As a survey of the evidence, this is a rewarding book. In her final pages, however, Meijer tackles the philosophical and ethical implications. Language, she argues, is not a uniquely human ability — and there’s no reason for us to consider ourselves exceptional. For Meijer, this means we must treat animals very differently, recognising specific rights for instance. Not everyone will agree. But it would be hard to argue with the book’s central point. Instead of asking if animal vocalisations, gestures or actions “count” as language, Meijer writes, “we should instead pay attention to what they are saying”.
Deploying case after case, Meijer proves that many animals are sophisticated, more intelligent than we may have assumed and often surprising (‘Animals Do the Darndest Things’ could have been a workable alternative title). Yet proving that all of this communicative activity amounts to one or more ‘languages’ is a challenge she should have approached with more seriousness.