Is your pet smarter than a first-grader?

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/05/23)

Geoff Pullum over at Language Log has been raising issues with purported ‘animal language’ news stories for several years now, with very good reason.   In this case Pullum’s post is on target, taking on a BBC report on an African grey parrot in Japan that was reunited with its owner after it said its owner’s name and address, is a classic example of science journalism sensationalized.  The notion that biologists, linguists, or random ‘experts’ agree that grey parrots have the cognitive capacity of a six-year-old human child is laughable at best.   They (the experts) don’t, and they (the parrots) don’t.

I don’t always agree with Pullum’s reasoning or the extent of his arguments, however; I am cognizant that our species is an evolutionary cousin to apes that do possess considerable communicative capacities, and I try to remain equally cognizant of the fact that the definition of ‘language’ can be shifted to reaffirm one’s prejudices about humanity’s special place in the cosmos.  An evolutionary perspective always takes account of the fact that our capacities came from somewhere and that the antecedents of language must also have been adaptive for some purpose.   Unfortunately, several of the comments on the LL post seem to take the narrow perspective that animal communication can tell us very little about ‘language’, defined as ‘human language’ involving recursion, arbitrariness, ‘discrete infinity’, or whatever other feature is seen as necessary and sufficient to distinguish language from non-language.   There is an ongoing turf war, unstated for the most part, between evolutionary and non-evolutionary perspectives on language, and one of the key battlegrounds is this debate (now decades old) about whether the comparative evidence tells us much.   Don’t get me wrong: I do think there is a substantial difference between human language and whatever it is that other animals do; I don’t think that it is useful at all to borrow terms like ‘grammar’ and ‘syntax’ willy-nilly into nonhuman studies.  Nevertheless, unless you want to be a linguistic creationist, the evolutionary evidence (and the comparison with nonhuman animals) must be part of theory-building and the redefinition of language.

For my part, and here I don my anthropologist hat, my concern is that so much attention seems to be paid to cetacean and bird communication, when in fact, if we are looking for comparative material, we ought to rely heavily on material from African apes and only lightly from our more distant evolutionary cousins.    It seems to me almost as if, over the past five years or so, the apes have occupied a secondary role in animal communication debates in the popular press, which is a shame since I don’t think it accurately reflects the state of the field.


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