Pyow-pyow
March 11, 2008 1:42 AM   Subscribe

A troop of putty-nosed monkeys in west Africa has been found to use a rudimentary language.
posted by chuckdarwin (88 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool as hell, but unsurprising, I guess. Also, "pyow" sounds like a laser blast to me.

*makes gun out of hands*

pyow! pyow! ka-pow!
posted by brundlefly at 2:09 AM on March 11, 2008


* Hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-hack-hack-hack, hack-hack-hack

"I gotta stop smoking. Leopard! Damn, leopards are such a trigger for me. Leopards and coffee."
posted by maryh at 2:30 AM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


So they basically possess all the necessary attributes to comment here other than a Paypal account?
posted by Abiezer at 2:36 AM on March 11, 2008 [12 favorites]


* Hack-hack-hack-hack: "I found a website called 'Stuff Chinese People Like'"

* Pyow-hack-hack-pyow-pyow-pyow: "This post sucks, I'm taking it to MetaTalk!"

* Hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-hack-hack-hack "When are the mods going to wake up?"
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:57 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


My pet peeve is when someone says "hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-pyow". I know potty-nosed monkey language is constantly evolving (or whatever the hell it is that languagehat claims) but I just think that it makes the caller sound stupid. Is it so hard to say "hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-hack-pyow" instead? I mean, it doesn't even make SENSE to say "hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-pyow!" It makes me so angry that monkeys these days aren't even taught the BASICS of grammar. That's why my best-selling book "Eat Shit and Leave: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Simian Grammar" is bound to sell best.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:21 AM on March 11, 2008 [20 favorites]


posted by chuckdarwin

eponysterical!
posted by jozxyqk at 3:36 AM on March 11, 2008


When scientists figure out what their speech for:

"My lipstick doesn't go with this dress and wig"
"I want another cigar to go with this scotch" and
"My owner was the bass guitarist in a heavy metal band"

then and only then will be able to usefully communicate with primates.
posted by rhymer at 3:43 AM on March 11, 2008


As a linguist, I watch these stories come and go, usually with dismay because I know my students will be citing these as "facts" soon enough.

We've known about monkeys (vervets) using distinctive holistic calls with modest "referential" precision for decades. It's a standard example of an animal call system.

The problem here is with the word "rudimentary." Just changing the sequence of calls and nominally changing the reference does not prove the existence of "syntax" in the sense human language has syntax. There is no recursion. Human language is not rudimentary even in its earliest emergence.

Human infants will play with the order of words and signs before they master sentence syntax as well. They will also play with the ordering of cries and other non-referential sounds.

Without access to the minds of these animals, which by definition we don't have, we can't be sure they don't have a syntactic faculty and aren't just playing around with sounds, or don't learn these calls holistically.

I'm just saying that linguists get used to these tales; humans want SO badly to believe that other animals have something like our "language." It never pans out when the research is pressed to its conclusion. And it can't, because in the absence of a shared communicative frame, there is no way for us to know for certain whether some sign "means" anything by virtue of its structural mediation of reality or by virtue of learned behavioral responses to holistic forms.

Which does not mean that animal communication systems (some of which *do* seem to have more robust syntactic properties that are fairly well demonstrated, the most famous being the "food source dance" of honeybees) are not intrinsically interesting, of course.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:44 AM on March 11, 2008 [9 favorites]


Which is a long way of saying, thanks for an interesting post.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:47 AM on March 11, 2008


fourcheesemac, I was interested in this bit the most:
Marc Hauser, director of the Cognitive Evolution Lab and co-director of the Mind, Brain & Behavior Initiative at Harvard University, told Discovery News that the new research "is a beautiful set of studies," but "how similar or different [monkey call combinations] are to the combinations of words in language remains, however, unclear."

Asif Ghazanfar, assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, told Discovery News that he was also impressed by the new research. For a follow-up experiment, he suggested trying to trip up the female monkey listeners.

"One experiment that would've been nice to try is to reverse the order: do playbacks of hack-pyow sequences to see if the temporal order matters to the monkeys, as temporal order can change meaning in human communication," Ghazanfar said.

posted by chuckdarwin at 4:15 AM on March 11, 2008


So what? I knew guys back in Alabama, when I was growing up, who had rudimentary language skills as well. So, you see, we got that RIGHT HERE IN THE USA! You don't have to go looking in Africa for it!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:20 AM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Alabama, eh? Good reason to move to Japan.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:27 AM on March 11, 2008


Human language is not rudimentary even in its earliest emergence.

I don't see why this is necessarily relevant. You started that paragraph by saying "rudimentary" was the issue, but then went on to discuss the complexity of syntax. If I may switch a more familiar (to me) area for this analogy: A "rudimentary" programming language could either refer to a Turing complete one with poor library support (which is what your description of babies sounds like) OR it could be a Turing incomplete one. For instance, it could support variables but not branching or looping.

