Archive for Animal behavior

Corgi fighting words

Viral video of two corgis exchanging angry barks:

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Orca emits speech-like sound; reporters go insane

Published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B you will find (provided you have the necessary institutional credentials or library membership) a paper entitled "Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca), by José Z. Abramson, Maria Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Lino García, Fernando Colmenares, Francisco Aboitiz, and Josep Call. The paper is about the conditions under which killer whales can be induced to use their blowholes to imitate sounds that they hear. And it will not be a huge surprise to Language Log readers that the world's newspapers immediately lost their minds. The Daily Mail, a scurrilous Conservative-oriented English tabloid, on its very successful soft-porn-laden website, used the headline "Orca on the blower: Killer whale learns to talk." Hundreds of largely plagiarized stories are springing up around the world under similar headlines (don't make me try to list them). They can do this because when the topic is language, you don't have to maintain any pretense of seriousness. You can just make stuff up. Nobody (other than maybe Language Log) is going to call you on it.

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Zebra finch self-tutoring

Sometimes a new experimental result suggests a very different way of interpreting older results. On a visit a couple of days ago to Ofer Tchernichovski's lab at Hunter College, I encountered a striking example of this effect.

The background is the experimental literature on zebra finch song learning. If one of these birds is raised in acoustic and social isolation, it never learns to sing a species-typical song, but rather continues to produce "proto-song", which is a sort of songbird equivalent of grunts and groans. In contrast, with a relatively brief exposure to an example of adult song during a "critical period" early in life, a bird will (later on) learn to sing properly, in fact imitating the tutor's song quite closely. Crucially, species-typical zebra finch song is made up of discrete "syllables" arranged in regular "motifs", whereas proto-song is relatively diffuse and non-categorical at all time scales.

A decade ago, I reported on some fascinating work from Ofer's lab showing that species-typical song can emerge over a few generations in a colony raised in acoustic isolation, never encountering any external adult models ("Creole birdsong?" 5/9/2008).

Now a newer experiment (Olga Fehér et al., "Statistical learning in songbirds: from self-tutoring to song culture", Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2016) adds a result that makes us think differently about the earlier work.

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Asses and asterisks

When The Sun, a famously prurient UK tabloid newspaper, chose the headlines for its coverage of the Taylor Swift case in Denver, the editors made a curious choice. They used asterisk masking on the American English word ass ("buttocks area"), printing it as "a**" as if it would be unthinkably offensive for the readers to also see the "ss" (unless it were in a reference to a stupid person, or to the animal on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, where the same letter sequence would be fine). But they did not do the same to the familiar British English 3-letter synonym bum (which has only the meaning "buttocks area" and never means "hobo" in British).

British English has a descendant of the same Old English root as ass, but it is spelled arse, and is pronounced [ɑːs] rather than [æːs]. British arse is considered just as coarse as American ass, but The Sun has printed it thousands of times (try the Google search: {arse site:www.thesun.co.uk}). Quoting ass couldn't possibly be judged gratuitous, as it was uttered in court many times during the legal proceedings being reported.

What this says to me is that the idea of asterisk masking for taboo words is an incoherent mess even in the practice of those who favor it.

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Grunt, set, and match

"Who'll win at Wimbledon? Just listen to the pitch of the grunts", University of Sussex press release 7/4/2017:

Never mind counting aces and killer shots. If you want to predict the outcome of a tennis match, pay attention to the players’ grunts.

As Wimbledon prepares for another year of the on-court cacophony from the likes of Rafael Nadal and Victoria Azarenka, a new study has revealed that grunts produced by players during tennis matches they lost were higher in voice pitch than during the matches they won.

What’s more, psychologists at the University of Sussex found that players displayed differences in their grunt pitch long before the scoreboard made it clear whether they would win or lose.

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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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