Communication phenomena in the animal kingdom imply interactions between biological structures and environmental influences. Applied to human language, their study requires treating the four fundamental questions raised by Tinbergen. First, the question of the mechanism: to understand the neurological and physiological mechanisms underlying communication systems. Second, the question of function: to evaluate communication systems in terms of their effects on survival and reproduction. Third, the ontogeny question: to determinate genetic and environmental factors that permit the emergence of communication, and finally, the phylogeny question: to understand the emergence of communication and its internal organization in light of species evolution. The answer to these questions and the explanation of observed phenomena require understanding of individual variation, group dialectal variation and evolution of communications systems within adequate models.
Comparisons of communication systems of different animal species and human languages show numerous similarities even when such comparisons involve species as different as primates, birds and cetaceans. However, this comparative approach has never been systematically applied to the concept of dialect. Within the vocalizations of certain bird species, as within the same human language, we find varieties to which the generic term of dialect can be applied. Song differences between groups or even between different nests are frequently observed. Among whales, the contact between groups from different parts of the oceans shows that within a very short time, a clan may adopt and use a new song. This comparative perspective compels us to investigate dimensions of individual variation and dialectal variation within a collectivity of individuals, as well as the evolution of communication systems and the biological and social functions of differentiation.
One of the main goals of the comparison between human language and animal communication is to shed light on the principles upon which communication within the living world’s species is based. We also aim to model communication systems as emergent organizations in the context of shared physical and social environments where the usage confrontation impulse changes in the historical time scale. The substance and the content of messages, the cognitive processing and the multiplication of interactions then generate the structures and patterns of communication specific to each species. These questions are of concern both to linguists studying variation in human language (dialectologists and sociolinguists) and to biologist specializing in varieties of animal communication (ethologists and zoologists). The answer to these questions requires that these two scientific communities meet. Apart from scattered individual contacts, to our knowledge, no scientific event has ever been devoted to organizing such a meeting. This is the goal of the two-day workshop that we are organizing in Grenoble on 4 and 5 March, 2013.