The Elephant Language

The word 'LANGUAGE' is used in very different ways by linguists, biologists, and lay people. Most people think of 'language' as synonymous with 'communication'. However, some scientists (linguists in particular) have a very restrictive definition of what constitutes 'language', including the key property that symbols are arbitrary - a given combination of sounds or signals does not have any necessary or inherent meaning, only a meaning agreed upon by the social group at hand. For students of elephant communication, it is premature and unproductive to jump into this definitional quagmire until we know much more. We use a simpler definition of 'language': the system of signals used in communication.

© Melissa Groo

Elephant communication involves not only sound but also vision and especially olfaction (smell). Elephants can also sense detailed patterns in seismic signals (vibrations in the ground), but we don't have enough information to know whether this modality is used to exchange information between individuals.

Each of these sensory modalities is used to decode often separate, but overlapping, messages. And one modality might be used to modify the message carried by another modality, just as the human vocal communication 'What did you say?' carries a different meaning if the speaker's eyebrows are raised and eyes are wide than if the speaker has lowered eyebrows and narrowed, threatening, eyes. Elephants often use physical gestures and olfactory signals in combination with vocalizations to communicate.

The Elephant Listening Project is focused on acoustic communication because forest elephants are very difficult to observe visually everywhere except during their brief visits to forest clearings. But all three species of elephant (Asian, African savannah and African forest) make calls with fundamental frequencies below the lower limit of human hearing (20 Hz), in the range called infrasound. And these calls travel far through the environment.

Find out more about infrasound and the basics of forest elephant vocal communication through the links at right.


Elephants live out their long lives in an exceptionally complex social network of persistent relationships. Their communication system, or language, is similarly complex. We are only in the early stages of decoding this language - understanding the meaning of specific signals so that we can use these to study them and help in their conservation.

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© Andrea Turkalo