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ALOY NNAMDI OBIKA Department of English,

Madonna University, Okija, Anambra State 08033820690


OBIORA EKE, PhD Department of English,

Madonna University, Okija, Anambra State 08033552388


Folktales all over the world portray animals that speak and discuss their problems just like humans. This condition has generated a lot of observations and misconceptions. Some see it that since animals have never been seen conversing, that the way they are depicted in tales is to use them as masks to hide the identity of real persons. Others because of the humanoid animal characters see the tales as creations of inchoate minds which should be left for those who study antiquities. Be it as it may, it is the stand of this paper that these animals converse and communicate just as the stories relate. The problem with us is that we are too far removed from them and we expect them to speak or talk just like us. Therefore, this enquiry depicts how these animals communicate, and meaningfully too, just as the tales relate.

Key words: chemical communication, extrasensory communication, sign language, communication using sound


In all folktales, we encounter animal characters who speak as humans do. A situation like this has generated a lot of opinions from analysts. Some want to know why animals should do that which ordinarily, we do not see them doing in real life. Some have it that the creators of these stories used animal characters so as to hide behind them to air their views. Some say that these characters represent human beings and their actions. None seem to associate these actions with actual happenings among animals. That can explain the view that:

In these narratives, the animal characters have all the physical features of animals. Yet, everything else about them is anthropomorphic; they certainly behave like human beings. Thus they are regarded as masks for making social comments on contemporary issues. The conteurs are, however, shielded from the wrath of those who are portrayed in bad light in these tales … (Okafor 191).

Further, many people regard these stories as creations from senile

grandmothers to their gullible grandchildren. From this, the popular statement of old wives’ tales come into being. But then, it is the stand of this enquiry that what the tales relate about how these animals talk is actual. Therefore, contrary to the quoted statement above, it is not everything about these animal characters that is anthropomorphized. These animals behave to some extent as they are said to do and talk as the tales relate. But here, we are only to explore the view that animals in real life talk as our raconteurs say.


20 the chimpanzee which is nearest to man, there are still a lot of differences. Concerning this we are made to know that:

…unlike man, nonhuman primates do not appear to change the shape of their supralaryngeal vocal tracks by moving their tongues during the production of a cry. [The source further has it that] … the tongues of the non-human primates are long and that their supralaryngeal vocal tracts cannot assume the range of shape changes characteristic of human speech (Wilson 105).

This is how it is in the animal whose anatomy is nearest to man’s anatomy. But in the tales, we have all sorts of animals -- ants, birds, reptiles, and all of them are depicted talking. If the apes have such a shortcoming, what becomes of others? But still, our stand is that they “speak” to each other and among themselves in very understandable ways.

However, the major hindrance we have in understanding this is that we expect them to speak like us. But as we pointed out earlier, this is impossible. Also, we are being hindered by the words “speak” and “talk”. But the traditional raconteur has no replacement for these two basic words in communication. That explains why we have the name “talking drum” for a hollow instrument with a dried animal skin at one end. That instrument is not even alive but the beating is such that clear information is relayed to those who can interpret. To us, it is a talking drum because using it, a drummer conveys information to others.

Also, another hindrance making it impossible for us to grasp the fact that these animals “speak” in clear terms with each other is that humans are so enamored with their language that any other language is substandard except when historically it has been proved that the owners of that other language were in the past superior to their people. Therefore, their language becomes a choice language just as their behaviour is. That explains the dominance of the English language today in many parts of the world, including Nigeria.

Therefore, to many, any language different from theirs is a strange and inferior lingo. Even today, the Yoruba people speak only “mgbati mgbati” to the Igbo man who only speaks “inyamiri” to the Hausa people. To the Yoruba people, the Hausa man is an “aboki”, this cognomen being a fall-out from the Hausa language. We have no need pointing out that to a typical Hausa man, the entire Yoruba people are known as behrebe, meaning oily soup. The oilness of the soup becomes a hindrance that separates the two nations, thereby hindering communicating.

If the illustrations above are obtainable in a country and between people of the same social development, what do we expect between humans and animals some of the latter living in the forest? It then cannot be farfetched if the dog can only bark a noisy and meaningless “Wom! Wom! Wom!” The sheep and goat have no alternative than to bleat “Kpaa! Kpaa!” endlessly without any meaning. What of other animals? To the untrained ears, these are noisy lots that disturb with their meaningless eruptions. Therefore, when the raconteur presents these animals conversing meaningfully, nobody can ever agree that what she is narrating has any practical relevance and truth.

