Keith Johnson keithjohnson at
Thu Oct 28 06:54:03 UTC 2010

Regarding parrots' language:  I don't think that Pepperberg claimed  
that Alex learned a human language, and from what I've seen and read  
of his performance I would have to agree.  Knowing 150 words, and  
having some intelligence to be able to use those words in contextually  
appropriate ways, just doesn't display enough creative power to make  
me think that this bird was using language

Regarding humans who have not learned language: I'm not sure who Aya  
has in mind when she refers to "humans who don't speak any language at  
all".  If we are speaking of deaf persons who don't "speak" it is  
certainly the case that deaf can learn language without being able to  
speak.  If we are speaking of people who are isolated from a  
linguistic community (deaf raised in a hearing world, or neglected  
children deprived of human contact over years), failure to learn  
language in the absence of linguistic input shows that linguistic  
input is needed.  I'm sure that parrots who are not exposed to human  
language also don't learn any language.

The more relevant comparison is of humans and other animals when both  
been exposed to to linguistic input, and from what I've seen there is  
a difference between the species that needs to be explained.  Why  
couldn't Alex speak with greater range and creativity given the amount  
of linguistic input that he was exposed to?

An aside:  Listening to recordings ( is a great source of  
video) of talking parrots, I'm struck by the phonetic roteness of the  
word productions - almost like playing a recording back.  I don't know  
if anyone has studied these productions phonetically, but such a study  
might provide some evidence about the phonological compositionality of  
parrot's words.

Keith Johnson

On Oct 27, 2010, at 10:50 AM, A. Katz wrote:

> Jose-Luis,
> So, in your opinion is your statement that human language is out of  
> reach of other living beings "for the simple reason that they lack a  
> human brain" falsifiable? Is there any evidence that would -- if  
> presented-- change your mind? If there isn't, then your statement is  
> an article of faith and not a scientific hypothesis.
> What if someone were to say, for instance, that the English language  
> is beyond the reach of anyone who isn't English, for the simple  
> reason that they don't possess an English brain? Would you see that  
> this hypothesis is falsifiable by presenting evidence that someone  
> without any English ancestry was able to master English better than  
> someone whose ancestors are English?
> If so, why not accept evidence that non-humans such as Bow and Alex  
> have mastered a human language (such as English or Hebrew) better  
> than people who possess a human brain? Not only are there humans who  
> don't speak any language at all, there are also humans who do speak  
> some language, but not these particular two.
> Best,
>    --Aya
> On Wed, 27 Oct 2010, jlmendi at wrote:
>> Dear Aya:
>> I agree that domestic animals can have a certain degree of  
>> communicative interaction with owners and trainers. And of course  
>> I'm aware that there is clear evidence that many species have  
>> complex and sophisticated systems of thought. But this does not  
>> mean they can acquire and use a human language. For me, as for many  
>> people (regardless of the often sterile debate on innatism) a  
>> language is not just a collection of sound/meaning pairs, but a  
>> creative complex system of knowledge that seems not to be at the  
>> reach of other living beings, for the simple and obvious reason  
>> that they lack a human brain.
>> Best regards,
>> José-Luis
>> "A. Katz" <amnfn at> wrote:
>>> Jose-Luis,
>>> Let me ask you this: on what evidence do you base the assertion that
>>> most organisms do not acquire human language in linguistic  
>>> immersion?
>>> (I'm assuming you're not counting bacteria here, but are referring  
>>> to
>>> mammals and birds.)
>>> Is it because most other animals can't produce the sounds of human
>>> languages? Do you recognize that a mute human being can acquire  
>>> human
>>> language but be unable to speak? Does comprehension at all count for
>>> you?
>>> Have you ever had a dog? Have you ever had a dog who understood a
>>> language that some humans who were present did not understand?
>>> I'm not talking about responding to rote commands that have been
>>> trained. I'm talking about responding to nonce utterances. I have  
>>> seen
>>> dogs understand what I said to them, while the humans who were  
>>> present
>>> in the room, but were not speakers of the language, did not  
>>> understand.
>>> Like you, I was specifically taught that parrots only immitate, and
>>> since I had never had a parrot, I believed that for a very long  
>>> time.
>>> It's only in the past decade, after I saw the evidence, that I  
>>> changed
>>> my mind.
>>> Are you speaking from the same kind of belief? Do you believe this
>>> because you read it in a book or because your professors taught it  
>>> to
>>> you? How much experience do you have with non-humans? If the  
>>> answer is
>>> not much, isn't it about time you got to know some other animals?  
>>> Or if
>>> that's not possible, because you live in a city under cramped
>>> conditions, couldn't you at least interview people who do have that
>>> experience?
>>> Best,
>>> --Aya

Keith Johnson
Professor of Linguistics
University of California
keithjohnson at

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