Without access to the minds of these animals, which by definition we don't have, we can't be sure they don't have a syntactic faculty

Why do we not have access to the minds of these animals "by definition"? And why do we need mind access to check for a syntactic faculty? Do we have access to human minds? And if it is fundamentally impossible to check for this in animals, isn't the claim that they don't have it unfalsifiable?
posted by DU at 4:33 AM on March 11, 2008


* Hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-hack-hack-hack, hack-hack-hack

Well, it's more intelligent, and intelligible, than 99.999% of YouTube comments.
posted by barnacles at 4:35 AM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's very easy to cross the line from dispassionate observation to homocentricity.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:41 AM on March 11, 2008


MetaFilter: A troop of putty-nosed monkeys.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:43 AM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Nonono, lasers go pew-pew, not pyow-pyow
posted by TheJoven at 4:48 AM on March 11, 2008


Well, it's more intelligent, and intelligible, than 99.999% of YouTube comments.

Of course. Those are written by potty-mouthed monkeys, not putty-nosed monkeys. Totally different animal.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:55 AM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


I for one etcetera.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 5:05 AM on March 11, 2008


Interesting.

Too bad they lack the fundamental differences that allow humans to form civilizations.

If you want to see what is both amazing and evolutionarily unfortunate about other primates, do yourself a favor and watch Nova's "Ape Genius" online.
posted by markkraft at 5:39 AM on March 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


Quid, we don't need that prescriptivist shit again, thank you very much. That rule has no real logical or linguistic standing; it was actually invented by some idiot in the eighteenth century, purely on the basis that sentences like "hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-pyow" are impossible in Latin. Once again, the so-called grammar mavens' so-called rules prove to be nothing of the kind.
posted by Phanx at 5:44 AM on March 11, 2008


(Aside: That NOVA writeup jumps right into the meat and is really interesting throughout. Why aren't NOVA shows like that anymore? Instead we get 20 minutes of setup, 10 minutes of information and 20 minutes of review with the balance devoted to irrelevant graphics and/or pontificating.)
posted by DU at 5:46 AM on March 11, 2008


Chicken chicken chicken, chicken chicken chicken chicken? Chicken chicken!

Oh, sorry, wrong chicken.
posted by syzygy at 5:57 AM on March 11, 2008


Why do we not have access to the minds of these animals "by definition"? And why do we need mind access to check for a syntactic faculty? Do we have access to human minds? And if it is fundamentally impossible to check for this in animals, isn't the claim that they don't have it unfalsifiable?
posted by DU

Short of reprising the great Chomsky/Skinner debate I will simply say that it is because we are not monkeys, do not share their social or cognitive or experiential worlds the way we do those of fellow humans, and cannot *communicate* with them to confirm that any particular sign or utterance "means" what we think it means based on behavioral evidence alone. We lack the ability to confirm the existence of shared reference because *monkeys don't have human language, and nor do the great apes, whales, honeybees, or any other known animal species.*

A bit of a tautology, but in fact that tautology is the cognitivist account of (human, or animal) consciousness and its relationship (mediated) to the external world.

As for "rudimentary," it is true that human infants first produce holistic signs (cries) and then begin to parse the phonemic and intonational segmentation of their native language in speech play and babbling, long before the first 2 or 3 word *sentences* are recorded. But we have evidence of infants processing segmental distinctions (phonemic, then lexical, then syntactic) well ahead of their ability to produce those distinctions. My basic point is that what a 6 or 8 month old human infant appears to be able to do with "language," "rudimentary" as it is, far exceeds the scope and complexity of any known naturally occurring animal communication system measured only in terms of the relationship between externalized sign and concrete behavioral consequences.

My own view of language actually starts from a more animal-language-friendly perspective, namely, that we have vastly overstated the centrality of both segmental and recursive grammatical structures and reference as such (the former as a result of the latter) in defining "language" as a uniquely human evolutionary accomplishment. As Derek Bickerton says, this is a reasonable bias, since referential precision and adaptability (enabled by segmental grammar) are clearly huge evolutionary assets for our species (enabling us, in effect, to inherit learned or acquired knowledge, not just genetically encoded adaptations, via culture). But it ignores all the ways in which human communication is so much more than referential language, and in that sense is quite similar in many of its key features to animal communication systems we have observed in many species in the wild.

As an aside, any "animal language" experiment that does *not* rely on observing naturally occurring behavior in the wild is a priori bullshit.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:33 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let me plug Derek Bickerton's great book properly: Language and Species (1990).

He considers primate and other animal communication systems at great length. I disagree profoundly with much of it, but it is the most readable and compelling account of language and evolution I know, far more to the point than anything Stephen Pinker has ever published.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:37 AM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


These scientists were able to play back tapes of calls and have the monkeys respond predictably. The monkeys have a language consisting of two words, arranged in sequences...

It's binary. They're talking in binary.

And these scientists are programming an army of putty-nosed monkeys, with which they will take over the world!

*Panics, faints, recovers, and wanders off to get coffee.*
posted by MrVisible at 6:48 AM on March 11, 2008


It sounds like you are saying there is no amount of "obviousness" of animal language usage that is sufficient to overcome this problem. Even if an English-speaking monkey were to appear and challenge humans on their role in reducing habitat, we must reject this evidence of language use because of the difficulty of determining what, if anything, the monkey *means* by these possibly-random utterings?

