The NY Times has another language story, A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks, and if you’re an aficionado of these things you will have guessed that 1) the story is by the muddled but ever plucky Nicholas Wade, and 2) the gene is FOXP2, the “language gene.” Now, I am an ignoramus about genetics, but Geoff Pullum did a convincing demolition job on the excessive claims made about this gene several years ago, and I have had no reason to revise my opinion since. I note that this time Wade has outdone himself by not consulting a single linguist. So I will confine myself to the approach I took on an earlier occasion:
People have a deep desire to communicate with animals… dogs… myths… chimpanzees… delicate, if tiny, step… mouse… gene for language… FOXP2… subtle speech defect… grammar… gene… evolutionary biologists… gene… mice and chimpanzees… gene… natural selection… language… the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology… genetically engineered… mice… mouse… “We will speak to the mouse.”
Wolfgang Enard… humanized mice. FOXP2, a gene… genes… brain… mice… FOXP2 genes… FOXP2… brain… brain… involved in language… humanized mice… Baby mice… ultrasonic whistles… humanized baby mice… Dr. Enard says. Dr. Enard argues… human genes… chimps… DNA… genes… chimps… mouse… Joseph Buxbaum, an expert… Dr. Enard… FOXP2… mice… Dr. Gary Marcus… human FOXP2… FOXP2 plays a vital role in language… other genes… language gene… cascade of genes… “It would have been truly spectacular if they had wound up with a talking mouse.”


  1. The German Wikipedia article on it was featured, and really is of excellent quality. (I’m lucky enough to have learned some genetics recently so I have more context for it all.)

  2. Every primatologist I’ve ever met, when informed that I’m in linguistics, wants to talk to me about FOXP2. The conversation usually goes something like the above.
    I lol’d.

  3. To be fair to Nicholas Wade he doesn’t seem to go far (if at all) beyond what the original authors claim. Although there are 56 of them and they work at 24 different addresses they don’t seem to have consulted any linguists either, and none of them works in a department with obvious linguistic association (unless “cognitive ethology” is a form of linguistics).
    The concluding remarks in the Discussion are Currently, one can only speculate about the role these effects may have played during human evolution. However, since patients that carry one nonfunctional FOXP2 allele show impairments in the timing and sequencing of orofacial movements, one possibility is that the amino acid substitutions in FOXP2 contributed to an increased fine-tuning of motor control necessary for articulation, i.e., the unique human capacity to learn and coordinate the muscle movements in lungs, larynx, tongue and lips that are necessary for speech. We are confident that concerted studies of mice, humans and other primates will eventually clarify if this is the case. I’m not sure I share their confidence.
    Of course, fine muscle control is certainly a necessary feature of language, but they seem to be missing the whole idea of grammar. Despite many claims to the contrary, chimpanzees or gorillas that are relieved of the necessity of using their larynxes and tongues to produce speech by being taught sign language or the use of a keyboard don’t seem to be able to go beyond a grammar so crude that it can’t really be called grammar.

  4. Athel, Michael Tomasello over at the MPG in Leipzig does a lot of very good linguistics work, despite calling himself an anthrophologist, I would take linguistics work from there seriously just based on that.
    It turns out, also, that you don’t need speech for language to develop in a community of humans, so it actually surprised me that the mutation in this gene does seem to have some impact on grammar in the KE family described.
    (Hat, could you fix my link in the first comment? It is annoying me immensely now.)

  5. scarabaeus says
  6. To be fair to Nicholas Wade he doesn’t seem to go far (if at all) beyond what the original authors claim.
    Right, and I’m not blaming him for not knowing anything about language (it’s the U.S. educational system that’s failed him), but I am blaming him for not realizing that a claim about language might call for contacting a linguist (needless to say, one not affiliated with the research); a quote from, say, Geoff Pullum would have improved his article immensely. And in general reporters should be more skeptical about press releases handed out by researchers.
    Hat, could you fix my link in the first comment? It is annoying me immensely now.

  7. “It would have been truly spectacular if they had wound up with a talking mouse”.
    With the bonus of making it possible to work E.B. White into the story.

  8. I talk to my mouse all the time, especially when the battery is low and the cursor gets jittery. The mouse hasn’t talked back….so far.

  9. Now that I have actually taken time to read both NYT articles, it seems they aren’t asking the right questions about language acquisition, although if they can put in a human gene and get a baby mouse to squeak in a lower (audible) pitch, I suppose that’s interesting enough to merit an article.
    What they didn’t mention is that animals already know language. Dogs have, what, the vocabulary (or is it the intelligence) of a 3 year old? And cats a little bit less? Ask a dog or cat if it wants out. Tell it come here, then tell it to get out of the kitchen. The animal will understand. Now go to any other country and tell the animals something in English. It won’t work; you have to tell them in their own languages.
    Even different people have different learning abilities with language. Have you noticed that 90% of engineering types can’t spell? Or that a huge number of people with good verbal skills struggle with math. Or what about my old college buddy who is smart as a whip, can’t read too much, is very good at soccer, and checks out all his books on tape. He says there are something like seven different learning areas that are independent and that different people have different aptitudes for them–something like that.
    The NYT is just trying to make an esoteric experiment more interesting by tacking a linguistics label onto it that doesn’t fit, but somewhere out there someone IS studying something interesting and pertinent about inate language abilities.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Nijma: seven different learning areas
    You mean this:
    Gardner, Howard. (1983) “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” New York: Basic Books. (and other works by the same author)
    The more people I meet (in different walks of life), the more I realize that “IQ tests” are a very limited way of assessing intelligence as if there was a single “ladder” of it. Many people whose IQ would be nothing spectacular may have amazing abilities in different areas. This is why you often see, for instance, a nerdy-type man married to a social butterfly: each admires the other one, and their abilities don’t compete at all but compensate each other’s weaknesses.

  11. Some of our animals are trilingual (their own, English and Norwegian) to an extent, but the birds only understand bird stuff. There’s an owl that I whistle to every night and it whistles back. My wife converses with a nightingale and looks down on my owl imitation as a two-note party trick.
    It may be true that everyone is dying to talk to the animals, but imagine what they would say to us if they could talk. Things like: if they only live three years, how old does a snail have to be to vote?

  12. 1.
    We would converse in polar bear and python,
    And we could curse in fluent kangaroo.
    If people asked us, can you speak in rhinoceros,
    We’d say, “Of courserous, can’t you?”
    He learnt to communicate with birds and discovered that their conversation was fantastically boring. It was all to do with wind speed, wing spans, power-to- weight ratios and a fair bit about berries.

  13. marie-lucie says

    There is a short story by Saki about a talking cat that his owners end up killing. The cat’s conversation is anything but boring, and that is the problem.

  14. Then there’s Harlan Ellison’s post-nuclear short story “A boy and his dog”. IIRC, the dog can read minds.
    In Andre Norton’s Witch World series, cats and cat-based alien species often had esper talents as well. In some of the later books, the cat-human telepathic mind bond was necessary for piloting spaceships that responded to thought for that hyper-space jump.

  15. The short story “Tobermory” from Saki’s Beasts and Superbeasts.

  16. LibraryThing has a thread about talking cats.

  17. He learnt to communicate with birds and discovered that their conversation was fantastically boring. It was all to do with wind speed, wing spans, power-to- weight ratios and a fair bit about berries.
    That’s Arthur Dent, I’d forgotten. Amazing I can just google that quote.

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