But in spite of our unsubstantiated opinion, these animals communicate meaningfully -- depending on our interpretative ability. They have different methods of communication which can be illustrated with the:

…cecropia moth calling in chemicals, the spider receiving and sending telegraph messages along a thread, the spreading tail of a peacock speaking of masculinity through a vision of beauty, the wolves keeping their space around them by howling in concert. The odors, poses, movements, displays and the clicks, hisses, chirps and bellows are communications (George 3)

Therefore, in this enquiry, we are to look at zoo semiotics which is the study of animal communication. In order not to offend the grammatical purist who must associate the words “speak” and “talk” with a series of activities peculiar to humans with which they convey meaningful information, we are henceforth adopting the word communication instead of using “talking” or “speaking” which the raconteur uses for lack of a more suitable word in her language. In defining this our chosen word, communication, Wikipedia free encyclopedia has it that “it is the meaningful exchange of information between two or more living creatures”. It further states that the “possible purpose might be to elicit change, generate action, create understanding, inform or communicate a certain idea or point of view”. These are what speaking and talking do among humans and animals.


21 supposed to understand the tongues of the birds and the languages of animals; they frequently meet grants and dwarfs; they visit underground cities, etc” (Cordinall 99)

If one is to analyze the import of the above statements, one may ask who these dwarfs are and where the underground cities are located. When viewed with the critical mind of today one may be led to throw away the chaff with the grain. But no matter the mystification, animals in real life do “talk” as the tales relate. But no matter our unbelief, tales from different parts of the world keep on emphasizing that these animals can talk. Most often, they associate the ability of people understanding them and communicating with them to a supernatural contact. That is why in Tales Told in Togoland, a type of medicine was given to somebody by a leopard and the person was given the “… power to understand the talk of all the animals and trees and bushes” (108). In Myths and Legends of the Swahili, it was Alla who gave Suleiman bi Daudi, King Solomon “... wisdom and knowledge so that he understood the secrets of the stars as well as the languages of the animals. He could hear what the cocks crowed, what the horses neighed, what the snakes hissed” (58/59). In Myths and legends of the Congo, it is a dog that “… taught him (a hunter) the language of the animals so that he could understand not only the dogs but also the black ants and cockroaches” (68). But we must demystify such stories for us to arrive at a reasonable result. What is needed for us to “hear” and “speak” the languages of these animals starts with our coming down from our giddy height of modern civilization and studying these animals scientifically and naturally. It is only then that we can agree with our ancestors that these animals communicate meaningfully just as they are portrayed in the tales.

In all, there are four major ways in which they communicate. These are in their emissions of sounds, using sign language, using chemicals and making use of extrasensory perception (ESP). Each method is peculiar to certain animals, although there are some, general to all. For emphatic purpose, let us reiterate that when we talk of animals in folktales, we are not only referring to quadrupeds but also to birds, ants, reptiles, etc just as the raconteur refers to them. In this way, we are going to support the observation that: “Animals including us speak in the four media of scent, touch, sight and sound. Some messages use but one medium; some all four, but all media, all messages are the self reaching out to be known by others” (George 3). Now, let us look at these media of communication properly.

Sound as a Communication Medium

All animals and birds have peculiar sounds associated with them. To us, birds sing, chirrup, chirp, hoot, etc. Among the animals, the dogs bark; sheep, goats, cows, etc bleat, etc. To the untrained ears, that is what these animals do and they do so noisily. When we listen intently, we can discover different nuances in the different sounds produced by the same animals under different conditions. That can explain the study conducted by the British businessman Elliot Howard. From that research, he discovered that:

… a bird’s song is not the outburst of joy we in our innocence had supposed it to be but a rather businesslike announcement specifically addressed to others of its kinds. Birds sing to announce property lines, advertise for a mate and proclaim ownership of a mate and proclaim ownership of a good habitat for the rearing and feeding of young ones (George 3).

