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A multifaceted framework to establish the presence of meaning in non-human communication.

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Blumstein, Daniel T 
Shannon, Graeme 
Tenbrink, Thora 
Kershenbaum, Arik 


Does non-human communication, like language, involve meaning? This question guides our focus through an interdisciplinary review of the theories and terminology used to study meaning across disciplines and species. Until now, it has been difficult to apply the concept of meaning to communication in non-humans. This is partly because of the varied approaches to the study of meaning. Additionally, while there is a scholarly acknowledgement of potential meaning in non-human cognition, there is also scepticism when the topic of communication arises. We organise some of the key literature into a coherent framework that can bridge disciplines and species, to ensure that aspects of meaning are accurately and fairly compared. We clarify the growing view in the literature that, rather than requiring multiple definitions or being split into different types, meaning is a multifaceted yet still unified concept. In so doing, we propose that meaning is an umbrella term. Meaning cannot be summed up with a short definition or list of features, but involves multiple complexities that are outlined in our framework. Specifically, three global facets are needed to describe meaning: a Signal Meaning Facet, an Interactant Meaning Facet, and a Resultant Meaning Facet. Most importantly, we show that such analyses are possible to apply as much to non-humans as to humans. We also emphasise that meaning nuances differ among non-human species, making a dichotomous approach to meaning questionable. Instead, we show that a multifaceted approach to meaning establishes how meaning appears within highly diverse examples of non-human communication, in ways consistent with the phenomenon's presence in human non-verbal communication and language(s). Therefore, without further recourse to 'functional' approaches that circumvent the critical question of whether any non-human meaning exists, we show that the concept of meaning is suitable for evolutionary biologists, behavioural ecologists, and others to study, to establish exactly which species exhibit meaning in their communication and in what ways.



animal communication, communicative intentionality, functional reference, language origins, meaning, non-human signals, pragmatics, reference, semantics, symbolic signs, Animals, Communication, Language, Cognition, Animal Communication, Biological Evolution

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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc

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