What animals hear

A recent Wondermark cartoon on what animals (in particular, cocker spaniels) hear, in the vein of the famous Far Side cartoon (with “blah-blah-blah Ginger”):

(Hat tip to Bruce Webster.)

The conceit seems to be that animals process “animal language” as analogue, with vast amounts of information encoded in continuous signals, while people process human language as digital, treating (smaller amounts of) information as discretized in chunks (the actual speech signal is continuous, of course).

I see now that neither Language Log nor this blog picked up the story from January about the border collie Chaser and her abilities to process human language. I saw it first in the NYT Science Times of January 18 (“Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl!” by Nicholas Wade, here), though it was widely covered in other science media.

Chaser is reported to know 1,022 words, all of them (in effect) proper names referring to specific objects, all of them taught by a laborious training process taking four to five hours a day over three years (an incredible commitment on the part of John W. Pilley, Chaser’s owner and trainer). “We are interested in teaching Chaser a receptive, rudimentary language”, said Pilley (more details and some critique in Wade’s article). Of course, if you follow the line of David Malki’s cartoon, this was like trying to teach Chaser to interpret beeping in German.

5 Responses to “What animals hear”

  1. Rick Wojcik Says:

    This seems to be a question of what acoustic features animals pay attention to. Is it a very rich set of features? Have any studies been done to determine whether they can distinguish, say, voiced from unvoiced stops/fricatives/affricates? The question is what they have that will allow them to attach meaning to.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      A very good question. I can’t believe that no research has been done on the matter; after all, we live in a world in which categorial perception of voicing onset time has been studied (painstakingly) in chinchillas, and there are extensive studies of language discrimination in human newborns and in some other primates, notably tamarin monkeys. But of course the material on acoustic perception in dogs might be largely or entirely anecdotal. Alas, I just don’t know the field.

  2. F. Escobar C. Says:

    There’s also this Far Side cartoon in which Professor Schwartzman creates a device to understand what dogs are saying:

  3. Daniel Mahaffey Says:

    Rick Wojik’s inquiry brought to mind, and this is anecdotal at best, that my own dog responds as well to whispered commands as to spoken or shouted commands, and I don’t mean that she ignores them all. When we are walking, for example, she responds correctly to heel, come, no and sit if whispered, and in the house if I need her to pay close attention, I find that whispering works well.

  4. Do dogs get a ruff deal, linguistically speaking? « Sentence first Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky has posted a Wondermark cartoon on the subject, followed by a short discussion, at his language […]

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