My point about babies was that complexity can be measured along multiple axes. Therefore when one says "species X has rudimentary language" one is not necessarily saying "species X has baby-equivalent language".
posted by DU at 6:49 AM on March 11, 2008


The folks at Language Log are, as usual, all over this.

But then it's never time for good science writing when it's animal communication time. It is, like quite a number of other subjects, a topic that turns science journalists' brains to mush.
posted by zamboni at 7:05 AM on March 11, 2008


"... a topic that turns science journalists' brains to mush.”

Well, hopefully this time it won't also turn their noses into putty.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:08 AM on March 11, 2008


... Zuberbuhler, who is a researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. For the study, published in this week's Current Biology ...

For fuck's sake, these people are psychologists and biologists. Call me when some actual linguists decide there's such a thing as animal language, rudimentary or not, and it gets published in Language.

For less bile-filled discussion, see fourcheesemac's excellent comments above. And while of course as a descriptivist I defend whatever syntax putty-nosed monkeys choose to use, I have to admit that "hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-pyow" bothers me too, and I look forward to reading the quidnunc kid's book.
posted by languagehat at 7:09 AM on March 11, 2008


Once an animal is found that exhibits every as-yet-enumerated nuance of human language, more nuances will added to the definition of "language" to maintain human superiority.
posted by Jpfed at 7:43 AM on March 11, 2008


This was a good post (thanks). I hope someday these headlines get framed better. Every year or so there's another "rare animal discovered that uses language!" story when what we should probably read is "Slow-witted humans finally figure out another animal language!"
posted by rokusan at 8:00 AM on March 11, 2008


It sounds like you are saying there is no amount of "obviousness" of animal language usage that is sufficient to overcome this problem. Even if an English-speaking monkey were to appear and challenge humans on their role in reducing habitat, we must reject this evidence of language use because of the difficulty of determining what, if anything, the monkey *means* by these possibly-random utterings?

I think you're really, really wildly overstating fourcheesemac's argument. The notion is not that animals are by some arbitrary, inherent distinction so alien to us that there is no sense to be made of any utterance they commit, however sensible or decodable it may seem to us, which seems to be what you're suggesting was said.

That the actual animals we have around are, insofar as we have a toolset for understanding them, still culturally alien things is a pragmatic, circumstantial fact right now. We don't know what the fuck is going on in a monkey's head—we can make some guesses based on behavioral observation, but that's pretty much the end of it until we make some really tremendous advances in neurophysiology or become telepathic or otherwise break down a really significant communicative/neurological/cultural wall between species.

If an English-speaking monkey were to appear, that'd be amazing. So too would Hitler rising from the grave to perform musical theater, and the latter is just about as likely at the moment so its a bit of a moot point.
posted by cortex at 8:20 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pyow-pyow, meow meow. But everybody knows animals talk.
posted by nickyskye at 8:36 AM on March 11, 2008


fourcheesemac, I'm curious -- what's your take on Dr. Pepperberg's research with Alex and other African Grey parrots? It may not be at all related to syntax, etc, but I'd like to know your take on it. I'm out of my depth, from a linguist point of view, but I'm a parrot owner and have done a fair bit of reading on Dr. Pepperberg's research.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 8:48 AM on March 11, 2008


I think you're really, really wildly overstating fourcheesemac's argument.

I think he wildly overstated his own argument. I requote: Without access to the minds of these animals, which by definition we don't have...

I specifically asked about the "by definition" and I got a specific reply saying that it was in fact an inescapable tautology. He seems to be saying that it is literally impossible, not merely difficult, to associate sound with interior state because animals are not humans.

I think it is definitely the case that any experiment to identify animal language would have to be very careful to avoid homocentrism. But I don't think that it is in principal impossible (as shown by my ridiculous example).
posted by DU at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2008


But it's a tautology of circumstance, not principle; if something changes such that we do gain the ability to communicate in a nuanced fashion with non-human species, what we can and can't know about their minds and internal states gets wholly reevaluated.

I won't guess at fourcheesemac's personal opinions about the likelihood of such a change occurring, but it's certainly true that at the moment for every single animal we know of we haven't found anything like a way to communicate; that we don't know what's going on in their heads; and that we don't have any idea how to get into their heads or bridge the communicative gap. At the moment, by definition, we don't have access to their mental states, even if, in principle, that could change if something tremendously significant were to come along.
posted by cortex at 9:59 AM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


This stuff is cool. National Geographic currently has an interesting article on animal communication that goes further into combined calls. There's a bit in there about Dr. Pepperberg and Alex the parrot, too, Pantengliopoli - it's the first time I'd ever heard of them and I also want to hear what the linguists have to say.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:34 AM on March 11, 2008


...if something changes such that we do gain the ability to communicate in a nuanced fashion with non-human species..

