Archive for Animal behavior

On whether prairie dogs can talk

Ferris Jabr recently published in the New York Times Magazine an interesting article about the field research of Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University, on prairie dog alarm calls. The article title is “Can Prairie Dogs Talk?

It is an interesting question. People who have read my earlier posts on animal communication have been pressing me to say something about my reaction to it. In this post I will do that. I will not be able to cover all the implications and ramifications of the question, of course; for one interesting discussion that has already appeared in the blogosphere, see this piece by Edmund Blair Bolles. But I will try to be careful and scholarly, and in an unusual departure (disappointingly, perhaps, to those who relished my bitterly sarcastic remarks on cow naming behavior), I will attempt to be courteous. Nonetheless, I will provide a clear and explicit answer to Jabr’s question.

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Or the arbitrary cat, horse, or pig

I think Mark Liberman may have been concerned that perhaps my post “Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog” hinted at being tempted toward the Recency Illusion. Not true, of course: even when surprised by some point of usage that I notice, I never conclude I must therefore be the first to have encountered it. On encountering the use of singular they for a dog, I didn’t say “This has never happened before”; I said “we should expect this sort of use to increase in frequency.” But anyway, just in case, Mark sent me some other cases of animals being referred to with singular they. They presumably indicate that where sex is irrelevant, the use of it should nonetheless be avoided, because it might offend the animal.

https://www.bengalcats.co/why-do-cats-knead/
You see, the repetitive movement is not only serving as a way to promote milk flow, it also encourages maternal instinct and establishes a bond between a cat and their kittens.

http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/cat.html
When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows.

[By the way, notice that the foregoing example is ambiguous (cat’s eyebrows vs. family members’ eyebrows), and the ambiguity is caused solely by the refusal to use it for the arbitrary cat. People will risk being incomprehensible rather than change their mind about whether they could compromise on a pronoun gender choice. Or maybe the point is just that people do not avoid, and do not know to avoid, or even notice, dangers of ambiguity for the hearer or reader.]

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You April fools!

Many Language Log readers have been complaining about the absence of any recognition of April Fool’s Day at this site. I can only lament your lack of perceptiveness. There have been pranks all over the place and you simply didn’t see them because you are too gullible.

The primary linguistic one was Victor Mair’s amusing spoof post “Sinological suffering”, cunningly posted on March 31st to be there when you read Language Log on Saturday morning, April 1st, about an imaginary Chinese character that couldn’t be found in dictionaries no matter what lookup method you tried.

Do you really think a writing system could survive if it were so brain-wrenchingly complex, arcane, and impossible to document that there would be written characters that Victor Mair, one of the greatest experts on Asian languages on this planet, could not track down or translate?

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Reindeer lore

Yuletide is upon us, so it’s time for some more reindeer talk.  The guest post below comes from Juha Janhunen, to whom I put the following questions:

Do any of the following ride reindeer?  Sami, Lapp, Evenks (or other Siberian people)

How long ago did the Sami, Lapp, Evenks (or other Siberian people) domesticate reindeer?

There’s no price of admission to read this post, but a suggested donation, in the spirit of the season and in the tradition of this blog, is that you tell us how to say “reindeer” in your language and perhaps in a few other languages with which you are familiar.

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I am much encouraged

At last, an animal communication story involving healthy skepticism rather than vacant-eyed credulity, and human sagacity rather than wondrous communicative brilliance by our furry, finned, or feathered friends. Read on to be reassured about the intelligence of your species.

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Tell the truth!

It was a linguistic maneuver that had possibly never been tried before in the history of real estate: tell the straight truth about the property, no varnishing, no slathering with adjectives like “stunning”. Just tell it like it is. One brave firm of real estate agents, Scott & Stapleton in England, tried it as a way of getting rid of a run-down apartment in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The manager, Rob Kahl, wrote the copy:

Not for the faint hearted this first floor flat is being sold as seen, rubbish and all!

Having recently just had to evict some charming (not) tenants the vendors of this property have had enough and can’t even face setting foot in what used to be their sweet and charming home.

I can’t flower this one up or use my normal estate agent jargon to make this sound any better.

The property is full of rubbish, there is mould on the walls and I think there may even be some fleas there to keep me company when I carry out the viewings.

To conclude, the advertisement advised those viewing the property to “wipe your feet on the way out”.

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Of mynas and miners, bells and whistles

Over at Spicks & Specks, Greg Pringle has a virtuoso post on “The Bell Miner:  How orthography and ornithology catalysed a new folk etymology” (8/9/15).  It’s about an Australian honeyeating bird — Manorina melanophrys — that used to be called the Bellbird, but was renamed Bell Miner through association with the South Asian bird called in Hindi the mainā मैना (” starling”).

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Names of Chinese birds

If you are a birder, you are in for a treat.  If you are a bird watcher who is particularly fond of Chinese species, you are in for a double treat.

Craig Brelsford is a writer and editor living in Shanghai, China. Mr. Brelsford is currently creating the world’s first photographic field guide to the birds of China. To that end, he travels constantly throughout the vast territory of China.

His peregrinations have taken him to 31 of the 34 provincial-level entities in China researching his field guide.  As even the briefest of visits to his blog will attest, Mr. Brelsford is one serious birder.

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Neoguri: raccoon or raccoon dog?

The typhoon that struck Okinawa a few days ago and is now passing by Tokyo is called Neoguri.  It gets it name from a Korean word meaning “raccoon dog”.

The Japanese refer to it as Taifū 8-gō Neoguri 台風8号ネオグ リ (“Typhoon No. 8 Neoguri”), but most often without the “Neoguri” (see below for discussion of Japanese typhoon designation practices).  However, the Chinese are calling it Huànxióng 浣熊 (“raccoon”), which is a clear mistranslation.  The Chinese name for the raccoon dog is hé 貉 or háozi 貉子.

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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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