Archive for Animal behavior

I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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Reindeer talk

It's Christmas Eve.  Tonight Santa Claus will be flying through the sky in his sleigh pulled by nine reindeer to distribute gifts to all the good little boys and girls around the world.  The names of the reindeer, as we all know, are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder (also spelled Dunder and Donner), Blitzen (also spelled Blixem and Blixen), and, of course, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Wikpedia informs us:

In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, Edmund Clarence Stedman reprints the 1844 Clement Clarke Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen," rather than the original 1823 version using the Dutch spelling, "Dunder and Blixem."[1] Both phrases translate as "Thunder and Lightning" in English, though German for thunder is now spelled Donner, and the Dutch words would nowadays be spelled Donder and Bliksem.

Rudolph wasn't added to the team until 1939, and that was in a version of the story written by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores.

But that's not what I really wanted to talk about in this post.  Rather, I want to introduce Language Log readers to a most curious Finnish word concerning reindeer behavior.

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Dolphins using personal names, again

As we have frequently noted here on Language Log, science stories on the BBC News website are (how to put this politely?) not always of prize-winning standard with respect to originality, timeliness, reliability, or attention to the relevant literature. In fact some of them show signs of being written by kids in junior high school. Way back in 2006 Mark Liberman commented on a BBC News story about the notion that dolphins have and use "names" for each other. He expressed skepticism, but the BBC forged ahead without paying any heed, and today, more than seven years later, we learn from the same BBC site once again that Dolphins 'call each other by name'. Yes, it's the same story, citing the same academic at the University of St Andrews, Dr Vincent Janik. (Mark's link in 2006 was unfortunately to a Google search on {Janik, dolphins}, which today brings up the current stories rather than the ones he was commenting on then.) And you don't need to leave the BBC page to see that the story contradicts itself.

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Border collie syntax?

I have been unabashedly contemptuous of previous stories about dogs learning to understand human languages (for example, I hammered home the point that fetching named objects is not understanding language in this 2004 post, which Mark Liberman followed up here). I think it is incumbent on me to acknowledge further developments in the area that actually lead to refereed publications, so let me point out that Learning and Motivation has now published a paper about some experiments purporting to show that a 9-year-old border collie called Chaser has learned some rudimentary syntax. For example, Chaser can differentiate To ball take Frisbee from its inverse, To Frisbee take ball, and perform the right action in each case. This Science News article gives a fairly full account of the results.

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Not equal to a pig or a dog

It's been quite a while since I made a post in this genre:

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Sea Bay Restaurant

Thomas Lumley sent in this nice multilingual pun from Sydney, Australia:

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Elephant imitates Korean

Stoeger et al., "An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech", Current Biology (2012):

Vocal imitation has convergently evolved in many species, allowing learning and cultural transmission of complex, conspecific sounds, as in birdsong. Scattered instances also exist of vocal imitation across species, including mockingbirds imitating other species or parrots and mynahs producing human speech. Here, we document a male Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) that imitates human speech, matching Korean formants and fundamental frequency in such detail that Korean native speakers can readily understand and transcribe the imitations. To create these very accurate imitations of speech formant frequencies, this elephant (named Koshik) places his trunk inside his mouth, modulating the shape of the vocal tract during controlled phonation. This represents a wholly novel method of vocal production and formant control in this or any other species. One hypothesized role for vocal imitation is to facilitate vocal recognition by heightening the similarity between related or socially affiliated individuals. The social circumstances under which Koshik’s speech imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species.

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They cut me out

The two mutually reinforcing ulterior motives that we Language Log writers share are (i) to have a bit of fun writing about language in ways that are not necessarily all that serious, and (ii) to slide in little bits of genuine public education about the cognitive and linguistic sciences to which we devote our time when we're at our day jobs. I have the same twin motives in the writing I do for Lingua Franca on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Often, being me, I let the fun side predominate, and there's a lot more of humorous hyperbole and (let's face it) outright fantasy than there is of the cognitive and linguistic sciences. While Victor Mair sweats over sheets of Chinese characters and Mark Liberman generates graphs to see if the results of refereed papers can be replicated from reprocessed raw data, I just play. There's no linguistics at all in a piece like "I Wish I'd Said That", though it is sort of basically about language; and something similar is true for quite a few other posts listed on my reference page of Lingua Franca posts. But in today's piece, for once, everything I say is completely true, and I actually try to teach a tiny bit about syntactic ambiguity. And my reward was swift and cold: the compilers of the daily email newsletter through which The Chronicle points its subscribers to what they can find today on the web refused to include a pointer to my piece.

