Animal communication and human language

Hansjörg Mayer, square alphabet, 1967


It is also society that is the condition of language.

Applied to the animal world, the notion of language only gets credit for an abuse of terms. We know that it has been impossible so far to establish that animals have, even in a rudimentary form, a mode of expression that has the characters and functions of human language. All serious observations made about animal communities have failed, all attempts made by various techniques to provoke or control any form of speech resembling that of men. It does not seem that animals that emit varied screams manifest, at the time of these vocal emissions, behaviors from which we infer that “spoken” messages are transmitted. The fundamental conditions for properly linguistic communication seem to be lacking in the world of animals, even higher ones.

The question presents itself differently to bees, or at least we must face the fact that it may. Everything leads to believe – and the fact has been observed for a long time – that bees have a way of communicating. The prodigious organization of their colonies, their differentiated and coordinated activities, their capacity to react collectively in the face of unforeseen situations, suggest that they have the skills to exchange real messages. Observers' attention was particularly drawn to the way in which bees are warned when one of them discovers a source of food.

A worker harvester bee, finding, for example, in flight a sugary solution by means of which it falls into a trap, immediately feeds on it. While it feeds, the experimenter takes care to mark it. The bee then returns to its hive. A few moments later, a group of bees can be seen arriving at the same place, among which the marked bee is not to be found and which all come from the same hive.

She must have warned her companions. It is really necessary that they have been accurately informed, as they arrive without a guide to the place, which is often at a great distance from the hive and always out of sight. There is no mistake or hesitation in locating: if the first one has chosen a flower among others that could equally attract it, the bees that come after its return will throw themselves on that one and abandon the others. Apparently, the scout bee indicated to her mates where she came from. But in what way?

This fascinating problem has long challenged observers. Karl von Frisch (professor of Zoology at the University of Munich) owes it to Karl von Frisch, through the experiments he has been carrying out for some thirty years, to have established the principles of a solution. His research made known the process of communication between bees. He observed, in a transparent hive, the behavior of a bee that returns after finding food. It is immediately surrounded by its companions in the midst of great effervescence, and these extend their antennae towards it to collect the pollen it is laden with, or absorb the nectar it spews. Then, followed by her companions, she performs dances. It is at this essential moment of the process and the act of communication itself.

The bee indulges, depending on the case, in one of two different dances. One is to draw horizontal circles from right to left, then from left to right in succession. The other, accompanied by a continuous vibration of the abdomen (wagging-dance, “belly dance”), more or less imitates the figure of a figure 8: the bee flies straight, then makes a complete turn to the left, flies straight again, starts a complete turn to the right again, and so on. After the dances, one or more bees leave the hive and go directly to the source that the first one had visited, and after satiating themselves, they return to the hive where, in turn, they indulge in the same dances, which causes new departures. , so that after a few comings and goings, hundreds of bees have already flocked to the place where the first one discovered food.

The dance in circles and the dance in figure eight are, therefore, true messages through which the discovery is signaled to the hive. It remained to find the difference between the two dances. K. von Frisch thought it was about the nature of food: the circular dance would announce the nectar, the figure eight, the pollen. These data, with their interpretation, presented in 1923, are current notions today and already popularized.[I] It is understandable that they have aroused keen interest. Even demonstrated, however, they do not allow us to speak of a true language.

These aspects are now completely renewed by the experiments that Karl von Frisch carried out later, expanding and correcting his first observations. He made them known in 1948 in technical publications and, summarized very clearly, in 1950 in a small volume reproducing lectures given in the United States.[ii] After thousands of experiments of truly admirable patience and ingenuity, he managed to determine the meaning of the dances. The fundamental novelty consists in that they relate not, as he had initially thought, to the nature of the find, but to the distance that separates this find from the hive.

