Are Pokemon Linguistic Genuises?

While I was growing up my family didn’t have cable, and me and my brother weren’t allowed to watch “violent TV” of any sort, watching pretty exclusively PBS shows. As a result we were, to put it lightly, pretty tame kids, and our one act of defiance was sneaking episodes of Pokemon, which was absolutely not allowed until we won our parents over. The Pokemon movies were, subsequently, a big deal, and looking back probably rightly so – watching clips of them versus the TV show they do feel more kinetic and slightly more complex, simply because they had more time and money to tell a story. The best part, however, of almost any movie was the Pikachu Short that preceded it. With all due respect to Ash, Misty, and Brock (and Tracey, for a short stretch) the real draw of Pokemon is… well, the Pokemon, and allowing them to have a personal adventure without the constraints of the trainers made for entertaining fare.

Take for example Pikachu’s Vacation. It’s a fun short (or episode – it comes in at 20 minutes, which is relatively shocking) about the Pokemon taking care of Togepi and making new friends. But it, along with all the Pikachu shorts as well as Pokemon in general raises the question: just how smart are Pokemon?

The implications of Pokemon have always been minorly (or, really, majorly) horrifying, as has been well noted and documented all over the Internet. These creatures are clearly intelligent, and clearly have personalities. Ash’s Pikachu is a bit of a troublemaker, his Bulbasaur is a cantankerous but caring guy, his Squirtle was in a friggin’ gang, his Charizard is prideful, stubborn, and refuses to be tamed, his Butterfree falls in love. Misty’s Psyduck is a buffoon. I guess maybe Brock’s Onix has a shtick (I honestly can’t remember). These are creatures with fully formed personalities, which can be said of a lot of pets, but at the same time we don’t carry around our pets in tiny prisons and force them to do battle. Set that aside for a second – I’m not here to lecture about how bad the treatment of Pokemon is, but rather just how intelligent the Pokemon are, and that comes down to language.

There’s a scene in Pikachu’s Vacation where a Cubone, Raichu, Snubbull, and Marrill are walking down a path all chattering away. The Snubbull cracks a joke, and all the other Pokemon laugh their butts off. Which… what? The Snubbull cracks a joke?

Animals, in the traditional sense, haven’t ever exhibited “a sense of humor”. Pokemon, it seems, do. The joke the Snubbull tells is verbal, which means it must be able to build a scenario and deliver a twist, and the other Pokemon around it immediately understand it. That suggests they are able to actively communicate with each other, using full words and thoughts, not just pantomime. That’s huge.

What does this mean for inter-Pokemon communication? All Pokemon speak by exclusively repeating their own name or variations of it, but clearly they’re able to understand each other. The Cubone is able to understand what a Snubbull is saying when it just keeps saying Snubbull, which leaves me with two primary theories.

  1. The Pokemon are all absolute geniuses and know a massive number of languages. There are originally 151 Pokemon. If the Pokemon can essentially understand each other (let’s assume they are using verbs and nouns – I think it’s safe to assume a verbal based joke would at least require this) and are able to perfectly understand each other, that would mean that each Pokemon would have at least a rudimentary understanding of 150 languages beyond the one it grew up with. That is… vastly more intelligent than a human.


  1. Pokemon are all speaking the same language. Since they’re all making different sounds the base of the language would have to be something different than the base of the languages we know. Perhaps it is a strictly inflection based language (there are a number of languages on Earth that rely heavily on, though aren’t exclusively inflection based). Or perhaps it’s rhythmic. Whatever it is, the fact that they keep saying their own name is inconsequential.

Regardless of which theory you follow, the trainers are absolute morons. Think about it. Pokemon can understand their trainers, which leaves us two options. If you accept theory number one, that means the Pokemon are able to learn 150 Pokemon languages, plus the language their trainers speak. That requires serious brain power. Equally impressive is the path theory 2 leads us down: the Pokemon are all speaking one language based off inflection or rhythm or something else. Whatever it is, it isn’t based off phonetics, like the language their trainers speak. The fact they can still understand their trainers implies they were capable of learning a language with a radically different root than their language. Can humans do that? We’ve never been asked to try, but I imagine it’d be nearly impossible, especially if we were asked to learn it without any instruction.

Following either theory the trainers look particularly bad. They know their Pokemon understand their language, and can observe their Pokemon talking to each other, but they’ve never been assed to try to learn the Pokemon’s internal language. That’s absurd. And all of this totally ignores Meowth, who can actually converse with humans. Meowth is portrayed as moronic in nearly every other way – perhaps he is an idiot savant, or perhaps learning another language is just old hat to Pokemon. Regardless, there are flippin’ professors in this world. Get Meowth to Professor Oak. If he’s not trying to learn how to speak directly to Pokemon within the hour, then we’ve got a real failing on our hands.

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