May 18, 2006

And people say we monkey around

Yeah, yeah, another animal language story. We are sooo excited at Language Log Plaza that we are taking it in turns to bungee jump from Mark's helipad. Geoff P. was kind enough to let me go first, and I'm writing this upside down swaying in the breeze while staring through Ben's window, but he seems kinda busy typing, so even if he could hear me through the inch thick glass, I wouldn't disturb him. Maybe someone will pull me up soon. Anyway, it must be years months weeks since the last time it turned out animals could do so much more than anyone ever suspected.

And can you guess what those smart little critters can do now? They can make not one, but two different sounds. In combination. And the combination means something different from either sound. That's syntax! Everyone is saying so! Of course, it could also be phonology, but everyone isn't saying that. You see, the sounds are so far apart they seem more like words than phonemes. Listen for yourself. Oops, I meant here of course. And Chomsky has argued on many occasions that one of the hallmarks of human syntax is that there are really big gaps, or at least that's how I interpret him. So you can see why these new critters, putty-nosed monkeys no less, are really sending us off the deep end. Gosh, I mean these monkeys almost have compositionality. That would mean that the combined sound had a meaning that was built up of the meanings of the parts.

Based loosely on the work (and I haven't seen the original, so none of my comments apply to it) of Kate Arnold and Klaus Zuberbühler, of the University of St Andrews, as reported in Nature News, in an article subtitled "monkeys string sounds together to create meaning," ehhh, this sentence has a lot of parts to it, a wonder that you can even begin to parse it, and I want to wish you the very best of luck with getting all the way to the end, well, actually, I must confess I'm probably making life unnecessarily tough for you by writing it backwards as well as upside down, you'd never have known, would you, here is a putty-nosed monkey phrasebook you may find useful:

pyow: hey everyone, get away from the lower branches, or some ground beast might get you.
hack: hey everyone, get  away from the canopy or  an eagle might get you.
pyow ... hack: hey everyone, wherever you are, move.

You're impressed, right? The first time a monkey came up with that innovation the whole pack looked at him like he was crazy. But nowadays it's pretty much accepted. "Pyow hack!" "OK, we're moving, we're moving." (They don't actually say that last part. More of a Gricean inference.)

My dog, see, he's a pretty smart dog. He can make two sounds. He can whimper and he can bark. And sometimes he barks lots of times. And sometimes, if you shut him in the kitchen, he whimpers lots of times. But what he doesn't do is bark and whimper in the same sentence. Except when he wants to play with another dog and you're restraining him and he's excited but disappointed. But that doesn't count, cos it isn't in Nature. There will not be a Nature article "David's dog strings sounds together to create meaning."

Umm, you can pull me up now. Guys? Hello? Is anyone there?

Posted by David Beaver at May 18, 2006 05:32 PM