June 10, 2004

So now it's dogs that understand language (sigh)

My friend Nathan Sanders of Williams College points out to me an AP news report headlined Research Shows Dogs Understand Language. It relates to an article in Science about a border collie that "understands more than 200 words and can learn new ones as quickly as many children."

"Just a little something to increase your blood temperature a few degrees," quips Nathan, with the usual smileyface emoticon that signals quipping. How well he knows me. Blood pressure as well as temperature. I raged and fumed and hurled several medium-sized pieces of furniture across the room. As he well knows, I'm so sick of crappy brain-dead reports by moron journalists about completely fictional animal communicative abilities (and the credulous dimwits who welcome these stories with open arms, like American Kennel Club board member Patti Strand, who immediately hailed the report as "good news for those of us who talk to our dogs").

Don't get me wrong: it's not that I have any objection at all to scientific results on whether dogs can remember enough of a correlation between human speech sounds and specific toys to go fetch the right one in response to the right word, which is what we are talking about in the case of this story. Perhaps there are even some insights to be gained about the complexity of the tasks the brains of lower animals (particularly mammals) are wired to accomplish (though not much, because nobody doubts that mammals are capable of associating large numbers of aural stimuli with particular behavioral responses). It's the confusion of that with understanding language that drives me nuts. (It must have been Stupid German Linguistics Day on American public radio stations today, because in addition to a story on All Things Considered about a contest to find the most beautiful word in the German language, two of the afternoon programs out out by NPR covered Rico, both with the host babbling about the dog "understanding language.")

The trained object-fetching behavior of Rico, the border collie that this German research is talking about, has nothing at all to do with understanding language. The behavior is comparable to what you would have shown if you demonstrated that you had trained your goldfish to swim to a given object in its tank when you showed it a card with a given letter of the Greek alphabet. By all means attempt that too, if you think it would be interesting science. But don't bring it to me for my approval under a headline saying Research Shows Goldfish Can Read Greek, that's all! Unless you actually enjoy seeing the veins standing out in my neck as I hurl some more defenseless chairs and coffee tables and goldfish tanks around the room.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 10, 2004 01:44 PM