The circle dance announces that the place of food must be sought at a small distance, within a radius of approximately one hundred meters around the hive. The bees then leave and spread around the hive until they have found it. The other dance that the worker harvester performs vibrating and describing figure eights (wagging-dance), indicates that the point is located at a greater distance, beyond one hundred meters and up to six kilometers. This message has two distinct indications – one about the distance, the other about the direction.

Distance is implied by the number of figures drawn in a given time; always varies in the inverse ratio of its frequency. For example, the bee describes nine to ten complete "eights" in fifteen seconds when the distance is one hundred meters, seven for two hundred meters, four and a half for one kilometer, and two only for six kilometers. The greater the distance, the slower the dance. As for the direction in which to look for the find, it is the axis of the “eight” that points towards the sun; depending on whether it tilts to the right or left, this axis indicates the angle that the site of discovery forms with the sun. Bees are able to orient themselves even in overcast weather, due to a particular sensitivity to polarized light.

In practice, there are slight variations from one bee to another or from one hive to another in the evaluation of distance, but not in the choice of one or the other dance. These results are the product of approximately four thousand experiments, which other zoologists, at first skeptical, repeated in Europe and the United States, and finally confirmed.[iii] We now have the means of ensuring that it is really dance, in its two forms, which serves the bees to inform their companions about their findings and guide them by means of indications about direction and distance. The bees, perceiving the scent of the harvester or absorbing the nectar it has swallowed, discover moreover the nature of the find. They in turn undertake their flight and reach the spot with certainty. From there, the observer can, according to the type and rhythm of the dance, predict the behavior of the hive and verify the transmitted indications.

The importance of these findings for animal psychology studies need not be stressed. We would like to insist here on a less visible aspect of the problem that K. von Frisch – concerned with objectively describing his experiences – did not touch. We are for the first time in a position to specify with some precision the mode of communication employed in an insect colony; and for the first time we can imagine the functioning of an animal “language”. It may be useful to point out briefly what it is and is not a language in, and how these observations about bees help to define, by similarity or by contrast, human language.

Bees are capable of producing and understanding a true message that contains countless data. They can therefore record position and distance relationships; they can keep them in “memory”; they can communicate them by symbolizing them by various somatic behaviors. The notable fact is initially that they manifest an aptitude for symbolizing: there is even a “conventional” correspondence between their behavior and the data they translate. This correspondence is perceived by the other bees in the terms in which it is transmitted to them and becomes an action engine. So far we have found, in bees, the very conditions without which no language is possible – the ability to formulate and interpret a “sign” that refers to a certain “reality”, the memory of experience and the ability to decompose it.

The transmitted message contains three data, the only ones identifiable so far: the existence of a food source, its distance and its direction. These elements could be ordered a little differently. The circle dance simply indicates the presence of the find, determining that it is at a small distance. It is based on the mechanical principle of “all or nothing”. The other dance truly formulates communication; this time, it is the existence of food that is implicit in the two data (distance, direction) expressly stated. One sees here many points of resemblance to human language. These processes put into action a true albeit rudimentary symbolism, through which objective data are transposed into formalized gestures, which include variable elements of constant “meaning”. Furthermore, the situation and function are those of a language, in the sense that the system is valid within a given community and that each member of that community has aptitudes to use or understand it in the same terms.

The differences are, however, considerable and help to become aware of what really characterizes human language. The first, essential, is that the message of the bees consists entirely of dancing, without the intervention of a “vocal” apparatus, while there is no language without a voice. Hence another difference arises, which is of a physical nature. Communication in bees, not being vocal, but gestural, is necessarily carried out in conditions that allow visual perception, under daylight; it cannot occur in obscurity. Human language knows no such limitation.

A capital difference also appears in the situation in which communication takes place. The bees' message does not elicit any response from the environment, only certain behavior, which is not a response. This means that bees do not know dialogue, which is the condition of human language. We speak with others who speak, this is the human reality. This reveals a new contrast. Because there is no dialogue for bees, communication only refers to certain objective data. There can be no communication concerning a “linguistic” datum; not only because there is no response, the response being a linguistic reaction to another linguistic manifestation; but also in the sense that the message of a bee cannot be reproduced by another that has not seen itself in the facts that the first one announces.

