My son-in-law, Todd, has a 2-year-old mutt named Rico. Rico may be about half Labrador retriever and half German shepherd, but he may also be a Heinz hound (57 varieties). I often tease Todd and Rachel about the way they anthropomorphize their dog.
The other day, I went to their house, and Todd was hanging clothes in the back yard. I sat on the stoop. Rico promptly came over and dropped a tennis ball at my feet. He plainly wanted me to throw it and (I thought) pantomimed turning away from me and running.
I told Todd that I had just read in Science about another dog named Rico. That dog supposedly had a vocabulary of 200 words and would fetch various toys on command from the owner. Without turning from his clothesline, Todd said, “Rico, why don’t you get the rope?”
Rico grabbed the tennis ball he had been tempting me with. Todd said, “No, Rico, get the rope.” Rico immediately got a short, knotted length of rope and began gnawing on it. He did not bring it to Todd.
My dog-in-law Rico has a vocabulary of maybe 40 words. Many are commands: sit, stay, fetch, no bark, you’re free, go outside, load up (get into the car), and more. Others are (to us) nouns: rope, ball, toy. It is possible that Rico interprets these as commands to fetch the items. He clearly interprets kennel, house, and bed, for example, as commands, not nouns. So maybe Rico understands only commands.
I am not about to claim that either of the Ricos understands English or German. They can, however, learn words. Learning words is not learning language, but it is a necessary step, possibly a first step.
Rico in the Science article learned some of his words immediately and by inference, a method the researchers called fast mapping. Briefly, Rico was sent to find a toy he had never heard of. In each of several trials, he found an unknown toy among familiar toys and brought it back with good consistency. A few weeks later, he remembered the names of some of those toys (or the commands to fetch those toys; take your pick). According to the Science article, that is also how children learn new words.
Copernicus and Galileo famously told us that the earth is not at the center of the universe. Evolutionary biology is telling us that we are not unique, and even our vaunted language ability may be only one end of a continuum. The Ricos’ ability to learn words may not be homologous with ours, but it certainly suggests that other animals also have linguistic skills.
I have been wrong to tease Todd and Rachel about anthropomorphizing their dog.
I should have been animalizing humans.
The original Science article is Juliane Kaminski, Josep Call, and Julia Fischer, “Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for Fast Mapping,” Science, Vol. 384, pp. 1682-1683, 11 June 2004. See also the Perspectives article, Paul Bloom, “Can a Dog Learn a Word?” Science, Vol. 384, pp. 1605-1606, 11 June 2004.
For press coverage, see James Gorman, “Finally, an Old Dog Can Learn New Tricks,” New York Times, 11 June 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/11/science/11dog.html; anonymous, “Dog Prodigy Gives New Meaning to Language,” National Public Radio, 10 June 2004, http://www.npr.org/display_pages/features/feature_1952976.html; and anonymous, “Collie Dog’s Word Power Impresses,” BBC News, 11 June 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/3794079.stm.
For further information on language in the great apes, see http://www.iowagreatapes.org/research/srumbaugh/rumbaugh.htm.
For further information on language in parrots, see http://www.alexfoundation.org/research/.
For a cry of outrage, see Geoffrey K. Pullum, “So Now It’s Dogs that Understand Language (Sigh),” 10 June 2004, http://itre.cis.upenn/~myl/languagelog/archives/001039.html#more.