Tidbits of Inspiration: The Language of the Prairie Dogs

I heard this delightfully entertaining story on NPR this morning about the discovery of a “language” spoken by Prairie Dogs.  It was a funny but also a thought-provoking story.  Effectively, the researchers discovered that the prairie dogs have different warning calls for different predators entering into their prairie dog towns.  But then it went a step further.  They found that the prairie dogs changed their calls for different humans – and in fact there was a layer of their call that meant “human” and a bunch of other layers that were describing the human as short or tall, and what color shirt he was wearing. 

What I also found interesting was that the changes in the call were in the layers of tones in the call.  While I could tell the difference between the high, the medium, and the low pitch of the calls heard during the story, the Prairie Dogs hear more than that – they hear the collection of tones that make up the sound.  And different undertones could mean, for the prairie dogs, different colors and shapes and different animals. 

Which, to me, means this story has very interesting implications for artificial language development.  If you’re writing a sci-fi story with unusual aliens – maybe those aliens have a language like that of the Prairie dogs – one that’s tonal.

Now, tonal languages exist in the greater family of human languages.  But this is something different.  Human tonal language can differentiate meaning between words that are high-pitched or low-pitched, where the pitch is rising or falling, and so on.  But the prairie dog variant hears more than this top-level tone.  It hears the layers of sound that make it up, and can differentiate between an extremely high variety of tones. 

Listening to such a language might be like listening to music, from human ears.  And that’s something to be inspired by.

9 thoughts on “Tidbits of Inspiration: The Language of the Prairie Dogs

    • I agree. I can’t think of an immediate use – or rather, not one that’s fantasy, since this inspires rather science-fictional thoughts, which I’m much lesser-versed in than fantasy… But it strikes me as a very cool source of inspiration for some kind of hyper-prairie-dogs-from-space!

  1. I enjoyed this segment a couple of months ago when I heard it on RadioLab. It is a good source of inspiration. I don’t know chronology, but I recently wrote a story with a shape-changing species forced to live underwater that forced them into a more tonal (I think dolphin more than prairie dog) language because it can be understood at better distances.

  2. I’m glad you are sharing these (I’ve already found a way to use the largest cave setting you posted recently). I always struggled because I enjoy being a generalist (knowing a little bit about everything) rather than knowing a heck-of-a-lot about a single tiny thing that no one else knows (aka getting a PhD). However, writers seem to be one career where it pays to enjoy being a generalist.

    • Indeed. And it seems it’s possible to strike a balance between breadth and depth of knowledge… to know quite a lot about a lot of different things, but also a heckuva lot more about some very specific things…

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