Current understanding of human language says that we all have portions of our brains directly assigned to language processing, and that every human language is at foundation the same, with nouns, verbs, and so on all doing the same job in each. As described by one theorist, a man from Mars examining humans might find we were all speaking the same language, only in different dialects. What if we looked at an even broader sample of creatures on the planet? Tim Friend, a science journalist, in _Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language_, reviews all the many ways that animals have of talking to each other (not just by sound), to find that there is a far broader understanding between animals of different species (including humans) than we may have guessed before. Humans have developed remarkable and complex verbal languages, but it's the nonverbal communication that we often share with animals. It is not too surprising, given that natural selection and sexual selection have operated on us all from the beginning, that we animals share a range of signals. Not only that, but we talk about the same things every day: "... that is, sex, real estate, who's boss, and what's for dinner."
To be sure, reviewed here are many ways that animals communicate in which humans cannot participate. We don't use the pheromones that bacteria use to exchange information, nor do we signal bees with dances. But insects and animals use yellow or red colors as a universal signal for "stay away," and everyone knows what a rattlesnake's noise means. More significant, however, in Friend's book are the sounds that we share with other animals. Many of these are obvious. For instance, imagine you are talking to a baby; you instinctively use a high pitch and soft, smooth tones. On the other hand, if you are warning a child against touching a hot stove, you use a low pitch, harshness, and staccato. This is the sort of thing that all we animals do, universally. We humans might apply words to the sounds we emit, but we have growls, barks, and whines just as birds, dogs, and lions do. Friend draws upon the work of Eugene Morton to illustrate many instances of the grammatical rules of this nonverbal language. For instance, harsh, low frequency sounds mean the animal is thinking of attacking; high frequency sounds mean submission and lack of hostility if approached. A boss who is angry uses a low voice and stops at every word. A child who wants candy uses a high pleading voice, "Please, please, please." Using the grammar, it is possible for humans to make noises as interspecies communications, modifying the behavior of squirrels or even wolves.
In one species after another, Friend describes the different ways that dominance is asserted and settled. We aren't above such nonverbal communication. A couple of researchers went back to all the presidential debates since 1960. They found that they could pick, by deeper pitch and by voice accommodation patterns, the dominant speaker in each debate, and that the dominant speaker always went on to win the popular vote. (Perhaps the candidates now preparing for the debates ought to spend less time memorizing statistics and more time practicing pitch.) Friend's entertaining book shows that animals all over are using all sorts of surprising ways to talk to each other, and to us, and that if we will but listen, they have plenty to teach us, even about our own ways of communicating to each other.