bjking at bjking at
Thu Oct 28 13:01:14 UTC 2010


I think Aya Katz has it right, with her focus on Alex's creativity and on the emergence of Alex's thoughtful communication in the context of a key social relationship (Alex and Pepperberg).

I've not met or communicated directly with Alex, but I've watched videos extensively. I have met and communicated directly with bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha, and I've written extensively about their communication skills and the social-emotional contexts in which they emerge. 

What I've argued for years, in my book The Dynamic Dance (2004, Harvard), and in books and articles since, is that we miss worlds of richness and complexity when we content ourselves with focusing on the Alexes, Kanzis and Panbanishas (as wonderful as they are), and asking ONLY if nonhuman creatures "have language."

OK, it's an interesting question. But as an anthropologist I think there are more interesting questions, questions that avoid an insistence on comparing other creatures with ourselves. 

I've observed apes (bonobos, gorillas mostly) for years, and filmed their interactions, and there's a world of subtlety and richness in their back-and-forth, creative communication with each other: via gaze, body position and degree of muscular tension, vocalizations, manual and head gestures, and so on. It is of vastly less interest to me to ask whether this is language than to understand the richness of this system, how it emerges, how it may different between individuals or between groups, how infants learn the system, what it allows these creatures to do (and not to do), and so on. Doing this requires years of watching, and filming and analyzing videotapes; a sender-receiver, message-based model isn't sufficient to capture the dynamic nature of the communication, which is often contingent and co-constructed by the social partners rather than fixed.

We can look for similar phenomena in elephants, cetaceans, etc.; if we keep asking over and over if these species are capable of language, we won't see what they spontaneously do with each other-- and that's worth knowing in its own right. It's also potentially, if arguably, useful (in some cases, e.g., apes) in reconstructing evolutionary trajectories, but there again we run the risk of using a human standard with which to evaluate everything.

Best wishes,
Barbara J. King
Blogging animals at
Chancellor Professor of Anthropology
Director, Undergraduate Studies in Anthropology
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, VA, USA 23187

---- Original message ----
>Date: Thu, 28 Oct 2010 05:38:13 -0700 (PDT)
>From: "A. Katz" <amnfn at>  
>Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Chomsky  
>To: Keith Johnson <keithjohnson at>
>Cc: funknet at
>You are quite right that Pepperberg does not claim that Alex learned a 
>human language. She is very careful not to make immodest claims, as I 
>mentioned before, and if you read her writings you will see that she goes 
>to great trouble, jumping through convoluted verbal hoops to explain that 
>the fact that Alex could answer questions correctly about color and shape 
>does not necessarily mean that he understood what he was talking about in 
>human terms.
>In order to get published by a reputable scientific journal, you pretty 
>much have to do that. I do not blame her for this.
>What I was saying is that if any of you want to judge for yourself, watch 
>the videos. Pay attention also to the unsolicited things that Alex said. 
>Notice how he kept asking for water. Notice Irene asking him whether he 
>really wanted water, or he was just trying to interrupt. Evaluate their 
>relationship. Take into account that answering all those questions 
>repeatedly was boring for Alex, and that they weren't talking about 
>anything that really interested him. Understand that Irene and Alex had a 
>relationship that went beyond that, but that their job was to prove small, 
>palatable things involving formal sound/meaning correspondences.
>You think Alex's pronunciation sounded mechanical? He had a completely 
>different articulatory system from yours. He spent hours trying to figure 
>out the right articulatory gestures to make those sounds. He had no formal 
>instruction on that! He did it on his time off, when there wasn't even 
>anyone there with him. I think he did a pretty good job all things 
>considered. Compare his production with those of a human with an 
>artificial larynx. For that matter, compare his productions with those of 
>a non-native speaker of English. Or even consider this: have you ever 
>heard an autistic child who does speak, but who has no affect?
>The catch-22 in animal language studies is that if it spontaneous and a 
>nonce utterance it is not replicable, and you can't do statistical studies 
>on it, and so it doesn't count. But if you go the other route, and you 
>create an elaborate structure that is amenable to statistical testing, 
>then you take all the creativity the subject can muster out of it.
>If humans had to go through this to prove their children can really talk, 
>they wouldn't fare much better. But none of us actually had to prove that 
>we were talking rather than repeating something we heard, before our 
>speech was allowed to pass for language.
>     --Aya
>On Wed, 27 Oct 2010, Keith Johnson wrote:
>> 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.
>> best,
>> 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,

More information about the Funknet mailing list