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Stupid robot-generated spambook garbage

Last October 24 the brilliant Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And on the same day another book was also published, by an alleged publisher called CreateSpace: It was called Fast and Slow Thinking, and advertised as having an author named Karl Daniels.

Only it is not really a book. It is a compilation of snippets from Wikipedia articles and the like, dressed up like a book. Edited by robots for you to buy by mistake. It's a spam book, part of the "gigantic, unstoppable tsunami of what can only be described as bookspam" that I spoke of last June. It was created purely to swim in the wake of the Kahneman book and snap up some spilled morsels of money. It's not a commercial success: its sales rank is 359,109; but people have bought it. Some regretful consumers talk about it on the Amazon page. Targeted spam pseudobooks! Is it just me, or is the world getting scummier and scummier as day follows day?

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No comment at The Daily Mail

The Daily Mail has this terse and unpunctuated notice below one of its stories today:

Sorry we are unable to accept comments for legal reasons.

Why this departure from the open comments policy that is the right of every online reader of anything in the 21st century?

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Noun choice, sex, lies, and video

Three linguistic offenses in the UK to report on this week: an injudicious noun choice, a highly illegal false assertion, and an obscene racist epithet. The latter two have led to criminal charges.

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Say it again, Alice

The linguist Zellig Harris (he was Noam Chomsky's mentor and doctoral adviser) drew an important distinction between imitation and repetition. You can imitate the sound of anyone saying anything, even in a language you know nothing about, and you might even do it quite well, but you can only repeat something in a language that you know. When you repeat, you use the sound system (or at least, you can use it) in your own usual way. You know the phonemes of the language, and you know what is just linguistically insignificant low-level phonetic detail that you don't need to replicate. You know which utterance in your language you're repeating, and your target is to say that, and you have some license about doing it in your own voice, your own pronunciation of the language. It's not at all clear that Alice, the aggressive engineer in the Dilbert strip, has got this right:

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Keeping up our standards

The lower-grade newspapers in Britain this morning have been making much of what happened to a group of birdwatchers, gathered excitedly in a coastal area for a rare chance to photograph a Hume's leaf warbler. It seems they happened upon a calendar photo shoot and had a rare chance to also snap a blonde model, draped over a motorcycle, wearing nothing but a thong.

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Socio-acoustics of Asian elephants

Adam Philips, "Elephant Study Reveals Social Bonds, Communication Skills", VOA 8/29/2011:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Shermin de Silva, who finished her PhD in biology at Penn last year and is now the director of the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project at Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka, is featured in this slide show explaining some of her research:

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Seidenberg on Singer and Nim

[Below is a guest post by Mark Seidenberg, following up on Geoff Pullum's post "Nim: the unproject", 8/16/2011.]

Nim Chimpsky and I met when I was a graduate student at Columbia. “Project Nim” is an excellent documentary, a deeply sad story leavened with humor and astonishment at the behavior of the personalities involved . The parts of the movie that cover events I observed—the period when Nim lived at the Delafield Mansion in Riverdale NY and was driven down to Columbia for teaching—was accurate as far as it went. It’s a documentary, not a detailed record of what happened, and it is stronger on Nim’s personal history and the foibles of his human caretakers (and I use the term loosely) than on the science.

I was preparing to write a commentary on the movie and the project, but then Peter Singer’s piece appeared in the New York Review of Books ("The troubled life of Nim Chimpsky", 8/18/2011). Singer is the Princeton philosopher famous for “Animal Liberation” and other influential, controversial books. His blog post about Nim got many facts wrong and I was moved to write a short response. It might be of interest to Language Log readers.

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