We’ve been wondering what goes on inside the minds of animals since antiquity. Dr. Doolittle’s talent was far from novel when it was first published in 1920; Greco-Roman literature is lousy with speaking animals, writers in Zhanguo-era China routinely ascribed language to certain animal species and they’re also prevalent in Indian, Egyptian, Hebrew and Native American storytelling traditions.

Even today, popular Western culture toys with the idea of talking animals, though often through a lens of technology-empowered speech rather than supernatural force. The dolphins from both Seaquest DSV and Johnny Mnemonic communicated with their bipedal contemporaries through advanced translation devices, as did Dug the dog from Up.

We’ve already got machine-learning systems and natural language processors that can translate human speech into any number of existing languages, and adapting that process to convert animal calls into human-interpretable signals doesn’t seem that big of a stretch. However, it turns out we’ve got more work to do before we can converse with nature.

What is language?

“All living things communicate,” an interdisciplinary team of researchers argued in 2018’s On understanding the nature and evolution of social cognition: a need for the study of communication. “Communication involves an action or characteristic of one individual that influences the behavior, behavioral tendency or physiology of at least one other individual in a fashion typically adaptive to both.”