What "Down!" means

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I'm going to tell you a funny and true story that will reveal, for all you animal lovers, the true quality of canine lexical semantic competence. The story comes from my friend Moshe Vardi, who has a dog (a schnauzer, if you keep track of the different breeds) to which he has carefully taught various spoken commands. One of these commands is transmitted by uttering the English word down. When that command is issued, the dog obediently and immediately relaxes all four legs and drops to the ground, belly and genito-excretory organs in the dust.

Well, there came a day when a large pizza had been set on the table in preparation for the Vardi family's dinner, and for a few seconds, before people were seated, Moshe's wife foolishly left the room unguarded. When she returned from the kitchen, she was shocked to see the dog up on the table, standing over the pizza and licking at it tentatively.

"Down!", she commanded, in stentorian tones.

I rather fear you are ahead of me at this point. But let me just continue at my own pace and detail for you the denouement you probably already expect.

Right there, obediently and immediately, the dog relaxed all four legs and dropped flat, belly and genito-excretory organs in the pizza.

So that is how well word meanings for dogs match up to word meanings for humans: they don't. The sound of a human voicing the phonetic sequence [daun] had simply been tied by a conditioned reflex to a particular bodily movement. The meaning of "down", the concept of a location that is lower or closer to the ground in some appropriate sense than one's present position, or a direction toward such a location, was not there in the doggie brain at all. (And the pizza, in case you were wondering about this, for it worried me, was not any longer regarded as humanly consumable. I don't know what they had for dinner instead that night.)

Comments are closed because I just know there are thousands and thousands of pet-loving Language Log readers out there who hate me because of my views on the non-existence of animal linguistic readiness (my claim is that no non-human has ever actually voiced a proposition or asked a question, not even once), and you would flood comments area with complaints about my being unfair to doggies. Some of you would probably pretend your comment was being typed by a dog (on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog). You all remember what I said about Rico the collie and his 200-word vocabulary, or what I said more recently about comparisons between parrots and children, and you hate me, and you want to tell me huffily that linguists like me "don't seem to have any interest at all in how animals communicate, and in fact cannot mention the subject without making a snotty comparison with human language" (the quote is from a comment by Jeremy Hawker here — he hates me only mildly). Well, I don't want to hear any of it, O.K.? I am so far from wanting to hear about it that I would rather eat that pizza than read your indignant comments about my unfeeling speciesism.

No I wouldn't. But seriously, I'm not being especially snotty here. I'm not (pace Hawker) denigrating animal communication: of course animals communicate — just not linguistically, that's all. The study of how they communicate is eminently worthwhile, though it isn't linguistics. And I'm not implying that humans are superior in virtue of their linguistic abilities: who can say whether our incessant babbling and blogging makes us absolutely better than non-babbling, non-blogging organisms like orchids or ocelots? One would need some absolute standard of betterness, and we don't have one. I know that with respect to some skills dogs are definitely my superiors: I can't tell by any amount of sniffing the ground that a certain person passed this way recently, and I can't leap my own length off the ground and catch a frisbee in my mouth. Many dogs are very good at these things. I also can't fly, though every normal parrot can. But neither dogs nor parrots can use or understand human languages, nor even understand a single word in a sense that can be meaningfully compared to human lexical semantic knowledge. Every normal 4-year-old human can.

I'm not interested in any bragging rights for Homo sapiens. I'm merely concerned that the definition of what linguists mean by such things as knowledge of a word meaning or ability to form a sentence should not get blurred by over-hyping of the extremely loose analogies between animal abilities and human linguistic behaviors.

So comments are off, understand? Put a sock in it. Back off! Down, I say! Down!

Comments are closed.