This observation is not far from another observation made in America. In short, many researchers have recorded many different sounds of the same animals. Some put them into music scores and noted the consistency with which other animals responded. From that, they were able to know the meaning of each sound. It was after studying the results of such a music score and noting the consistency with which crows obeyed their leader that Seton concluded that:

…he [Silverspot, the name he gave to the leader of a swarm of crows] passed and re-passed and gave me chances to see his movements, and hear his orders to his bands, and so, little by little opened my eyes to the fact that the crows, though a little people are of great wit, a race of birds with a language and social system that is wonderfully human in many of its chief points, and in some is better carried out than our own (57).


22 The foregoing idea as expressed by George and Seton is also expressed by Clement. According to him, a male bird’s “… song in spring is his way of giving notice that he has established a territory and stands ready to defend it against interlopers of his species” (16).

Therefore, the sound the bird produces when other male birds (probable competitors for the available females) is not the same as when the females themselves are around. It is not the same when danger looms. But for us, it is the same for always “the nightingale sings beautifully well in spring”. But our ancestors who lived at the state of nature, interacting with these birds, could easily notice the differences in sounds and the reactions of other birds. They had no need of music scores.

Meanwhile, we have grown enough to know certain things in the communication of these lower animals. Today, we are aware, through scientific discoveries that:

When any danger threatens, the mother red shank will give a warning – a plaintive piping “tu-tu-ee” as she takes wing. The young birds crouch down and “freeze” at her command. They stay absolutely still and obedient, their colour blending so well with their surroundings that they are extremely difficult to be seen. While the danger remains, the mother bird continues to fly around uttering her call. When it passes, she alights some distance away dipping her head and breast as if hinged on her long legs. Unobserved she will then run through the thick herbage and rejoin her chicks. Then, and only then, will she give the word that all is safe again; the chicks come out of their “freeze” and unconcernedly look around for something to eat (Watson 10).

From the cases cited, it looks as if it is only the Whiteman who has studied this. But that is false. It is to balance our work that we had to conduct an oral interview. Here at Nzam in Anambra West Local Government Area of Anambra State, we interviewed Alaefuna, a hunter and a herbalist, though a university graduate and working in a university. In his illustrating how birds’ sounds convey clear meanings, he shows how the lark, okiri mgbama ( a very popular folktale character) goes in pairs. The male lands on a branch first followed by the female. If somebody who will harm them is there, the male tells the female and so, the female would perch on another branch. Then, the male flies to the place where the female is. The two will be together chirping.

But in emphasizing the method of communicating the information, Alaefuna uses a bird which is very common – the domestic fowl. (It also features in folktales and proverbs of the Igbo people). He then explains that if a hen moves along with her chicks, she crooks “kwo-kwo-kwo. If after finding something edible, it croaks “kwo-kwo-kwo” in too frequent a succession and the chicks will surround her. If while moving with her chicks and a kite flies by, it will croak at a higher amplitude “kwo-kwoo”. Other fowls around who hear will run away and hide because that last sound shows danger. If the danger succeeds in catching one of them, the sound of the one caught is usually “chi-chi” if the unlucky one is still a chick. This “chi-chi” means “chimuo! – my personal god o!” But if the hapless one is a full grown fowl, it will be crying “kwo-kwoo-kwoo”. Others around who hear the lamentation will be enquiring about what went wrong with the sound, “o o okee! O o okee!.” This means in Igbo language, “O gini! Ogini! – What is it! What is it!.”

But from the foregoing one may simply surmise that only birds communicate with sounds because so far, we have been talking about birds. In short, all animals do so. Therefore, let us look at others starting with the nearest to human -- the apes. If we are to be as effusive as Seton, we can say that these are people with a language as developed as the crows’. For the American professor, Garner to discover this fact, he for “… days and nights… lived in the jungle in a strong cage listening to them (the apes) converse around the cage” (Joy 98).


23 But on their own without human interference, they produce sounds that:

… stretched from a purr of contentment to a grunt by which one animal would tell others in the tribe where he was. They had a warning “waw waw,” a soft whine of distress, a playful chuckle, and a harsh “yoo-yoo-yoo” grunt whereby the males told the females to stop their quarreling. A high-pitched scream warned the tribe of great danger (Wilson 75).

