May 22, 2004

Rodent grammar

Neque Volvere Trochum at entangledbank points us to Harrap's Rat-English Dictionary, advertised as having "[o]ver 5,000 references, 80,000 translations and hundreds of new expressions", as well as "usage notes to avoid being bitten, and slang signals on a wide variety of subjects".

There's a sample page of entries, such as

eee ee ee [iii:'ii:i] v. to go away; eee ee ee eep! get out of the hammock now, it's my turn.
eeeee eee ee [iiiii:iii:i] n (address to sovereign) sir, sire, your worship; eeep eep ip eeeee ee ee; I appreciate your kindess in peeing on my head, sir.

This page is one of the examples of "Rat Humor" on Anne's Rat Page. Anne has a serious pages on Norway Rat Behavior Repertoire and Norway Rat Vocalizations, with spectrograms as well as sound clips. There is also a serious glossary (of human terms for rat behaviors and characteristics), covering interesting things like sidling and bruxing .

Since Anne has such an active interest in the structure of communication, as well as a B.S. in Biological Sciences from Stanford and a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from U.C. Davis, it's really too bad that she never took a linguistics course. At least, I infer this sad state of affairs from one unfortunate word in this "Sample entry from CD-ROM pronunciation guide" at the bottom of her Harrap's Rat-English Dictionary page:

eeeee eee eeee



PHRASE: That's my pea!

ETYMOLOGY: From high classic Rattus [1.75 million BCE]: eeeee, mine; + ee-e, small round; + ee-ee; give me, 2nd person singular, imperative tense of ee-e-e, to give, v. t.

2nd person singular, imperative tense ?

The imperative is a "tense" roughly in the sense that a ferret is a rodent, or a frog is a reptile. That is, it isn't.

The American Heritage dictionary observes that (this kind of) tense is traditionally

1. Any one of the inflected forms in the conjugation of a verb that indicates the time, such as past, present, or future, as well as the continuance or completion of the action or state. 2. A set of tense forms indicating a particular time: the future tense.

(though the "continuation or completion" part is often called aspect:

A category of the verb designating primarily the relation of the action to the passage of time, especially in reference to completion, duration, or repetition.

The "imperative", on the other hand, is traditionally viewed as a mood:

A set of verb forms or inflections used to indicate the speaker's attitude toward the factuality or likelihood of the action or condition expressed. In English the indicative mood is used to make factual statements, the subjunctive mood to indicate doubt or unlikelihood, and the imperative mood to express a command.

Now, the gloss for mood given above is almost as problematic as the definition of a noun as referring to a "person, place or thing", whose faults were discussed by Geoff Pullum in a recent posting here. But no real Harrap's editor, I hope, would treat the imperative as a "tense", especially in philological explication of an etymology.

Seriously, it's obvious that the author of these pages is an acute observer and a careful writer, and it really is too bad that she hasn't learned the language of grammatical description, whether traditional or modern. While I very much doubt that grammatical terminology has any specific application to the behavior of rats, the general idea of formal combinatoric analysis of behavioral sequences is genuinely applicable.

My main exposure to grammatical analysis of rodent behavior has been via the stochastic grammar of cephalocaudal grooming in mice, but Anne explains that "in rats, most sequences appear to be loosely organized", so that perhaps this is not such an interesting subject in that species. As an alternative, let me suggest applying grammatical methods to studying the political economy of allogrooming, as Pavel Stopka and David Macdonald did in ("The Market Effect in the Wood Mouse", Ethology , vol. 105 no. 11 p. 969 (1999)):

Although grooming is reciprocal in this species, it is asymmetrical in that males groom females more often than vice versa. This grooming asymmetry was studied using Markov chain analysis for grooming sequences in two captive wood mouse colonies, and transition rates were used to represent motivation in both sexes. Grooming sessions were often initiated by a male's attempt to sniff an immobile female's anogenital region, while the female would immediately react by avoiding or biting the male. In order to entice the female to remain, the male would begin grooming the female's head and shoulder area, surreptitiously and consistently grooming downwards towards the female's anogenital region, until she would again terminate such contact either by avoiding or biting the male. While, therefore, the male's tendency to sniff the female's anogenital region was stronger than his tendency to groom her, the female's tendency to terminate the male's naso-anal contact was much stronger than her tendency to terminate his grooming bouts. If the male did not initiate grooming after the female terminated naso-anal contact, she avoided further contacts and escaped. ... This paper therefore provides a new view of the regulation of grooming: grooming is not simply reciprocal with both participants concerned that the other does not 'cheat' (e.g. tit-for-tat (TFT)-like strategy), rather grooming is a commodity which can be bartered against female reproductive information or matings.

[Update: the Harrap's Rat Dictionary page has been fixed! It now (within a few hours of my original post) reads "imperative mood" rather than "imperative tense". Geoff Pullum emailed to point this out to me, and added thet "[t]he speed of publication and promulgation and criticism and alteration and improvement in the blogosphere is really breathtaking". Indeed it is -- though unfortunately Anne's site doesn't (yet?) include a weblog.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 22, 2004 06:13 AM