Sunday, 15 March 2015

Abstract for "Animals in the Anthropocene" conference: "Proto-language in wolves"

On Friday this week I took part in composing and submitting the abstract below to the September 17-19th conference "Animals in the Anthropocene: Human-animal relations in a changing semiosphere".


Proto-language in wolves
Morten Tønnessen (University of Stavanger) and Paul Thibault (University of Agder)

Like several other animals (and human infants), wolves have proto-language. In human development, proto-language precedes and is the foundation of the child’s development of the adult language. In animals, proto-language forms an important part of their communicative repertoire. In animals and humans alike, proto-language is characterized by the absence of grammar, and is directly tied to internal bodily states and/or to aspects of situations. In other words, actual use of proto-language is often action-related, for instance by directing attention.

In terms of the tripartite Umwelt model (Tønnessen, based on Uexküll), animal interjections can be associated with the conceptual aspect of Umwelt, where in the human case linguistic practices are placed. In animals too, the conceptual Umwelt is characterized by predicative reasoning, i.e. the habitual, mental attribution of specific features to someone or something. However, the mediated aspect of Umwelt also comes into play as far as mediation, e.g. anticipation and memory, enters the picture, as is typically the case with emotions, which are often at the basis of interjections.

We will analyze a data set involving captive wolves, aiming to identify animal interjections performed in a range of situation types. We will be looking for patterns and variation, e.g. between different groups (packs), with a view to determining the range of meanings and situations in which different interjections occur. We hypothesize that since interjections are very likely to some extent conventionalized, there will be systematic, observable variations grounded in the lived experience of social relations, whether intra–pack, or human–animal. Of interest here is the extent to which these calls or interjections are not merely expressive of internal states but serve communicative and thus social functions such as coordinating relations between individuals in the group. Our assumption is that interjections are often learned through experience, in a social setting. By comparing instances of interjections in wolves, we will also consider how the individual and social agency of wolves is enacted through these vocalizations, and how it contributes to individual and group development. This implies that socialization is always in part self-socialization (i.e. that socialization always involves individuation).

Acknowledgement: This work has been carried out thanks to the support of the research project Animals in Changing Environments: Cultural Mediation and Semiotic Analysis (EEA Norway Grants/Norway Financial Mechanism 2009–2014 under project contract no. EMP151).

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