Before we talk of other ways of animal communication in our attempt to support our ancestors in their stories that depict these animals conversing, we must look at domestic animals. Who has not observed that the sounds which goats and sheep bleat while looking for their young ones are different from those they make when they are hungry? If the owner is away, as soon as they sense his entrance, they bleat more as if welcoming him. This of course, is a way of announcing to him that they are hungry. This is also different from the way they bleat when they are calling their kids to come and be fed. These animals have different ways; that is their language and when you are attentive, you can discover that they bleat so persistently under the same conditions.

This language of the goats and sheep is also different from the cat’s. To most people, the cat can do nothing but to meow. But that is not so. What we call meowing is as a result of anatomy. This meow is pregnant with meanings if you care to listen. As Kuncl puts it:

Cats communicate through sound and a meow can mean many things. A low and demanding meow for example could be a complaint that dinner is late or the litter box is closed. But a meow that’s short and sweet is probably an affectionate thank you for just being a friend (65).

We cannot mention all folkloric animals that produce sounds. So, let us look at another medium of animal communication, this time, sign language.


When we talk of sign as a distinct medium of animal communication, what we mean is a way each animal behaves under certain conditions from which their intentions can be deciphered. For such if carefully recorded and studied accurately and easily can be seen to be consistent. This consistency is what we interpret as the animals communication of an idea.

For us to illustrate, let us start with a domestic animal, the dog. Dog rearers can see that when it is angry and is about to attack, it bares its teeth in a snarl while accompanying it with a growl. The fur around the neck tends to stand up. That accounts for George’s observation in a study involving horses, cats and dogs. In that study, we are told:

To understand what they (animals such as horses and cats without well developed facial muscles) are saying, we have to learn to read ears, whiskers, the pupils of the eye, and the glint of teeth. They, too can modify a voiced message. A dog growling with ears pricked is quite sincere in its threat to bite. A dog growling with ears lowered is in fright (10).

Further in studying the mannerism of the dog, the CD-ROM of Encyclopedia Britannica puts it that when a dog:

…meets another dog, its ear position indicates how interested it is in the newcomer. If its ears are erect, it is concentrating on the other. If its ears are pointing forward, it is on the alert. If the dog holds its tail high and wags it, the animal is happy and confident. If it drops its tail between its legs, the dog is afraid. If on meeting a person or another dog it pulls back its lips and growls, it is making a threat. If it bares its teeth, without growling, the dog is ready to attack and bite.


24 irrespective of the culture of surrounding people and the environment. This encoding of uniform character accounts for the behaviour of bees in their dance. These swarming insects, being aware of their deprivations in body structure “talk” to each other and humans who care to know with dances. Precisely:

Honeybees employ dance to communicate visually with their sisters. Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson compares their language to our own because they can, like us, speak in symbols. Through a dance, one bee passes on to another information removed in time and space (George 11).

However, dances are not the only way in which bees transmit information. In fact, they use odours and sounds as well. But the method of dancing is most developed in bees. When they dance in order to transmit information or talk according to folktale raconteurs:

It is just as though there is an inbuilt computer inside these bees, making all these calculations and methods effective. Clearly, this is a form of communication, for one bee is telling another where something else is to be located, even though it is out of sight of the communicator and the communicant, for the bees can read these messages from their companions much more easily than humans can (Wilson 68).

One who is inquisitive may like to know how this dance which is actually known as a waggle dance is carried out. In this case, when a bee, as an illustration, discovers a flowering plant or any other source of nourishment, it flies back to the hive, stations its head at a certain angle to the sun while its body is still inside the hive. It starts rotating round and round while flapping its wings. From the angle the head is pointing to, other bees can calculate accurately the direction and distance of the tree, know also the probable quantity of the nectar and other conditions that will make the venture valuable. That accounts for Wilson’s view above that “it is just as though there is an inbuilt computer inside these bees…”.

We may add here another visual communication involving bees. This one is referring to a tradition in New England. The culture is that whenever an owner of bee hives dies, the relatives have to go to the hive immediately with a black cloth. This communication medium is known as “Telling the Bees”. In failing to do so, the next day or in few days’ time, all the swarms of bees will depart to another hive far away never to return (Hill 3). In this case, the relatives of the deceased have communicated to the bereaved bees that their owner is dead. The black cloth with which the hive is covered is sign of mourning.

