Our Place in the Zoo

We can, indeed, talk to the animals.

Posted Nov 07, 2011

So George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill were walking down the street. No joke. True story.

It so happens that playwright and prime minister, two of the twentieth century's great masters of language, knew each other personally—and didn't much care for one another.

One day, while passing each other in opposite directions, Shaw called out to Churchill: "Winston, I have a new play opening tomorrow night. Here are two tickets. Bring a friend—if you have one."

To which Churchill appreciatively responded, "Oh, thank you, G. B. S. Unfortunately, I have a prior engagement tomorrow evening. But I'd be delighted to attend the second evening of your performance—if there is one." 

Not all of us are gifted with razor-sharp wit and snappy come-backs. But most of us wish—at least from time to time—that we were.

All too often in many people's experience, the well-timed barb of witty repartee arrives just a tad bit late. Sometimes by as little as a few minutes; sometimes by as long as days or even weeks.

Frustrating either way since it's not usually that we have nothing to say; it's just that we don't know, in the moment, exactly how to say it. Oh, well. We shrug it off and move on. Next time, we'll know just how to respond. We chalk it up to experience. Human experience.

But is it really uniquely human, that frustration? Or do other animals, too, sometimes feel trapped by an inability to say what's on their minds?

It turns out that animals besides ourselves can not only meaningfully express themselves through language when given the chance—but they can do so quite eloquently on occasion.

Koko is a female gorilla who was taught by Francine Patterson at Stanford University to respond to spoken English as well as to actively sign using American Sign Language. That would make her bilingual, for those of you who are counting—and Koko often uses both languages simultaneously.

One day, Koko delivered through sign language what is perhaps the most famous sentence ever crafted by a non-human. In a fit of anger, Koko pointed to her trainer and signed, "You dirty, bad toilet."

Okay, granted—it doesn't have quite the Churchillian panache a proud parent might hope for.

But the sentence remains significant for several reasons. First, it represents a novel use of learned vocabulary since no one had taught Koko to string those particular words together in precisely that way. Second, it demonstrates strong—and contextually appropriate—emotional content in response to social interaction (scientific types tend toward such phrasing—don't blame me!).

But probably most importantly, in a species known in the wild for sudden, violent physical outbursts (cousin of ours, perhaps?) it constitutes a peaceful expression of anger through language rather than through brute force—and they say music calms the savage beast.

Lest you suspect peevishness of falling under the private purview of primates, let's talk for a moment about Alex, an African Grey parrot who studied English at Brandeis University.

Despite his decades-long tutelage at that prestigious institution, Alex never earned a degree. He could, however, identify about 50 different objects in English, label seven colors, name five shapes, and combine linguistic labels to identify, refuse, request, or categorize more than 100 different items.

Not bad for a bird brain about the size of a walnut.

Interestingly, the extent of Alex's intelligence may have been, at least in part, reflected in his less-than-perfect response rate to verbal test questions. While he routinely answered complex questions with an accuracy rate of 80 percent (and, really, a B at Brandeis isn't all that bad), he seemed to have gotten bored with less challenging questions.

When presented with a seemingly endless string of queries about simple colors and shapes, Alex would sometimes state every color available from among the choices arrayed before him—except the correct one. The behavior suggested that Alex was carefully avoiding the correct answers since, statistically, he couldn't have flubbed that badly by chance.

Maybe he was just trying to fit in with the cool crowd.

Alex's real talent, however, was for what linguists call phonemic segmentation. That is, for linguistic play with phonemes, or sounds representing individual units of language that can be re-combined to produce new words and meanings. Alex was known to babble to himself at dusk during his "off hours" to produce strings of phonemes like "Green, bean, keen."

Alex became so adept at phonemic segmentation that he sometimes harnessed his ability in the service of an almost eerily human propensity for sarcasm.

One day, during a demo for corporate research sponsors, Alex was asked to make the sounds corresponding to various colored, magnetic refrigerator letters. After successfully answering a series of questions, Alex made a polite request for a reward.

"Want a nut," he said.

He was ignored and asked another series of questions, at the end of which, Alex—apparently quite confident of his performance—repeated his request: "Want a nut."

He was brushed off several more times until, in frustration, Alex ruffled his feathers and looked at his trainer through tight, slitting eyes.

Then, slowly, as if speaking to a child, Alex said, "Want a nut. Nnn-uh-tuh."

Some animals, like dolphins, don't just name objects; they name each other—and they do so without any prompting from human coaches.

Even in the wild, dolphins generally preface their communicative click trains with what are known as signature whistles, so nearby members of the pod will know who is "speaking". Interestingly, an individual dolphin's signature whistle contains a portion of the signature whistle of its mother, so that dolphin names are passed down through the generations in an unbroken matrilineal chain.

As early as the 1970s, two dolphins in particular demonstrated an ability not only to understand simple sentences, but also to work their way through deliberately garbled messages—an ability previously demonstrated only in humans.

At the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Hawaii, the dolphins Phoenix and Akeakamai (see my previous post, "A Tale of Two Dolphins: Learning to Shape Our Creative Selves", June 24, 2011) worked with researcher Louis Herman to demonstrate the remarkable linguistic ability of their species.

Phoenix and Akeakamai managed to master a nearly 40-word vocabulary using a gestural language governed by syntactic rules that allowed them to understand thousands of unique sentence constructions. They were able to differentiate between sentences like "Person surfboard fetch" (take the surfboard to the person) and "Surfboard person fetch" (take the person to the surfboard).

When challenged with a more difficult sentence like "Person speaker fetch", which violated rules of the grammar they had learned because it asked the dolphins to carry an underwater audio speaker— which was firmly attached to the tank wall of their experimental pool—to the person, the animals rejected the instruction and took no action. In other words, they disregarded a nonsensical request.

Given the even more difficult sentence "Person speaker hoop fetch"—which not only violated grammar, but also lacked clear-cut instruction since there was more than one way to interpret its meaning—the dolphins attempted to carry out some possible version of the instruction by either taking the hoop to the speaker or by taking the hoop to the person.

What they didn't do was reject the sentence altogether as soon as the grammatically incorrect phrase "person speaker" was first detected.

Instead, Phoenix and Akeakamai continued to examine the sentence for proper structures of grammar as well as for plausible, even if unclear, meanings until they found something that seemed reasonable to act on.

Remarkably, this type of linguistic sequence processing is similar to the kinds of sentence analysis undertaken by human listeners.

Over the years, Herman's dolphin co-workers have been tested under more rigorous scientific controls than have animals in many other linguistic experiments. Dolphins he has worked with have been able to indicate—through gestural responses like touching the tips of their beak-like rostrums to a paddle—whether objects requested by trainers are missing or present in their pool.

Scientists consider this capacity to understand linguistic references to absent objects a relatively advanced cognitive ability, one that is lacking in some stages of early childhood development in humans. Of course, Alex the parrot, in asking for a "nnn-uh-tuh" was able to do this quite effectively as well using nothing more than his walnut-sized brain.

Fascinating to speculate: Could a non-human animal have managed to outthink a young Churchill?

Better move over, Winston.

If we, as a species, ever decide to truly share the gift of language, we shall encounter our fellows on the seas and oceans, we shall encounter them in growing numbers in the air. We shall encounter them on beaches and landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills.

Oh, shucks, Winston, we may never completely surrender our place in the zoo—but at the very least, it'll be hard to get a word in edgewise. And it could well be among our finest hours. Someday, perhaps.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011