How can such a change take place when you are stuck in the tautology to begin with? (Personally, I would find it easy to believe that an English-speaking monkey could speak English, but as pointed out that seems to have been rejected as evidence a priori.)

At the moment, by definition, we don't have access to their mental states...

By definition of what?

But I really don't want to be arguing for what seems to be a crazy position for fourcheesemac to be taking. Perhaps he'll stop by again later and let us know what that really meant.
posted by DU at 10:35 AM on March 11, 2008


Too bad they lack the fundamental differences that allow humans to form civilizations.

Oh, is that what we're calling it?

Somewhere on this planet - or possibly floating high above the atmosphere in some sort of mothership - is the leader of our Felinus Domesticus overlords. Based on reports sent by their agents (three of whom allow us to occupy their house and serve them), the overlords have concluded that humans have no language capability - this is obviously true, since we can't even understand really simple commands like "Feed me" and "Skritch me".

Our cats definitely think we're some sort of deformed, retarded life-form, and you don't need a dictionary to decipher the expression in their eyes.
posted by rtha at 10:45 AM on March 11, 2008


Why are you getting the idea that we're stuck with the tautology? My whole point is that the tautology is a statement of current circumstances, not an inviolable law of the universe: the problem is not that we disbelieve in the communicative power of some hypothetical apparently-English-speaking monkey, it's that monkeys right now don't use any language we can understand. The lack of any extant bridge of communication between us and the monkeys is what holds the tautology up; knock that out and, awesome, okay, we can communicate with the monkeys and thus begin to understand their minds.

I haven't heard anything from anyone (save maybe some bored philosophy majors) that suggests that a genuine talking monkey would be rejected as not actually talking. The real issue is that there aren't any talking monkeys. Right now. In reality. Where actual statements about whether or not communication is possible apply.

fourcheesemac said this, in response to you and to which we've been responding:

Short of reprising the great Chomsky/Skinner debate I will simply say that it is because we are not monkeys, do not share their social or cognitive or experiential worlds the way we do those of fellow humans, and cannot *communicate* with them to confirm that any particular sign or utterance "means" what we think it means based on behavioral evidence alone. We lack the ability to confirm the existence of shared reference because *monkeys don't have human language, and nor do the great apes, whales, honeybees, or any other known animal species.*

Emphasis mine. I'm wondering if we're reading that "cannot" very differently:

- I read it as a statement of practical fact: right now, we have no known facility for communicating with monkeys (and by extension no way of knowing whether it's possible in theory to communicate with them) in a meaningful human-style manner.
- I am getting the feeling you're reading "cannot" as a gauntlet thrown, a philosophical position: we inherently, for now and forever, cannot be expected to or cannot allow for the possibility of communicating with them? Or something?

Basically I don't see why you're so convinced that fourcheesemac is staking our inability to communicate at the present on some unviolable, untestable principle of non-communication, rather than just making a fairly reasonable statement about where the science of interspecies language/communication actually is—a statement itself prompted here by yet another incredibly shitty piece of junk-science journalism in a long, long line of said junk that constantly, foolishly, sensationalistically oversells animal communication/language research findings.
posted by cortex at 10:50 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


"If a lion could talk, we would not understand him." Ludwig Wittgenstein.

"It's clear that Wittgenstein hasn't spent much time with lions." John Aspinall.
posted by binturong at 11:11 AM on March 11, 2008


I am getting the feeling you're reading "cannot" as a gauntlet thrown, a philosophical position...

Yes, that's how I'm reading it. He said "by definition" we don't have access to the minds of animals, which sounds pretty fundamental to me. Thus my original question, which he confirmed by saying our worlds were too different. Some of the ways in which worlds could differ were along social and cognitive lines, which I took (and still do, especially in the context of "by definition") to be biological and immutable. Being immutable, these conditions make the "cannot" of "cannot communicate" a gauntlet.

I 100% agree with you that it would be ludicrous to reject an English-speaking monkey on purely philosophical grounds. Nonetheless, that's how I'm reading what he's saying. We won't know what he's really saying until he comes back and says it again (or until we have access to his internal mental state via some other channel).
posted by DU at 11:23 AM on March 11, 2008


Deal. Though, fwiw, I am pyowing fcm telepathically so hard right now.
posted by cortex at 11:36 AM on March 11, 2008


ew,tmi
posted by DU at 11:38 AM on March 11, 2008


Huh?

Oh, you speak Low-Central Dialectal Putty, I guess? Apologies. In Standard West African Putty, it's actually "hack-pyow-pyow"ing that's the dirty phrase—unadorned "pyow" is family-friendly language—but I should have remembered the nasty idiomatic overtones of the LCDP variant.

To be clear: I was hack-pyow-pjow-hack-pyowing, and nothing more.
posted by cortex at 11:42 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


"By definition" meaning "lack of linguistic communication with us is one of the things that allows us to define 'animals' as separate from 'humans.'"
posted by klangklangston at 11:54 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Really interesting post and fascinating thread. Thanks all.