Next, let us look at the birds. Who has never seen a cock puff its wings when it is in company of the female? This is a way of its communicating its masculinity to the admiring female partner. In short, all birds exhibit in one way or the other something with which their beauty and importance can be noted. George along this line, has something similar on songbirds. According to one of her studies “The male songbird puffs up his feathers to speak of his importance and aggressiveness. Military officers thrust out their chests like pigeons to say the same thing – ‘I am dominant and powerful’ ” (9).

We can understand these means of communications more easily as we move from the lower animals to the higher ones. That explains how difficult it is for man to interpret the waggle dance of the bee. However, if the case is to be a chimpanzee, understanding the visual communication can be easy for these chimpanzees:

…would communicate by gestures such as a begging motion. Sometimes, they communicated their desires by pantomiming what it was they wanted their companion to do. They can communicate in other ways as when they show a trainer where a sore spot is; dogs have been known to do similar things even pushing their master’s hands towards that sore spot (Yerkes qtd in Wilson 75).

So far, we have seen much on animals communicating using signs. But since there are other ways, let us look at them starting with chemical medium of communication.

Chemical as a Communication Medium


25 Therefore, when we see a trail of ants and termites moving in a line, it may be this chemical known as pheromones that they are following. Have you not wondered how a swarm of ants follow each other for a long distance without dispersing? Where are they moving to anyway? If you go closer, you will discover at the two edges of the trail, the soldiers ready to attack intruders. In between the two edges, you discover that the nurses carrying food, the young ones, the aged and the sick. Each has its duty spelt out. Who informed the massive population that it is time to migrate especially at the onset of the dry season? When communication is studied among ants as recorded in Microsoft’s Encarta, we are made to know that:

A key form of ant communication is the chemical signal called a pheromone. Many species emit alarm pheromones to alert nest mates of danger and attract them to the site of disturbance. Some ants spread streaks to so-called trail pheromones on the ground to guide nest mates to food, areas needing defense or new nest sites. The long lines of ants sometimes seen streaming from a nest are following these signals.

In continuation, let us study a type of zoo semiotics, this time extrasensory perception (ESP). Extrasensory Perception in Animal Communication (ESP)

When we talk of extrasensory perception (ESP), we are referring to a state of cognition where communication is carried out but without the usage of the usual five organs of perception. In this case, one mind sends out and receives information directly from another mind. It may sound weird to many but this is very common to many people in some circles Even, all animals and many humans when they are young make use of this. Therefore, when we come to zoo semiotics, when animals of the same species gather, they can make use of any of the modes of communication discussed so far. That explains why we are told of the naturalist, George who has so shared her home with a lot of animals both wild and domestic that she is:“…fluent in dogese, cattish, and birdic; somewhat less proficient in horse talk, and knows a few words in mink, dolphin, seal and fox” (blurb).

These are different languages being used by different animals. When an animal interacts with another that does not share a common language with it, the lingua franca is ESP. Since our ancestors lived at the state of nature and were able to communicate fluently even better than George, they took it for granted that these animals spoke and so, reported in their tales what it was that they said. To show that there are many ways of communication, we are told that: “Parapsychologists in Great Britain for example, demonstrated back in the 1950s and 1960s that even the tiny paramecia (one celled animals visible only through a microscope) and woodlice can at least receive ESP messages” (Rogo 35).

Religious people can tell us that we are unable to make use of this communication medium because of sins. Each religion, no matter which, can cite an array of their saints and prophets who were able to communicate with God, gods, spirits of different kinds, humans, etc telepathically. They were able to read minds of others and foretell the future and reveal hidden things of the past. Today, scientists have started proving that some of these recordings of the religious people are no longer old wives’ tales. That explains why we are told not by religious fanatics but by the scientists that:

Even fish seem to possess ESP powers. Dr. Robert Moris, a former colleague of mine at the Psychical Research Foundation in Durham, North Carolina, demonstrated this when he was still working at the Institute for Parapsychology (also located in Durham) (Rogo 35).



In conclusion, contrary to our regarding the depiction of animal characters’ communication in folktales as creations made to imitate human action, this essay is of the view that these animals actually communicate with each other as the tales show. Our ancestors who lived at the state of nature had first hand information about them. Therefore, they present them talking and discussing issues vital to their existence. It is only now that scientists are helping us to study these animals. To our amazement they actually “talk” just as our ancestors presented them in the tales which they handed to us.


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