No matter how hard I try to locate the world's most stupid animal communication story, they keep outflanking me. I am always left behind. An even stupider one always comes along. All I can say as of this morning is that I never thought I would see a story as stupid as this in a respected news source, and right now I cannot imagine how it could be surpassed (though within a few weeks I suppose it probably will be). The Economist has published (10/25/08:103) a review of a new book called Alex & Me in which Dr Irene Pepperberg tells the story of her scientific life with Alex the grey parrot (see here and here for a couple of Alex's earlier appearances on Language Log Classic). The Economist has already shown a certain affection for Alex's story: it devoted its obituary of the week to Alex when he died in 2007. The review calls the new book "a memoir of two unusual scientific careers, one of them pursued — not exactly by choice — by a bird." Now, I should make it clear that I do not have the book. If this merited scholarly investigation I would of course obtain it; but given what I know so far, I am deeply reluctant to part with $23.95 to get hold of a trade book for sentimental parrot fanciers (the subtitle is: "How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — And Formed a Deep Bond in the Process"). So I will simply tell you about the stunningly stupid part of the review, and leave it to you to determine, if you care to, whether the review misrepresents the book on this point. But I warn you, especially if you know a little elementary articulatory phonetics, that this one will boggle your mind. Are you prepared to face the rest of the day with a boggled mind? Then read on.
The review is anonymous, like all Economist reviews, and after what I will say below, the reviewer will doubtless come to see this as quite a blessing. What the reviewer reports, relying on the book, is that Alex the parrot didn't just chat with his keeper and keep her entertained, and know how to name fifty objects and the numbers from 1 to 6, and combine words to make up expressions (Alex is said to have named cake "yummy bread", though why this is counted as a creative act rather than a failure to learn the simple word cake is not clear from the review); the thing is, Alex also "seemed to combine phonemes to construct new words". This is a true first: creative lexical word formation from phonological segments, in a bird. An example is cited:
Lacking lips, he could not pronounce the letter "p", so his term for an apple was "banerry" (apparently mixing "banana" and "cherry").
Well, you probably caught it. The phonemes (systematically distinct speech sound units) that humans produce by bringing together the upper and lower lips, known as bilabial consonants, include [p] as in pop, [b] as in bob, and [m] as in mom. Say these words while looking in a mirror and you will see that your lips come together. And when you say "banerry" or "banana", of course, it happens just the same. Apparently the reviewer did not have the intelligence to reflect on why failing to learn one word with a [p] in it should have something to do with not having lips, when pronouncing [b] was apparently no problem for the self-same bird. I stared at the page, almost unable to believe what an asinine thing had been printed there. (I have no idea whether the reviewer's remark has a basis in the text of the book. Quite possibly it doesn't.)
The sheer dumbness of the reviewer's remark gets even worse if you reflect a little more. Parrots don't have upper front teeth either, or the bony gum-covered area behind them that is known as the alveolar ridge, or a velum (the soft membrane at the back of the mouth) that can be lowered to open the velic port between pharynx and nasal cavity, so by the logic of the above quote they should also be unable to pronounce [n], a nasal consonant produced by lowering the velum and making a closure in the oral cavity by pressing the tongue tip against the alveolar ridge. In fact parrots have just about none of the articulatory apparatus that humans have, which should mean they are utterly without the ability to mimic any human speech, right?
Of course not. They mimic the sound of human utterances brilliantly. But they do it in a totally different way, simulating the acoustic effect (not the articulatory production) by means of an organ known as the syrinx, which birds have and humans don't. This clever flute-like organ works for mimicking all kinds of sound without using anything like the organs or movements humans make do with. Parrots don't need the anatomical attributes of the human oro-pharyngeal tract any more than an iPod or a radio does. One of the staggering things about the quoted statement is that the reviewer didn't appreciate that obvious point. I suppose it's just one more measure of how little knowledge educated people have about phonetics. After a hundred years of really detailed work (three thousand years if you want to take things back to the age of the brilliant phoneticians and phonologists of ancient India) the study of the general nature of speech sounds and how they are produced is still almost unknown to the general public. And the typical undergraduate career in a university includes not one single course on elementary aspects of the science of language.
There's more to be said about the review, and doubtless, far more than I'm ever going to say about the book. But taking [b] to be a suitable substitute for [p] in a creature with no lips looked to me like definitely the dumbest piece of science writing about animal communication this month. (It's October 29; there's only two more days for some stupid fake pet communication trick story to beat it.)
[P.S.: I get a lot of flak for being skeptical about whether people's pets understand everything they say and name lots of objects and communicate with them better than a human child could etc. etc. But, mindful of the spirit of democracy that animates our great blogosphere, I have opened comments on this post. So below you will probably soon be able to read a long series of boring grumbles and sentimental special pleading by gullible bird-lovers who hate me. Enjoy.]