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Editor’s Note: Word Power

The difference between human language and animal communication is about more than speech, David Shariatmadari explains in his new book Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language.

Shariatmadari writes, “Dolphins have accents. Birds have grammar. So what is it that makes human communication different from monkey howls and whale calls?” One important reason, he notes, is a sense of time and distance.

“When a vervet monkey issues its eagle call it means there’s an eagle hovering somewhere above,” writes Shariatmadari. “Human language is different: we frequently use it to refer to things that aren’t close by.” Humans discuss events that are far away geographically or are anticipated sometime in the future. This is called displacement, according to Shariatmadari, and it doesn’t occur in the wild. “Apes don’t use their calls to reminisce.”

However, animals do share the human trait of cultural transmission, which gives rise to dialects and accents in human language. In animals, just as in humans, small groups and isolation contribute to the rise of dialects. “Killer whales, which live in stable, matrilineal ‘pods,’ produce a range of distinct calls—up to 17, according to one study—that are recognized by all members. We don’t know what they mean, but we do know that they differ from those of other, genetically identical groups,” writes Shariatmadari.

However, despite its complexity in some areas, language is sometimes much simpler than we think. To explain this concept, Shariatmadari offers the example of the honeycomb. “It is so precise, so systematic, that it must be instinctive,” writes Shariatmadari. However, scientists now know the hexagons are the inevitable outcome of a mathematical law. When spheres are placed together with pressure from all sides, hexagons result. “Therefore, the bee’s innate knowledge of hexagons need consist of nothing more than a tendency to pack wax with their hemispheric heads from a wide variety of directions,” according to Shariatmadari.

Similarly, language need not be innate or mysterious. For example, Shariatmadari notes that around 96 percent of languages place the subject of a sentence before the object. This could be a function of innate brain patterning in humans. Or, it could be that language order mimics the order of events.

All of this means that we can alter our language, be aware of our dialect, and seek to communicate in a sophisticated manner if we can just learn how.

This month’s cover story by Senior Content Manager Mark Tarallo discusses the complex dance of two-way communication between a manager and a direct report.

As Shariatmadari notes, it makes sense that “to speak the same language” has become an idiom suggesting recognition, empathy, and cooperation. For managers, according to Tarallo’s research, speaking the same language requires a specific set of skills—learn the language style of your direct reports, make expectations clear, and listen.