November 28, 2003

Talking seals and singing dogs

I don't normally read the Guardian, so I missed this Nov. 4 story about how Tecumseh Fitch is spending a sabbatical at St. Andrew's University trying to teach seals to talk. I'm 100% in favor of this effort -- more talking seals would be a step in the right direction, in my unsolicited opinion.

Despite my positive emotional response to talking animals, I've never taught an animal to speak, not even a parrot or a mynah. It's definitely one of the those things about my life I would regret, if the question came up. I once taught a dog to sing, though.

Well, I'm exaggerating. A disinterested observer might conclude that it was the dog who taught me to sing. Here's the true story.

In the summer of 2000, I was dog-sitting for Rich and Sally Thomason at their cabin in rural Montana. Once a week, I had to drive an hour to the nearest supermarket to do the shopping, and course Kwala would come with me.

When I played music in the car, I discovered that at certain points, Kwala would howl along. Her favorites were the soulful climaxes of country-western ballads and the tutti passages of Mozart orchestral works. She seemed to me to be entraining the timing of her howls to the rhythm of the music, and even sometimes matching pitches, but we humans tend to hear parallel sequences of complex sounds as being more correlated than they are, so I wasn't sure.

I found that Kwala would sing much more reliably if I sang too, even in works that did not interest her in themselves. Scientific motives aside, I enjoyed the experience. I have to confess that I am not much of a singer, and so I was happy to find that Kwala appreciated my efforts. She liked to sit behind me and rest her head on my shoulder, next to the open window, while we sang together along with the radio or a CD.

We got some very strange looks from a Suburban full of elderly fishermen, one hot July afternoon, when we pulled into the parking lot of the Bigfork IGA belting out "non più andrai".

I convinced myself that Kwala was definitely coordinating her vocalizations with mine, though I made no attempt to document this scientifically. Think of how many other mute inglorious canine Pavarottis may be out there!

For those who are more visually oriented, here are some pictures of Kwala that I put up on the web from Montana to reassure her distant owners that all was well. And courtesy of Prof. Hendler at Mindswap, here is today's application of the Universal Marketing Graphic (UMG), in this case illustrating the prospects for the development of talking seals:

While there has only been one talking seal so far, and he's dead, Tecumseh Fitch is on the case, and there are millions of seals out there to teach...

[Link to the Guardian story via].

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 28, 2003 08:36 AM