(Btw - kill them all now.)
posted by Smedleyman at 12:13 PM on March 11, 2008


i will reserve judgment on the case of a hypothetical English speaking monkey. I am using definitive language because language is what we are talking about here. Until we can communicate meaningfully and *confirmably* with another species about referents in the external world using more than holistic signs (fetch, sit, play dead) we can't recognize the equivalent of "language" in another species.

For linguists (see languagehat's comment above) this is pretty non-controversial and not a particularly "extreme" position. I am not saying other species don't communicate with their own versions of something like our "language," though with minimal exceptions other species do not seem to be able to pass on learned or acquired behaviors even by teaching (again, there are somewhat minor exceptions to this which are intriguing but otherwise make the basic point in their exceptionality). Or at least we don't have any reason to believe they do. We alone seem to possess "culture" and it may well be our undoing in evolutionary terms. It's neither good not bad, but humans are unique in this respect among species, until evidence emerges otherwise for me.

We may be making a very big mistake (I think we are) assuming that other communication systems used by other species are organized like language structurally or neurobiologically, as well. We think with familiar concepts. Language is the repository of our familiar concepts. It is a particularly poor analogical tool for exploring the limits of our own ability to conceptualize or communicate.

I didn't think I was really arguing for anything except urging caution about the implications of such a trivial instance of reported animal "syntax."

I have no opinion on parrots. I don't think that what they do has anything to do with the segmental grammar of spoken human language. But I think they are very musical beasts and excellent mimics, with very amazing emotional intelligence. (I've got one in my life and I'm very impressed by the ways it does communicate across the species boundary, for a bird.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:30 PM on March 11, 2008


But no gauntlets. If someone proves that they can actually communicate across species boundaries with language (any human language or artificial language structured like human language) in ways that do not require absurd experimental limitations on context that no human toddler would require, I will revise my "cannot." "Cannot" is a statement of existing empirical consensus in my world of linguists, not an existential statement of permanent truth.

Yes, what infants do to communicate is very complex long before they acquire the full complexity of language. I did not suggest otherwise, I don't think. For linguists, "language" means something very specific and pretty well described at this point (Professionally, the lineage of linguistics I work in actually disputes that limitation, but for the sake of this argument it's a first approximation that works).
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:35 PM on March 11, 2008


er, klangklangston has it, without all my jargon.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:35 PM on March 11, 2008


and Wittgenstein has it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:36 PM on March 11, 2008


as usual
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:36 PM on March 11, 2008


I have no opinion on parrots. I don't think that what they do has anything to do with the segmental grammar of spoken human language. But I think they are very musical beasts and excellent mimics, with very amazing emotional intelligence. (I've got one in my life and I'm very impressed by the ways it does communicate across the species boundary, for a bird.)

I'm pretty sure that Dr. Pepperburg's research is less about language than it was about exploring cognition in other animals. She uses the parrots' ability to learn words and associate them with objects and concepts, to the point where her subjects can distinguish color/shape/size among a set of objects, count the number of a certain color/shape/size and answer accurately when asked. Alex, her first parrot, understood the concept of zero/none before he died (as in "How many squares?" "None."). They will also use the language they've learned to make demands, i.e. "need to go", "want shower", "want a grape", "go to tree", etc...

As I said, likely not the same topic addressed here, but it's a fascinating look into a hard-working brain, be it a bird or any other animal. Anyway, sorry for the derail!
posted by Pantengliopoli at 1:11 PM on March 11, 2008


Fuckin' A, then.
posted by cortex at 1:16 PM on March 11, 2008


pew pew!! pew pew pew pew pew!!

that's it. i ain't got nothin' else.

posted by CitizenD at 1:49 PM on March 11, 2008


How does a monkey say "The leopard has runoft"?
posted by neuron at 1:52 PM on March 11, 2008


Cognition and language use, though related in humans, are distinct questions. I have no doubt that parrots are cognitive wunderbirds, as I said, knowing one myself on an intimate basis (actually, a parakeet, which is technically a parrot too). In fact, I communicate in language all the time with this bird; but that doesn't mean she understands what I'm saying through the filter of syntax or a lexicon. In fact, I'm sure many of you have played tricks with dogs where you say completely random things but in the tone and rhythm with which you'd give a familiar command, and the same bodily set and gestures. You can fool a dog every time with that one. "Retch the rall" generates excellent ball fetching action. (And not just because that's how Scooby Doo would say it, either!)

In a way, this restates my point. We associate cognition so closely with language because in fact they are inextricably intertwined in human evolution. We anthropomorphize their intertwinedness when we project "language" abilities onto other species, and especially when we slip from describing concrete reference to the much thornier question of abstract and categorical cognition.

If birds or other non-human species can recognize and communicate new relationships among objects, events, or agents in the world on the fly (so to speak), then they would need something "like" language to do so. So we look for evidence that they do so, but it makes only a limited kind of scientific sense for me to do so by testing their ability to "learn" human language or simulated human languages, since it falsifies natural conditions so utterly, and reduces the communicative context at great peril to validity. This sort of study is closer -- a study of natural call systems in the wild -- but it still cannot cross the confiirmability threshold; one cannot ask a monkey if one thing means the same as another thing, or if a call can mean something else too.

