June 12, 2004

Canine intelligence

Well, I tried to improve Geoff Pullum's mood with the story about Helen Keller learning the meaning of water, but it didn't work. Geoff wrote me that "[a]ctually, the stuff about Helen Keller annoys me almost as much as the stuff about dogs and parrots." And then Ray Girvan wrote to give me no end of well-deserved grief, about the discrepancies between Keller's autobiography and Sullivan's diaries, and about the fact that Keller was 19 months old before she went deaf and blind, and so might well really have "remembered" many words rather than learning them for the first time at age 8.

So I'll try again later, with a more serious discussion of canine speech understanding. Meanwhile, Margaret Marks came through by sending a link to a good dog joke:

A dog walks into a butcher shop, spends a number of minutes looking at the meat on display, and eventually indicates with a nod of his head and a bark that he would like some lamb chops.

The butcher, thinking the dog would know no better, picks up the lowest quality chops in the shop.

The dog barks furiously and continues to bark until the butcher selects the finest chops from the display counter.

The butcher weighs the meat and asks the dog for $5.90. Again, the dog barks furiously until the butcher reduces the bill to the correct price of $3.60.

The dog hands over a five dollar note and the butcher gives him 40 cents in change. Once again, the dog barks continuously until the butcher tenders the correct change. The dog then picks up his package and leaves the shop.

Now, the butcher is extremely impressed and decides that he would like to own a dog so clever. He shuts up shop and follows the dog to see where it goes.

After ten minutes or so, the dog climbs the steps to a house. When it gets to the top, it shakes its head as though in frustration, gently places the package of meat on the floor and, standing on its hind legs, rings the doorbell.

A man opens the door and starts to yell obscenities at the dog. As he does so, the horrified butcher leaps up the steps and begs the man to stop. "It's such an intelligent dog," he says, "surely it doesn't deserve this kind of treatment."

He then went on to explain how the dog had procured the best lamb chops in the shop, insisted on paying the advertised price and quibbled over incorrect change!

The man looked at the butcher and said, "Intelligent he may be, but this is the third time this week he's forgotten his keys".

This joke is a good illustration of one of the four main ways in which human language and language use seem to differ from communication among non-human animals, and also from interactions between humans and other animals. But more of that later.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 12, 2004 06:54 PM