June 28, 2004

The Dogs of Language

In the wake of reports about Rico the German Wonder Dog [Science article here, Language Log discussion here, here, here and here], dog owners, I suppose inevitably, are singing the praises of their pets. Now this, from the 6/27/04 Palo Alto Daily News, p. 6: Owner says dog is talking:

The English language is not solely reserved for humans. Jennee, a 10-year-old mixed-breed Laborador retriever and pit bull who resides in Redwood City, has been taught to speak several English words through the lack or presence of food. The canine was bought from a Labrador shelter in Redwood City. Jennee's owner Paul Severino said Jennee's journey through the dictionary began three years ago while his sons were wolfing down a pizza pie and started flipping pepperoni slices in her direction. "My kids used to throw pepperoni slices at her all the time," Severino told the Daily News. "And one day I started giving her commands to say 'rebberoni." [PADN's punctuation] Severino said a package of hot dogs and a tupperware container of ground beef is a familiar and friendly site [sic] for Jennee. The genius canine can also say hamburger, I love you, hungry, London broil and foooooooooood, Severino said. "I've literally had people fall on the floor laughing," Severino said.

There is an accompanying photo, with the caption: "TALKING DOG -- Jennee begs for a treat from her owner Paul Severino of Redwood City." Sweet dog.

The article doesn't say if Jennee rejects hamburger or pepperoni when she calls for London broil. Somehow I doubt it. (Rico, at least, usually fetches the thing he was told to get.)

Severino's description of his training regimen is desperately thin. (For Rico, we have a pretty detailed account of the training.) Merely telling a dog -- even a dog that's devoted to pleasing, not to mention hungry -- to say "rebberoni" just won't do.

By a wonderful accident, the same day's New York Times Book Review reports the paperback publication of Carolyn Parkhurst's The Dogs of Babel, a book that was recommended to me a year ago by a neighbor who knew I liked dogs (well, certainly, her dog) and was a linguist whose partner had just died. Unlike the linguist protagonist of Parkhurst's moving, creepy book, I didn't have my partner die in mysterious circumstances, with the family dog as the only witness, so I didn't assuage my grief by trying to teach a dog to speak (and testify as to the cause of death), as Parkhurst's protagonist does, with predictably unsatisfying results. The book is about love and grief and self-deception and, alas, an underground organization devoted to the mutilation of dogs (modifying them so as to make speech easier). Not always easy to take, but, as I said, moving.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 28, 2004 01:47 PM