorded here are birds. Similar catalogues of words denoting animal sounds can be found in Varro’s De lingua Latina (7.103–4) and in the later grammarian and lexicographer Nonius Marcellus.


One may draw a variety of conclusions from the material expounded in this overview. First of all, it is obvious that ancient reflections on the characteristics of animal communication are to a large extent influenced by the generic or literary conventions of the texts in which they occur. It may be argued that information on animal communication is most systematic and detailed in fact-oriented technical treatises such as Aristotle’s History of Animals, which for the most part presents a differentiated picture based on empirical scrutiny and takes into account the physiological and anatomical idiosyncrasies of animals. However, other sources, which are aimed at a less scientifically minded readership and therefore incorporate literary devices such as anecdotal, humorous, or paradoxical elements in order to ensure a certain degree of entertainment or even moral edification among their audience, tend to be less exact and accurate. Such approaches have a propensity to anthropomorphize animals and relatively rarely offer any rational explanations for certain phenomena of communicative behaviour among animals.

What is noteworthy about the majority of sources is that they attribute forms of communication to a wide range of species, even to less obvious ones such as marine creatures. For the latter, Pliny the Elder, for example, asserts that, thanks to their auditory capacity, dolphins react to human calls and their voice resembles the moaning of (p. 230) humans (Natural History 9.23); about the fish called exocoetus, Pliny maintains that in certain regions it does not have any gills and possesses voice (Natural History 9.70). However, all testimonies agree that birds are by far the most talented animals when it comes to vocal articulation, even if they do not move beyond the level of imitation and do not produce any form of communication that would be equivalent to human language.

Furthermore, the texts considered here may differ with regard to their informative value, but they all represent intriguing documents for the reconstruction of language awareness prevalent among ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as their anthropological concepts. In accordance with the pronounced tendency towards thinking in oppositional pairs, various types of ‘alterity’ can be identified, which also pertain to factors such as communicative competence: it is not only foreigners (‘barbarians’), slaves, women, and children who are supposed to diverge from the ‘normal’, but also animals (see, for example, Diogenes Laertius 1.33). These groups are perceived as being different, and they have no ‘voice’ and tend to be marginalized, albeit to varying degrees; only the prototypical adult male has the ability to be fully articulate (see Fögen, 2004).

However, the boundaries between the norm and divergences from it are not always sufficiently clear-cut. Whenever animals are looked at from a more emotional perspective, they often lose their animalistic nature, albeit never completely. In Graeco-Roman antiquity as well as in the modern world, humans who have a more intense affective relationship with animals are prepared to anthropomorphize them and attribute some form of ‘speech’ or communicative competence to them; this, of course, says much more about the subjective attitudes of certain individuals than the actual capabilities of animals.

What is perhaps most striking about some of the ancient testimonies on animal communication and human speech is the conviction of some authors that language per se does not turn humans into ethically responsible people. Much more important than just possessing the capacity for language is using it appropriately, as has been emphasized in particular by Aristotle and Cicero in their rhetorical works.

Suggested Reading

An extensive research bibliography (last updated in May 2006) on ‘Animals in Graeco-Roman Antiquity and Beyond’, which was compiled by Thorsten Fögen and includes a section on animal communication, is available online ( A more extensive discussion of ancient sources on animal communication and human language is provided by Fögen’s study (2007b), which also offers a comprehensive list of secondary literature, including numerous titles from modern communication research and ethology. Particularly valuable is Ax’s monograph (1986) on the three ancient terms psophos, phōnē, and dialektos. In addition, one may consult the article by Tabarroni (1988). The topic of animal communication is also dealt with, though not exclusively, by Dierauer (1977), Sorabji (1993), Levine Gera (2003), and Heath (2005).


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