Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Oh no, animal language again !?!?!?

If this blog was about stuff I really understand, I wouldn't touch this topic any more than I would recursion in Pirahã or Mormon history, topics I'm ignorant of but fascinated by. So too with animal communication.

Tonight, PBS had some auction on instead of the News Hour, the Stanley Cup game hadn't started yet and the Missus and I wanted to catch a little news. We happened on to ABC News, a pretty sad operation, from what I could see. Those guys shouldn't be allowed to get autographs from Gwen Ifill.

Anyway, that's what I thought before .... this piece came on, "Scientists teach language to primates". Check out this (Kanzi is a bonobo and Fields a researcher, unless I've reversed the names):
"Qualitatively, there is no difference between Kanzi's language and my language," Fields said. "It's a matter of degree."

The key to ensuring they grasp the language, the researchers said, is to start teaching them when they are young, just like you would with human babies.

"Language is culturally acquired. Its not learned," said Fields. "It's acquired in the immediate postnatal antogyny of the organisms life. The only organism capable of learning language are babies."
Is this insane drivel showing up on the evening news or have I missed a bunch of groundbreaking work on animal communication?

Reminds me of an old Lou Reed lyric:
Animal Language
Miss Riley had a dog
she used to keep it in her backyard
And when the dog began to bark
all the neighbors began to shout
Then came a stormy night
Miss Riley let her dog out
And when the neighbors found him 'round
they put a gun down his mouth and shot him down
and he went

Ooohhh-wow, bow-wow
Ooohhh-wow, bow-wow

Miss Murphy had a cat
on her lap it sat
And once in a great big while
it looked like that Cheshire cat did smile
But often it used to chase
anything that crossed its face
But one day it got so hot
that Cheshire cat had a blood clot
and she said

Ooohhh-meow, me-meow
Ooohhh-meow, me-meow


And then the dog met the cat
the dog was hot and the cat was wet
Then came some sweaty dude
he put a board between the two
Then they couldn't get at it
got frustrated all about it
So they did the only thing you could do
they took the dude's sweat and shot it up between the two
and they said

Ooohhh-wow, bow-wow
Ooohhh-wow, bow, me, wow


Ben Zimmer said...

Oof. I think Lester Bangs said it best when he called that song "really a specimen of mind rot at its finest."

Mr. Verb said...

I'm not quite sure whether to be more impressed at your erudition, Ben, or at Lester Bangs' take on that song ... . Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I imagine that there is some sort of parallel discussion about the statement

"The only organisms capable of learning language are babies"

over in some biology blog. I can't see how 'baby' is a coherent description of a class of organisms. At least the person who made that statement is generally uninformed about lots of things and not just language.

Not sure if the biologists are discussing the merits of Lou's lyrics or not...

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Anon. First off, THAT is why I'm not a biologist: if you can't talk about the merits of Lou Reed in the course of your work, I don't want the job.

I wasn't sure if 'baby' was an effort to make things accessible to a TV audience (though this person hardly sticks to 5th grade vocabulary generally.)