I’ve been asked to comment on the talking-parrot stories that have been bruited about Blogovia of late, and I’ve been putting it off because even I get tired of being a party-pooper all the time. Fortunately, Geoff Pullum has done it for me over at Language Log; I’ll quote the heart of it and send you off to read the whole thing (if you’re up for some pull-no-punches debunking):
I’m just appalled at the kind of ridiculous, credulous garbage that sails out into the media universe the moment anyone claims they have located a communicative animal. People seem to completely lose their critical faculties when a bird with a brain the size of a macadamia nut creaks out a few imitated syllables, or (we’ve seen this before, with Koko) a gorilla waves its hairy hand vaguely in the air in a way that its trainer thinks resembles the very sign she was expecting. What is going on? Are we so desperate for communication with other intelligences that we will throw away our own the moment some dumb creature gives us an imitative squawk or a hand sign?
A horse is a horse…
Nota bene. I am very much enjoying the vigorous discussion in the comment thread. I do feel I should emphasize one thing: this post is not about animal communication or intelligence in general; Languagehat is agnostic about such matters. It is purely about the alleged ability of certain animals to learn and use the grammar of human languages. I realize that some species have their own complex systems of conveying meaning. I do not believe they can conjugate verbs.
Addendum. I have received the following e-mail:
I came across some comments on one of your archives (29 Jan 2004) that interested me. The discussion of the day was the N’kisi Project. Some of your discussion participants were bird owners; some were skeptics about a bird’s ability to use language.
My bird is shy and usually talks to me or when she is outside on her perch. I record her there. My macaw has an overwhelming variety of things she can say (words, phrases, sentences, and short topical discussions). I’m interested in communicating off line with those who may be interested in the abilities of a talking bird. I am working on an analysis of my bird’s speech from a linguistic point of view. The only news story about my bird, Arielle, was carried a couple of years ago in the local paper.
The speech streams and the circumstances about her speech seem to reveal my macaw’s thought patterns. Can you help me find people who might be inclined to help me? I am an independent (i.e., unpaid) researcher/writer-want-to-be.
Will you kindly request that people interested in carry forward with speech related topic about birds (including hard-to-understand speech) contact me at my e-mail address [email@example.com]. We need to get acquainted.
Thanks for your help.
So drop him a line if you have something to contribute.