Prairie Dog Language?
by Ronald P. Millett and John P. Pratt
Meridian Magazine

The ability to formulate and use language has long been considered to be a key differentiating characteristic that distinguishes man from animals.

As part of a twenty year study of prairie dogs, researchers led by Con Slobodchikoff, a Northern Arizona University biology professor, have now been able to analyze linguistic characteristics of their warning calls that appear to qualify as a limited language. Prairie dogs have the ability to use nouns and modifiers, and even coin new "words." Their barks clearly distinguish between dogs and coyotes, and can include sounds for concepts such as size and color.

Latter-day saints believe that although God did not make the animals "in His own image, nor endow them with God-like reason and intelligence", he did endow them with a degree of divine intelligence and they will enjoy "eternal felicity" in the resurrection (D&C 77:3).

We authors would not be surprised if Balaam's donkey really were allowed to say "What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?" (Numbers 22:28). Perhaps Balaam was just allowed to read the animal's thoughts but that would serve the purpose just as well.

Any language behavior by animals would seem to us to prove even more the divine design and creation of life. The recent articles proclaiming new discoveries in the linguistic abilities of prairie dogs show a fairly complex level of language use for these small creatures that are considered to be of minimal intelligence.

The Prairie Dog's Warning Barks

At first, the short, repeated warning barks of the sentry prairie dogs as they see a potential predator may seem very much alike, perhaps being general warning calls.

After recognizing different bark names for predators such as red-tailed hawks, coyotes, dogs, skunks and badgers, other words were also found for non-predators such as deer, elk, antelope and cows. Clearly the prairie dog vocabulary includes a variety of nouns as names of various types of animals.

Then another amazing language characteristic emerged: the ability to add modifiers to a basic noun category. The prairie dogs have different words for attributes such as color, size, and speed of travel. There were different words for different kinds of dogs, for a man with a yellow coat, and even for a man with a yellow coat with a gun.

When the man with the yellow coat and gun came out the next day without the gun, he was still given the same bark from the day before when he had a gun. The memory of the name for one specific person was retained for a period of two months.

The research has shown at least 20 different basic prairie dog words describing predators, with many more variations to account for modifiers, totaling about 100 words. That does not mean their vocabulary is limited to that number of words, but rather it indicates the current state of our knowledge.

It takes many experiments to verify each new word. The test environment of predators and the resulting sentry bark responses allow the researchers to actually understand the topic of conversation, a subject not easily controlled in scientific experiments. At this time we have no idea what prairie dogs might talk about over breakfast.

Coining New Words

When something totally new such a European ferret was shown to isolated prairie dogs, each immediately barked out a new warning word.

What came as a complete surprise was that when the new predator was shown to widely separated prairie dogs from different colonies, each barked the same word to describe the never-before-seen ferret. Just how could they do that? As Alice in Wonderland said, this is getting "curiouser and curiouser."

Later, to see just how far this unique coining ability extended, totally new test objects were shown to the colonies. The researchers made plywood cutouts with silhouettes of a coyote, a skunk and even a black oval. As they pulled these silhouettes through the prairie dog town with a rope, once again without hesitation the prairie dogs came up with new words for each, and again these same words were used by all prairie dogs tested. The use of non-living objects as these seems to weaken any explanation that the prairie dogs were discerning a universal spiritual name emitted by the living predator itself. How could all prairie dogs instantly know the word for "black oval"?

The amazing aspect of the prairie dogs' coining of new words is that they always came up with the same new word. This ability to coin identical new words between separated groups does not occur in human languages. A new word for a new unfamiliar object is not the same from one group of people to the next. But the prairie dog bark for "black oval" is the same from one prairie dog to the next, even with one isolated from the other in remote colonies.

"'There are no black ovals running around out there and yet they all had the same word for black oval,' Slobodchikoff said. He guesses the prairie dogs are genetically programmed with some vocabulary and the ability to describe things."

If he is correct, can you imagine the complexity of programming these words into the DNA of these rodents? How many bits would be involved? How would this ability plus the new words that might someday be needed (such as black oval) be programmed?

Having spent much of our careers tackling hard problems in the field of Artificial Intelligence such as language translation, full text information retrieval, and Boeing 777 functional electrical analysis, we authors have a great respect for programming even the simplest of the answers to these questions. To us it seems unimaginably difficult to have words to describe all possible objects pre-programmed into a rodent.

The complex systems of language that we take for granted are dependent on logical and programming capabilities that are themselves more complex than the tasks they implement. This is why software programmers never look at a section of programming code and say: "I wonder how this code sprang into being" or "Wow! This code must have evolved over millions of years by chance." We always look at complex code and see an intelligence behind it. Something as complex as the creation of life with its programmed capabilities certainly to us implies a Master Programmer.

Believe in God

So how do the prairie dogs come up with the word for "black oval"? It would appear that they either get it from outside of themselves or from within, and to us, none of the theories yet proposed for either method has much chance of being correct. Our best theories are totally inadequate to explain these observations, and each new experiment seems to produce even more confounding results. The supposedly sophisticated linguists are "speechless" when it comes to explaining even the simplest syllables of a prairie dog.

To us authors, our best posture to explain these results is to simply believe the Book of Mormon admonition:
Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend. (Mosiah 4:9)

This article has summarized groundbreaking research that reveals sophisticated language use by the prairie dog. Their ability to coin new words has thus far defied reasonable explanation. To us it indicates that a divine Creator was required to endow these rodents with this language gift. Surely, even a higher level of design and intelligence would be required to enable the incredibly more complex linguistic abilities of mankind as spiritual children of the Living God.

(Edited by David Van Alstyne)

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