Multispecies Multilingualism

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature book series (PSAAL)


Focusing on the topic of animal languages, this chapter first reminds us of select episodes from nineteenth-century literature and the history of science to contextualize the ways in which contemporary multispecies narratives render nonhuman modes of communication. I subsequently compare two novels by Tania James and Barbara Gowdy alongside research on the infrasonic calls of elephants to articulate how these literary works broaden the scope of the reader’s hearing. Questioning anthropocentric definitions of sound and language further, I subsequently contrast two novels about chimpanzees by Karen Joy Fowler and Yann Martel to see how these narratives record gestures, facial expressions, and other types of nonverbal communication. If the first set of examples explores elephant language by adopting the point of view of these creatures, moreover, the second set of novels documents how chimps communicate without accessing their minds in the process, approaching their behavior from an external perspective that avoids obvious anthropomorphism. As I will show, these narratives respond to concrete historical debates involving ivory poaching and chimp cross-fostering. They also illustrate that novels sensitive to animal behavior do not stage a vague, generalized ‘animal language’ so much as a wildly divergent set of communication systems, a ‘multispecies multilingualism’.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for the Study of Civilisations, Arts, and Letters​ (INCAL)UCLouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium

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