May 17, 2006

Starlings, darlings

Monkeys, dogs, whales, chimps, gorillas, dolphins, parrots... Everybody seems to want to find language in animals. And then they turn round and deny it when it is seen in university students. Just twenty minutes ago at a Radcliffe Institute reception I met a woman who thought that for an 20-year-old American to use an expression like I should have went is evidence that something awful has happened to the linguistic capacities of Harvard undergraduates. What is wrong with everybody? Attributing language to a pet animal with a brain the size of a hazelnut but denying it in a fluent speaker of a slightly non-standard variety of English? Talk about a double standard! Listen, I'll grant you that you have found a language-using animal when you can show me one that is capable of plagiarism. No, no, don't tell me parrots and songbirds do it; they don't. They imitate sound streams. They don't even know it's language. To be a plagiarist you have to know what language is, and know how to use it, and know about authorship, and about concealment. It's a highly sophisticated linguistic activity. Nothing unintelligent about it. Like other language skills, plagiarism is not for the birds. Oh, and by the way, talking of birds, Ray Jackendoff and Mark Liberman and Barbara Scholz and I sent a letter to Nature about the Gentner et al. work on alleged syntactic skills in starlings (sigh; yes, I said starlings, darlings). Nature rejected it by lunchtime the next day (science journals almost always reject criticisms by linguists of non-linguists' papers about linguistic topics), but you can read the main part of the text of our letter on the LINGUIST List: follow this link.

Barbara Scholz pointed out to me that Medical News Today headlined its story about the starlings with a remark about how "The European starling ... may also soon gain a reputation as something of a grammar-marm". You just can't parody stuff as dopey as the headlines that get made up for science stories, can you?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 17, 2006 06:19 PM