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.
At first glance, this video of an orangutan imitating a trainer’s grunts may not seem incredibly significant. But primate researchers say Rocky, the 11-year-old orangutan in the video, could fundamentally alter how we think about spoken language.
“We don’t know exactly how human language emerged, but we do know that great apes have the cognitive ability to understand language,” said Robert Shumaker, executive vice president and zoo director at the Indianapolis Zoo. “We can no longer say that humans are the only species who can learn new vocalization and control [it] using the vocal folds or voice box.”
Family members believe Bud, an African gray parrot, may have witnessed the shooting that left Martin Duram dead and his wife severely injured.
They believe this because the bird’s latest phrase — the one he won’t stop shouting at the top of his lungs mimicking his owner’s voice — is a chilling one: “Don’t f—ing shoot!”
Duram’s body was found near his wife, who suffered a gunshot wound to her head but is alive. Although police initially assumed she was a victim of the shooting, police reports obtained by WOOD-TV revealed that she eventually became a suspect in the slaying. […]
Relatives told the station that they think Martin Duram’s final moments were imprinted in the bird’s memory and that he continues to relive the slaying. They noted that Bud mimicked both the victim and his wife.
Several people have asked me about an item that appeared this morning on the BBC's Breakfast on Sunday show, "Making sense of moggie meows":
Phonetics specialists at Lund University in Sweden hope to have cracked the feline code by the year 2021, to be able to interpret a whole range of 'meowings' and 'purrings'.
Susanne Schotz, Associate Professor of Phonetics at the University, said "about 90%" of the meows are likely to be cries for human attention, but that the study may allow us to learn how our dialects might affect our cat's own accent.
Ms Schotz said she hopes learning to understand cats better will help provide a better way of life for our feline friends as well as aiding vets and other people who work with cats professionally.
A 3/10/2016 Lund University press release includes this YouTube video:
Human language can express limitless meanings from a finite set of words based on combinatorial rules (i.e., compositional syntax). Although animal vocalizations may be comprised of different basic elements (notes), it remains unknown whether compositional syntax has also evolved in animals. Here we report the first experimental evidence for compositional syntax in a wild animal species, the Japanese great tit (Parus minor). Tits have over ten different notes in their vocal repertoire and use them either solely or in combination with other notes. Experiments reveal that receivers extract different meanings from ‘ABC’ (scan for danger) and ‘D’ notes (approach the caller), and a compound meaning from ‘ABC–D’ combinations. However, receivers rarely scan and approach when note ordering is artificially reversed (‘D–ABC’). Thus, compositional syntax is not unique to human language but may have evolved independently in animals as one of the basic mechanisms of information transmission.
Geoff Pullum, always forthright, looks at some typical journalistic anthropomorphisms about animal communication and calls them "lies" ("Now it's cows that use names (sigh)", LLOG 12/20/2014):
The bottom line is that when it comes to language, journalists simply make stuff up. They are shockingly careless in all sorts of ways (in accuracy of quotations, for example, as Mark has pointed out many times), but when it comes to animal language it's far worse than that. They actually print what are obviously lies, even when the text of the same article makes it clear that they are lying.
I was curious about the background of this case, which as Geoff notes is a particular instance of a generic class of untruths, so I looked into it a bit more closely.
According to a sub-headline in Full-Time Whistle, new scientific research has shown that "Cows and their calves communicate using individualised calls equivalent to human names."
How interesting. Cows have enough linguistic sophistication to employ the high-level device of personal naming? Let us delve into the details just a little, without moving away from the article itself.
This is a batshit insane music video for the song “Chick Chick” by Chinese pop group Wang Rong Rollin. It makes stuff like “What Does The Fox Say?” seem absolutely tame. I don’t know what the hell I just watched but I’ll have whatever they’re having.
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.
As you know, I serve Language Log as occasional film reviewer. I reported on Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out (see "Caesar and the power of No", August 14, 2011). So I naturally went to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language. Well, forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that the linguistic science is crap.
I left the cinema half stunned by the visual effects (which are absolutely terrific — worth the price of admission) and half deafened by the soundtrack and Michael Giacchino's bombastic score, but thoroughly disappointed at the inconsistent muddle of the way apes' linguistic powers were portrayed.
Today we think of working dogs as intelligent and loving creatures that are capable of amazing things — like detecting the presence of cancer through smell — but this is only a recent development in the human relationship with dogs. Little more than 150 years ago, dogs were hardly considered anything more than a power source.