Put more simply, if you show me non-human animals with a transmissible culture, I'll concede all the points above. And then I'm buying some guns.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:55 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Interesting... thanks. I definitely wasn't trying to conflate language and cognition, but it's nice to get a more educated view on the difference.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 1:59 PM on March 11, 2008


cortex The lack of any extant bridge of communication between us and the monkeys is what holds the tautology up; knock that out and, awesome, okay, we can communicate with the monkeys and thus begin to understand their minds.

We don't even need such intricate communication to understand an animal's mind. A cat or dog is far less intelligent and capable of far less complex vocalizations, but it is perfectly capable of communicating that it is hungry, wants to go outside, wants affection, is annoyed, is frightened, etc.

His argument that lack of access to the minds of something precludes you from communicating with it is not even wrong. It's exactly the same argument when I apply it another person. I don't get access to your mind, there are always going to be some thoughts you think that you will never be able to communicate, by any means, to me. And so on. It's not "yes you understand" or "no you don't understand", it's a question of degree of comprehension, and the surmounting of barriers.

I think it's safe to say that most thoughts that any given animal is capable of thinking, are mostly a subset of thoughts we are capable of thinking, with a few outside that depend on perceptions we aren't aware we lack.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:07 PM on March 11, 2008


You share a code with another person, as well as a common (enough) set of experiences and behavioral instincts, to be able to reasonably infer that your subjectivity and hers/his are similar. But beyond that, you can use language to calibrate your subjective views of the world.

I am most assuredly not saying we can't or don't communicate with animals (though much more easily with domesticated breeds selected for just this purpose -- your dog telling you clearly it wants to piss now is a product of hundreds or thousands of years of selection; most animals will just piss on you if it comes to that). I am saying that we can't communicate linguistically with animals in order to calibrate our subjectivities.

Not sure what I am arguing against at this point. I think we agree on the big points. I am an empiricist. Show me animals using language (other than humans) and I will change my conclusion, which, biased as it may be, is rooted in the fact that to date, after countless attempts, we've never had a referential conversation across a species divide.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:16 PM on March 11, 2008


um, that has been reported in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (I'm a bit of a stickler because false and exaggerated claims are so predominant, even IN the scientific literature, much of which involves "animal language" research by people who do not understand "language" in the precise and powerful way the linguists do, or who intentionally alter the definition of "language" to fit the evidence they have).
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:19 PM on March 11, 2008


I want to add this: the principles by which human languages generate infinite new parsings of reality from finite and limited semiotic means are not uniquely discoverable in or applicable to human language or humans. They also organize the structure of the genetic code itself, of all life.

That way lies great mystery. We know almost nothing for all we think we know.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:22 PM on March 11, 2008


I am an empiricist. Show me animals using language (other than humans) and I will change my conclusion, which, biased as it may be, is rooted in the fact that to date, after countless attempts, we've never had a referential conversation across a species divide.

As I said here:
I have seen no convincing (to me) evidence that any animals use language as I understand it, but I prefer to believe that language is a unique and defining human phenomenon, so I'd be hard to convince. Not impossible, though; show me a parrot that can discuss this question and I'll accept him as a fellow sentient and support his right to drink in my bar.
posted by languagehat at 3:27 PM on March 11, 2008


"if you show me non-human animals with a transmissible culture, I'll concede all the points above."

But surely there are lots of examples of social animals with transmissable culture, demonstrated by different learned hunting techniques, social behaviour, diets etc. in different parts of the species' range. And where does the evolution of regional dialects fit into the linguists' notions of "language"? Humpback whales and many birds, for example, have regionally distinct vocal communications -- isn't that an example of transmissable culture? A bird in place A cannot understand the "accent" of a bird of the same species living in place B (e.g. Donold J. Borror, Bird Song and Behavior).
posted by binturong at 3:30 PM on March 11, 2008


"Put more simply, if you show me non-human animals with a transmissible culture, I'll concede all the points above."

I wouldn't go that far—there have been more than a few studies of chimps where tool-using has been transmissible. It's the recursive and inventive properties of language that I don't believe have been seen.
posted by klangklangston at 4:09 PM on March 11, 2008


fourcheesemac writes "Without access to the minds of these animals, which by definition we don't have, we can't be sure they don't have a syntactic faculty and aren't just playing around with sounds, or don't learn these calls holistically. "

But if I say, "without a prior knowledge of Chinese, and without (privileged) access to the minds of Chinese people, we can't be sure they.... have a syntactic faculty and aren't just playing around with sounds" most people would laugh. Or the famous room that produces Chinese outputs to Chinese inputs, despite being inhabited by someone who speaks no Chinese but can uncomprehendingly and by rote match Chinese input symbols to Chinese output symbols. It's the philosophic Zombie question, applied to monkeys: how can we "be sure" the next person we talk to isn't just making rote and unconscious responses to stimuli, from some very large "menu" of possible responses?

