It has been two weeks now, and so far no one here at Language Log Plaza has commented on the BBC News story entitled "Monkeys recognize bad grammar." I suppose people are assuming that I cover the Stupid Animal Communication Stories desk. And often I have. But I have been procrastinating, because I am getting tired of being the animal grammar killjoy. People are beginning to think I hate monkeys and dogs and parrots and dolphins and such (my previous posts include this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and probably others).
The little animals in question (it's cottontop tamarins again) are cute. I don't have anything against them, or against the experiments on them being done by people like Marc Hauser. In the present case, the team was led by Ansgar Endress. And here is the evidence for these little creatures' ability to "recognize bad grammar". It's quite simple, and I don't think it's going to get them jobs as copy editors.
It turns out that if you expose a cottontop tamarin to a recording of someone saying shoy-bi, shoy-la, shoy-ro, etc., over and over again for a whole day, they get used to it; and then the next day if you do it some more, but then interrupt the monotony with the sound of someone saying bi-shoy, or la-shoy, they look at the sound source. It's novel to them now, and the novelty surprises them a little bit, so they look at the loudspeaker. That's it.
Clever monkeys: they know the sound sequences of the current ambient environment, and they're alert to what's new in the auditory environment. But really: recognizing bad grammar? I suppose Harvard behavioral scientists have to make their papers sound potentially relevant to cognition, and BBC science reporters have to make stories sound potentially interesting, and a headline like "Monkeys recognize changes in their auditory environment" would not set the world (or the World Service) on fire. But that seems to be what we have here. The researchers have just dressed up the description of the recorded sounds in linguistic terminology ("prefixation", "suffixation"). But it's not clear to me that a monkey's ability to notice the difference between shoybi and bishoy is any more linguistically interesting than an ability to notice the difference between thump-splash and splash-thump, or to notice that your door chime has just gone DONG DING instead of DING DONG or that you just changed the radio station.