Sciency Words: Zoosemiotics

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Sometimes with these Sciency Words posts, I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. This is one of those times.

Semiotics is a field of study related to linguistics, but more focused on the creation of signs and symbols and how these signs and symbols can be used to communicate meaning. Zoosemiotics is the study of how animals do that.

Think of birdsong or whale-song, or the dance of bees, or ants laying down scent trails, or dogs marking their territory, or squid rapidly changing colors, or all the crazy displays animals put on to attract mates. Or think of the way pets very pointedly stare at you while you’re eating.

There are three basic types of communication that zoosemioticians study:

  • Intraspecies zoosemiotics: communication between animals of the same species.
  • Interspecies zoosemiotics: communication between animals of different species.
  • Anthropological zoosemiotics: communication between animals and humans.

In each case, we have an animal engaging in some sort of behavior that symbolically expresses meaning. On the other side of the equation, we have another animal (or animals) trying to interpret that behavior. If the behavior is interpreted correctly, we have communication!

And when animals communicate frequently, relationships can develop. A sort of culture might start to emerge. Animals may even form a kind of social order. Studying the culture and social orders of animal groups is also part of zoosemiotics’ domain, and this is where I think things get tricky.

It’s a little too easy to anthropomorphize animals, to assign human emotions and human motivations to their natural animal behavior. So just how human-like are animal communications? How human-like are animal “cultures” and “social orders,” according to zoosemiotics? Or should we rather ask how animal-like are humans?

This starts getting into a lot of heavy philosophical territory that I’m probably not qualified to talk about. I mean, I’m not a zoosemiotician. I only learned about this term a week ago, and I have a lot more research to do. For now, I’m just happy to have a new word to add to my scientific vocabulary.

P.S.: Xenosemiotics doesn’t seem to be a word yet, but it totally should be.

4 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Zoosemiotics

  1. Xenosemiotics sounds like what we normally think of as xenolinguists would most likely have to engage in. It seems like expecting extraterrestrial communication to be anything like human language is unwarranted, particularly given the vast array of communication strategies used by animals on Earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. In theory, I feel like if there’s a distinction between linguistics and semiotics, there should also be a distinction between xenolingustics and xenosemiotics. But in real life, we may find that such a distinction won’t make sense.

      Or maybe I’m wrong about that. This is something I need to research more and think about more.

      Liked by 1 person

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