We have to take Dennet's intentional stance: if the correlation between the monkey's utterances and what would in the monkey's best interests to communicate is greater than chance, the monkey is doing more than playing with sounds.

As you point out, we've known for years that certain utterances do correlate to what the monkey is observing and what would be salient to other monkeys who aren't seeing what teh first monkey sees, and that it's in the genetic interest of the monkey to make the utterances (via kin selection if necessary, as the utterances by attracting predators can be against the best interest of the individual monkey).

So now we just need to justify calling some organization of the utterances a syntax. Again, does the monkey's manipulation/transformation of its produced sounds correlate greater than chance with the monkey's intentions, interpreting "intention" as what would be rational for the monkey (or its genes)?
posted by orthogonality at 4:40 PM on March 11, 2008


they're just trying to be friendly .. not put anybody down
posted by celerystick at 4:42 PM on March 11, 2008


1) By transmissable culture, I mean more than the marginal learning so far evidenced by such things as "dialects" of whale songs or tool use by chimpanzees. Such "culture" is not, evidently, progressive. It does not appear to confer a significant evolutionary advantage with cumulative consequences for survival and (as with humans) spread into new ecological niches and the development of new means of subsistence. Again, the small exceptions prove the rule. Of course animals "learn," but what they "learn" is, to all appearances at least, trivial compared with what they "know," or how they "know how" to learn. (Again, there is a critique of human culture theory here but it means digressing mightily.)

Language, for humans, is rather like that. We make no effort to learn it, or to transmit it. We just do. Or rather we make the effort, but it's trivial. That's the sense Pinker means by calling Language an "instinct" for our species. We have the capacity, thanks to language, to override our instinct, however, which is the weird philosophical trick that has perplexed philosophers from Plato to Quine and beyond. So, to a limited extent, do domesticated animals (the dog who will die for his master, the horse who will be led off a cliff), which is a curious instance of another species being almost an honorary member of human culture.

That kind of feedback from instinct to the direct transmission of learned or acquired behaviors (even those that defy an instinct, such as monogamy, alas poor Eliot Spitzer) is what "Language" (I'll capitalize it to indicate the linguist's rough definition) enables.

The evidence I'm looking for would be cities of African monkeys in the arctic; penguins wearing tuxedos; parrots deciding to go on strike for better millet sticks; Bowhead whales arranging to migrate a few miles further from the shore this year to avoid those pesky Inuit hunters who wait for them to pass by the same shallow, near-the-ice-edge water every year for 10,000 years in a row.

Hasn't happened. That we know of. Except in Planet of the Apes. Like I said, if I'm wrong, and it might just be a matter of evolutionary time frames here (scratch might be, is), better get yourself some weapons. Because the animals are going to be a little mad at us for claiming to be the only ones with culture all these years.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:52 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


celerystick, I don't dispute the attribution of intentionality to communicate for a purpose to non-human animals. Not at all. I see them as sentient, conscious, intelligent, feeling beings -- all of them, but on a scale to be sure. We have responsibilities to them because we have culture and they don't, which is weird because culture surely evolved most efficiently as a means to kill them. But also a means of not running out of animals to kill and eat either.

We are out of whack with this culture shit. We've way outstripped our ability to modify our ethical stance as quickly as we can modify nature and our evolutionary biological destiny. I am a great admirer of whales and apes, in fact. We have much to learn from them about living with our natures. But we won't learn it from talking to them directly. Or we haven't been able to yet.

I am more interested in what their intelligence is, in its own terms, than I am in whether it is like ours exactly. It is equally interesting to wonder whether animals of different species have any awareness of the subjectivity of other species (again, barring domesticated animals and fairy tales about children raised by badgers and wolves). To a cat, a mouse is dinner, not another sentient being, or at least I hypothesize with reasonable confidence. But when I yell at the cat for torturing a mouse to death, I'm expressing a different order of consciousness, not a better one, but a different one. In language the cat has no idea about (although she may well cue in to my loud or angry tone and run away, revealing an intentionality to understand me, for sure).
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:59 PM on March 11, 2008


And the next time, the cat will torture the mouse in a more private location, perhaps . . .

One of the great tests of whether you have "language" is whether you can lie (or "prevaricate") or not. Limited prevarication of an intentional sort has been reported in vervet monkey call behavior; it has been reported (I think) with respect to more inferred communicative behaviors among other animals too (I am not very up on this subject, so I might be wrong, though of course I might be wrong and probably am about a lot of other things I'm riffing on in this most excellent conversation; there are also more obviously instinctual modes of deception; the issue is contextual variability.)

But there don't seem to be animal equivalents to "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Or "It depends on what the meaning of the word is is." (A direct lie; and indirect prevarication, both meant to cover up something in the past. Vervets, I believe, prevaricate to obtain a food source in the future by convincing their mates there is a predator coming.)