It has not been proven that a bee will, for example, take the message it received in its own to another hive, which would be a form of transmission or retransmission. One sees the difference in human language, in which, in the dialogue, the reference to objective experience and the reaction to the linguistic manifestation are mixed freely, to infinity. The bee does not construct a message from another message. Each one that, alerted by the dance of the first, leaves and goes to feed at the indicated point, reproduces the same information when it returns, not from the first message, but from the reality that it has just verified. Now, the character of language is to provide a substitute for experience that is suitable for endless transmission in time and space, which is typical of our symbolism and the foundation of the linguistic tradition.

If we now consider the content of the message, it will be easy to see that it refers always and only to one piece of data, the food, and that the only variants it contains are related to special data. The contrast with the unlimited content of human language is evident. Furthermore, the behavior that signifies the message of the bees denotes a particular symbolism that consists of a copying of the objective situation, of the only situation that makes a message possible, without any possible variation or transposition. Now, in human language, the symbol in general does not configure the data of experience, in the sense that there is no necessary relationship between the objective reference and the linguistic form. There would be many distinctions to be made here under the aspect of human symbolism, the nature and workings of which have been little studied. The difference, however, remains.

A final character of bee communication is strongly opposed to human languages. The message of the bees cannot be analysed. We can only see them as a global content, the only difference being linked to the spatial position of the reported object. It is impossible, however, to decompose this content into its formative elements, into its “morphemes”, in such a way as to make each of these morphemes correspond to an element of the utterance. Human language is characterized precisely there. Each utterance is reduced to elements that can be freely combined according to defined rules, so that a very small number of morphemes allows a considerable number of combinations – from which the variety of human language is born, which is the ability to say everything.

A more in-depth analysis of language shows that these morphemes, elements of meaning, are resolved, in turn, into phonemes, articulatory elements devoid of meaning, even less numerous, whose selective and distinctive assembly provides the significant units. These “empty” phonemes, organized into systems, form the basis of all languages. It is clear that the language of bees does not allow for the isolation of similar constituents; it is not reduced to identifiable and distinctive elements.

The set of these observations reveals the essential difference between the communication processes discovered between bees and our language. This difference boils down to the time that seems to us the most appropriate to define the mode of communication used by the bees; it's not a language, it's a sign code. All characters result from this: the fixity of the content, the invariability of the message, the reference to a single situation, the indecomposable nature of the utterance, its unilateral transmission. It is, however, significant that this code, the only form of “language” that can still be discovered among animals, is characteristic of insects that live in society.

It is also society that is the condition of language. Indirectly clarifying the conditions of human language and the symbolism it supposes is not the least interest of K. von Frisch's discoveries – in addition to the revelations they bring us about the world of insects. It is possible that the progress of research will make us penetrate deeper into understanding the impulses and modalities of this type of communication, but having established that it exists and what it is and how it works already means that we will better see where language begins and how it is delimited. The man.[iv]

*Emile Benveniste (1902-1976) was professor of comparative grammar at the Collège de France. Author, among other books, of The man in language (Brasiliense).

Translation: Maria da Glória Novak and Luiza Neri.

Originally published in the magazine Diogenes, I (1952).


[I] So Maurice Mathis, Le peuple des abeilles, p.70: “Doctor K. von Frisch had discovered … the behavior of the bee hooked around the hive. Depending on the nature of the finding to be explored, honey or pollen, the hooked bee will perform a true demonstration dance on the wax cakes, turning in a circle for a sugary substance, describing eights for the pollen”.

[ii] Karl von Frisch, Bees, their vision, chemical senses and language, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1950.

[iii] See Donald R. Griffin's introduction to K. von Frisch's book, p. VII.

[iv] [1965]. For an overview of recent research on animal communication and bee language in particular, see an article by TA Sebeok, published in Science, 1965, p. 1006 ff.

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