[Marc A. Pelletier wrote to me after reading this post about canine concepts (or the lack of them). He offered a somewhat more pro-canine perspective. What he says is quite reasonable (not that I necessarily agree with all or any of it), and it may mollify a few dog lovers in the Language Log readership who continue to hate me if I present what what he said as a Guest Post. So I herewith do that. And you can comment on it if you wish. —GKP]
Guest post by Marc A. Pelletier
I am wondering why Geoff Pullum seems so insistent that dogs are unable to attach semantic meaning to words uttered by humans beyond the level of conditioned reflexes. Ethology has, in my opinion, contracted the disease of "reverse anthropomorphismitis": the desperate compulsion to avoid ascribing common cognitive mechanisms to animals other than Homo sapiens sapiens, even when doing so requires contriving many additional assumptions and evoking ad hoc hypotheses — I'm surprised that linguists feel the need to do the same (or at least, one linguist does).
Allow me to illustrate my position with an anecdote.
I have a young (three year old) Labrador, with which I have a number of games — two of which are interesting for this discussion. One is the arch typical game of "fetch", where I throw one of several allowable objects some distance away and Vic runs to get it, then returns it to me. The other is sort of a treasure hunt, where I hide a specific chew toy of his which he then searches for and retrieves.
I initiate the first of those games by telling him to fetch his "baballe". He then rushes to find the closest object of the classes of allowable fetching objects (two are actual balls, one is a Frisbee) to bring it to me. On at least two occasions, he returned with objects that are not the usual objects but that obviously fit the correct "class" of objects: a discarded plastic plate that was definitely "Frisbee-like", and a ball forgotten by a visiting nephew that was much larger than his.
The second of those games is initiated by asking where his "nonos" is. This sets him on an immediate treasure hunt where he starts looking in common hiding places, and sniffing around, to find his chew toy (which happens to be and oft-replaced rawhide bone, hence his reliance on smell to help locate it).
I did an experiment by placing all his toys in a large box along with a number of non-toy objects. In all cases, requesting that he gets a "baballe" or a "nonos" will have him return with, respectively, one of the allowable "fetch" toys or his current rawhide bone. Being unable to find a suitable object on request will have him run around in circles trying to locate one. Additionally, any other person can make the same requests with the same results (Vic is very sociable, and will readily play even with a complete stranger as long as one of the members of the household is present and not in distress).
As far as I can tell, there are only two explanations for this behavior. Either he associates those two words with specific classes of objects (and only objects of those classes), or he associates the words with the specific play activity and simply knows which object class is required for the game — in both cases there is clear semantic meaning associated with the word, and neither can reasonably be explained by "reflex" alone: the response is far from automatic and requires active searching as well as minimal classification (Whether the classification is "Is object in class X?" or "Is object suitable for activity X" is immaterial).
So, when Geoff Pullum says that "The concept of being lower (closer to the ground in some appropriate sense) than one's present position was not there in the doggie brain at all", I think he is correct, but only because the statement is vacuously true: the semantics associated with "down" in the humans' brain was (obviously, from what happened) not the same as that in the dog's. But that does not say anything about the capability of the dog for associating semantics with words in general, which I believe was his point in the first place.
Marc A. Pelletier