Trippy shit.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:07 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


(And one last comment: from a linguist's point of view, Clinton was quite right and all the right wing pundits who screamed about that comment were wrong. It is quite nearly impossible to "define" the word "is" or the copula in general and it takes epistemological contortions to massage the issue.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:08 PM on March 11, 2008


transmissible culture (don't buy guns)

posted by humannaire at 5:09 PM on March 11, 2008


OK, except to add that Clinton's comment is an example of the metalinguistic level of linguistic meaning, which also seems to be a distinguishing feature of human communication, though we have no real way of knowing for the same reasons we can't confirm or calibrate abstract reference across the species divide. When a vervet prevaricates and makes the call for "leopard," all his mates run up trees and he gets the newly discovered food source. His buddies may eventually figure out (indeed, learn) this trick, but it is unlikely they do so by parsing the contexts in which the call was used correctly or not in some form of metacommunication. And the instinctual analysis (worst case scenario, there's a real leopard, best case, I lose some food, if I might approximate my own gut reaction to hearing "fire" shouted while I'm eating a soy burger at McDonald's) continues to override the experience of being lied to, if I recall the vervet call study I'm referring to here correctly. Fucking monkeys (almost) never learn.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:15 PM on March 11, 2008


Ok, humannaire. Dolphins befuddle me too. I think we might be behind them, somehow, on the ladder of evolution.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:16 PM on March 11, 2008


Next thing you know they'll be watching reruns of SpongeBob, actually.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:17 PM on March 11, 2008


Gavagai!
posted by generalist at 5:30 PM on March 11, 2008


Also, Signature whistle shape conveys identity information to bottlenose dolphins
VM Janik*, LS Sayigh,** RS Wells - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2006
posted by humannaire at 5:41 PM on March 11, 2008


* Vincent Janik:
"I worked with a marine biologist from sea mammal research unit at St. Andrews called Vincent Janik. And he’s the guy who discovered that bottle nosed dolphins around the murray firth have individual signature whistles, which are rather akin to names.

So a female when she gives birth will repeat a particular whistle which her young dolphin will learn and carry as his or her signature whistle for the rest of their lives, so it’s like a name. And I was out with Janik a few years ago using some hydrophones, picking up bursts of echo location, which you know we were talking about bats, dolphins use the same thing for navigating, identifying prey, getting close to it and when they get really close they can also stun and kill the prey by a high powered burst of echo location sounds, ultrasound ruptures the swim bladders of fish. But he was also saying that they communicate using echo location as well in these bursts that are several seconds long.

And I said to him, have you ever tried to break this down and examine it. And he said, well the closest equivalent that he could come to was that in one of these bursts of three, four, five seconds of echo location sound there carrying about the same information as in an average paperback book. So he was saying dolphins are communicating at speeds that our fastest computers can’t even approach."

posted by humannaire at 5:43 PM on March 11, 2008


**Dr. Laela Sayigh—audio interview CBC's Quirks & Quarks
posted by humannaire at 5:45 PM on March 11, 2008


I just want to say, fourcheesemac and humannaire, you guys are kicking total linguistics/animal communications ass in this thread. Fantastic.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:49 PM on March 11, 2008


Gracias, flapjax. I don't get to teach this stuff anymore, so my perspectives are dated by a decade (I left linguistics for another discipline then). But I still find it seductive as hell to think about.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:13 PM on March 11, 2008


Also, I love Metafilter for just this reason -- this is one of few places I find intelligent discussions of these subjects (cognition, consciousness, language, culture) that obsess me that do not involve arguing with colleagues about minutiae or inside baseball. There are so damn many smart people here, and even a few linguists (I'm looking at you languagehat), philosophers, anthropologists, and assorted other riffraff who actually know what they are talking about on subjects I find fascinating.

So a tip of the hat to all.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:16 PM on March 11, 2008


"from a linguist's point of view, Clinton was quite right"

I must be one of the few people who think he was also "quite right" when saying "I did not have sex with that woman." Because, according to various surveys I have read, most people define "sex" as genital-genital contact and think of other activities -- handjobs, blowjobs etc. as rather inferior kinds of fooling around and not 100 percent authentic sex. Kids today apparently regard blowjobs as little more than "heavy petting" (a quaint prehistoric term). For myself, if someone asks me "When did you last have sex?", I reply "You mean, with another person?"
posted by binturong at 8:28 PM on March 11, 2008


Ha. Well, I define sex as exchanging glances across a crowded subway car. But the fact that we can compare our divergent definitions and come to an agreement about what "sex" means (or an agreement that it will mean different things in different contexts) is what makes us special creatures.

That, and the ways we have sex.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:38 AM on March 12, 2008


NZ dolphin rescues beached whales
"I don't speak whale and I don't speak dolphin," Mr Smith told the BBC, "but there was obviously something that went on because the two whales changed their attitude from being quite distressed to following the dolphin quite willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea."

He added: "The dolphin did what we had failed to do. It was all over in a matter of minutes."
posted by homunculus at 9:36 AM on March 12, 2008


I also wanted to extend my thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread (especially fourcheesemac). Absolutely fascinating stuff.
posted by kryptondog at 11:36 AM on March 12, 2008


Yeah, I concur. It may be my favourite FPP.
posted by chuckdarwin at 10:54 AM on March 13, 2008


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