A gorilla communicating with humans via modified American Sign Language. Dogs and pigs scoring higher than third-graders on intelligence tests. Humpback whales singing to Queen songs played from British submarines.
All of this is well established. We know animals have their own form of intelligence that can challenge and match the human mind.
The next real step involves humans and animals using digital technology to communicate original thoughts in real time.
And that begs a serious editorial question: Will we – should we – correct poor animal grammar?
Some researchers say yes, we should. Some advocates for free animal speech say this is human elitism. Other researchers and editors would leave animal grammar alone.
British animal behavior and communication researcher Sir Thothtim Dahlton-Dimmesdale, at the Royalist Academy for Inter-Interpolation, in Bath, has performed communications research with meerkats, Corgis, and hyenas since the 1990s. He had early breakthroughs in both comprehending animal grammar and offering research subjects what he calls “modification.”
“Once an animal is communicating with you, either through physical sign-language, the way meerkats like to do, or pictograms, like Corgis, you don’t want to introduce the idea of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ grammar too soon,” Dahlton-Dimmesdale writes in his breakthrough report, “Refining Animal Communications: A Style Guide,” published in the Scottish Journal of Multiple Tongues this past February.
“You can, however, help such talkative species modify their communications until you have them more closely following the desired style guide,” he says, “whether it’s Oxford or MLA style or the Chicago Manual.”
Some American researchers in animal communication are not so much concerned about correct grammar as they are about differentiating human and animal communication on-line.
“Once higher-level animals begin using social media, we’ve got to be able to tell the difference between them and humans,” says Dr. Hoovah Dulles, a language-protection expert at the Brain Stem Institute in Washington DC. “Being able to recognize the human communicators quickly is a matter of national security.”
Dr. Dulles gives this example: “Our projections show that gibbons and pigs and other linguistic-animal types will communicate about sex and food nearly 98.9-percent of the time on social media. Humans communicate about sex and food 97.9-percent of the time.”
She continues: “In that scant 2.1-percent of human communication is where all the real critical thinking is happening—and where you’ll find your security risks. But if we teach animals good grammar while human grammar continues to fail, our algorithms might mistake a politically astute gibbon for a security risk. And then what happens?”
Researchers concerned with animal-grammar security matters have a particular ally: the Global Defenders of Animal Communication (GDAC).
“Where does editing stop being about clarity among humans and turn into elitism against animals?” G.J. Billiard, chief of GDAC, in Zurich, said in an April 1 press release. “We have to let animals teach us in their way, in their speech, without our changing that.”
Billiard calls for what GDAC has termed the “separation of editing”: “Editing is for human communication only.”
However, as Dahlton-Dimmesdale has found out the hard way, some animal species have an innate grammar system that cannot be changed.
“I once tried to show a large male spotted hyena that he should have used affect and not effect,” Dahlton-Dimmesdale says, “and he tried to rip my face off. When I asked him why he did that, he used the typical hyeanish interpretive dance to say, ‘Understood me you. Correct not-not. Hunger for flesh.’”
What, however, does this all mean for content strategists, editors, and copy editors around the world? What will they do when orangutans, German shepherds, kola bears, and sperm whales are all Twittering, texting, blogging, and blowing up Yik Yak?
Is this a whole new market for content people?
Yes – but only if the animals ask. If an animal asks for grammar help, an editor should explain his or her hourly rates and then offer assistance.
And if a hyena performs an interpretive dance with a clumsy English translation, don’t be a grammar cop – just quickly offer lunch.
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