Robert Ullrich

Robert Ullrich

Norms for constructing language in humans and animals

Habelschwerdter Allee 45
Raum JK24/121d
14195 Berlin


When writing about non-human and human animal’s ‘language’, scientists apply the same term to different concepts. Some ascribe ‘language’ to communication others to thinking (e.g. Evans and Marler 1995, 370 – 374 vs. Scott-Phillips 2015, 79 – 83).


The confusion is caused by implicit background assumptions to the entire concept. Some assumptions follow normative attitudes. Those will be denoted as ‘norms’. Norms signify what is ‘commonly done’ (i.e. descriptive norms), or they express what is ‘commonly approved’ (i.e. social norms). Norms may exist independently of behaviour or empirical evidence, but because of commonly shared values of a group.


By spelling out normative background assumptions one might be able to reveal the skeleton upon which the faculty of 'language' is constructed. Also, it may help to get clear about the very role of norms. On the one side they motivate research in opposed areas, thus responsible for detecting incompatible facts to competing approaches. On the other side they motivate a discussion about incompatible normative approaches by itself. However, as is planned to show, it is the discussion of incompatible facts, rather than that of normative approaches which will lead to progress in ‘language’ research.


Evans, Christopher S, and Peter Marler. 1995. “Language and Animal Communication: Parallels and Contrasts.” In Comparative Approaches to Cognitive Science, edited by Herbert L. Roitblat and Jean-Arcady Meyer, 341–82. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Scott-Phillips, Thomas C. 2015. Speaking Our Minds. Why Human Communication Is Different, and How Language Evolved to Make It Special. London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ullrich, Robert; Norton, Philipp; Scharff, Constance (2016): ‘Waltzing Taeniopygia: Integration of Courtship Song and Dance in the Domesticated Australian Zebra Finch’; Animal Behaviour, Vol. 112, 285–300.

Ullrich, Robert (submitted): From ‘speech’ to ‘gesture’: The ‘oral’ as norm in ‘language’ research; Jahrbuch Interdisziplinäre Anthropologie

Ullrich R. (2016). Norms For Constructing Language In Humans And Animals.
In S.G. Roberts, C. Cuskley, L. McCrohon, L. Barceló-Coblijn, O. Fehér &
T. Verhoef (eds.) The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th
International Conference (EVOLANG11). Available online: