Sit. Stay. Fetch! — Do dogs have language?

Jan 24, 2011 by

Recently, I’ve been blogging a lot about the so-called “amateurish linguistics”. It does seem that practically every time I read something in the media that has to do with language, another example of “amateurish linguistics” is before my eyes. Case in point: a few days ago I read a New York Times article called “Sit. Stay. Parse! Good girl!” publicizing the story of a dog who supposedly learned human language. Not only did she learn Human, the author claimed, but she is also argued to be a window into how human children acquire language. Wow! Yikes!

Now, if you’ve ever had a dog (and probably even if you never have), you would agree that dogs are aweful smart. They pay attention, memorize things, notice your moods. Recently, I’ve even seen a report about a dog that learned to walk on his hind legs, upright, for long stretches at a time. But dogs do not speak human language. They just don’t.

According to the NYT article, a border collie raised by a retired psychologist learned “1,022 nouns”. What the dog really did was to learn to associate over 1000 sound combinations with objects (mostly children’s toys). These are not exactly nouns, in the same sense in which this term applies in connection with human languages. These are proper names. Like John or Mary, these sound combinations refer to a specific individual (not an animate one, but still an individual object). Common nouns in human languages refer to kinds of objects. For example, dog does not refer to a specific individual but to a kind of object. One of the trickiest aspects of human language acquisition is to learn to generalize to just the right kind (Does the denotation of dog include that poodle over there? That cat? That horse?). To make a common noun refer to a specific individual (like a proper name would), we add an article or a similar grammatical word to it (e.g., a dog, the dog). Dogs in general are good at memorizing sound-object associations — nothing particularly new here except perhaps the exceedingly high number of the items learned.

Furthermore, how the collie “learned” these “nouns” is also quite different from how children do it. She had to be trained and drilled; children do not. Even though in the beginning parents (in our culture) go over certain verbal routines (body parts, colors, numbers, shapes, etc.), most words a child learns are learned from exposure and figuring out from context what they mean. From the age of 18 months on, children are able to learn a word from just one instance of exposure — this is called fast word mapping. Our dog did not do that: she had to be trained with each word. Apparently, she liked it. I don’t know a human child who would.

Then the article goes on to say that the dog in question also learned verbs and through doing so exhibited signs of learning human (in this case, English) syntax. Not so fast! The dog again memorized associations between sounds (fetch, grab, etc.) and action she was expected to perform. But this is not yet syntax.

If the dog had indeed learned the syntax of English, like a human child, she would have been able to distinguish grammatical strings like Fetch Lolo! (or Fetch the lolo!) from ungrammatical strings like Lolo fetch or Lolo the fetch (the latter being an absolute “word salad” for an English speaker). Moreover, such word order permutations, which are in fact evidence of structural changes in the sentence, could also lead to meaning differences: witness the difference between Melt the crystals and The crystals melt. Our dog did nothing of the kind.

In fact, I will make an even stronger claim: she did not learn verbs at all. The report that she did is based on a — mistaken! — school-grammar idea that verbs are words that denote actions. This idea is a close relative of the concept of preposition as a word describing “where a squirrel could go”. Rather, a better definition of a verb (in contrast to a noun or an adjective) is “a word that can fit into certain grammatical patterns, such as be a predicate or take on past tense morphology”. Thus, a verb like fetch can be a predicate (in which case it requires an object): Please fetch my slippers! — saying simple Please fetch! is not possible in English (except when talking to a dog, itself evidence that we do not speak to dogs like we speak to other humans). Crucially, a verb cannot be a modifier in the same way an adjective can: the string *a fetch slipper is ungrammatical (as marked by the asterisk in front of it).

Nor can a “verb” in a dog’s “language” exhibit any signs of past tense. Dogs (and other animals) simply don’t do past tense. They can only “talk” (bark, croak etc.) about what is going on here and now. No past, no future. The ability to do “displacement” (the technical term for talking about things other than those here and now) is one of the design features that distinguishes human language from communication systems of other animals. Animals, dogs among them, cannot “displace”: they cannot talk about that yummy marrow bone you gave them yesterday or about the cute puppy in the other end of town. Nor can they lie. Which is perhaps what makes dogs such attractive conversationalists for us.

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