May 19, 2006

Homo journalisticus

The story in National Geographic News on the putty-nosed monkeys and their combination pyow-hack calls (acknowledgment to Evan Bradley, who made my day slightly sadder by pointing it out to me) is worse than the one David Beaver cites. It is headed:

Monkeys use "sentences", study suggests

Study suggests nothing of the kind, of course.

In fact the story itself reports that the author of the scientific report "cautions that analogies to human language are not always helpful in understanding the utterances of animals." Quite so. I guess content means nothing to the headline writers where science journalism is concerned.

I have no doubt that for a long, long time we shall continue to see stories recognizing language use in dumb animals and birds sitting alongside stories about it being absent in various kinds of humans (Bushmen, undergraduates, primitive tribes, bureaucrats, urban blacks, Danes, male scions of the Bush family, teenagers, Southerners, university administrators, and other despised groups). Because, while it is completely unclear whether the roots of language are innate, there is overwhelming evidence of an innate drive in Homo journalisticus to write stories about talking or understanding being manifested in chimps, gorillas, orangutans, baboons, monkeys, tamarins, bees, dolphins, whales, parrots, starlings, dogs, bats (yes, bats — see below) and I don't know what will be next but perhaps donkeys. And the subspecies Homo journalisticus subeditorialis clearly has a built-in drive to write wild and goofy headlines for such stories.

I am not exaggerating. You might want to look at Holy Bat Chat, Batgirl! Medic Is Cracking Bat Code, about Barbara French, who "has decoded a basic repertoire of bat calls and deciphered the social context in which they are used," before you accuse me of exaggerating. Check this bit, which Mark Liberman pointed out really needed to be quoted:

French believes the animals are using sounds with syntax. To test the hypothesis French, [her collaborator the neurophysiologist George] Pollak, and one of his graduate students are cataloging all the calls, and analyzing the acoustic structure of each, to study how sounds are manipulated to produce different meanings.

During mating season, for example, males produce a "territorial announcement buzz" to woo females. The same sound, albeit at a different intensity and pace, seems to be used to ward off competing males. "It's the difference between saying something sweetly, and screaming those same words — they could have very different meanings," said French.

That's right: they do an intensified angry buzzing sound to make rival horny male bats buzz off, and it's reported as sounds with syntax. Bzzzzzzz! Leave my woman alone! I mean, hello?

You might also want to look at Monkeys Have Accents, Japanese Study Finds, before you suggest that I am overstating. There it is reported that "primate researchers have discovered that Japanese macaques can acquire different accents based on where they live — just like humans." Just like humans! No, I'm not exaggerating.

Why this drive toward drivel in linguistic science reporting? Is there a survival advantage conferred by some trait manifesting itself in credulity concerning animal communication? Further research is needed.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 19, 2006 10:41 AM