Domo arigato, Dr. Roboto: Researchers prove rats can't understand Japanese backwards. Can you?

Dennis Baron debaron at uiuc.edu
Sat Oct 6 18:57:37 UTC 2007


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Domo arigato, Dr. Roboto: Researchers prove rats can't understand  
Japanese backwards.  Can you?

The 2007 Ig Nobel prize in linguistics has been awarded to three  
researchers who successfully demonstrated that rats can’t distinguish  
between Japanese and Dutch sentences played backwards.

The Ig Nobel prizes, co-sponsored by the Annals of Improbable  
Research, are awarded each year for real research shortly before the  
actual Nobel Prize winners are announced.  While this is the first  
time that a prize has been awarded in linguistics, two earlier prizes  
in literature have been given for language-related research.  John  
Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, won in 2001  
for his efforts to protect, promote, and defend the differences  
between the plural and the possessive.  And Daniel Oppenheimer, of  
Princeton, won in 2006 for his report, “Consequences of Erudite  
Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using  
Long Words Needlessly.”

A write-up of this year’s winning research on rat foreign language  
backwards sentence recognition appeared in 2005 in the Journal of  
Experimental Psychology.  Drs. J. M. Toro, J. B. Trobalon, and N.  
Sebastian-Galles, cognitive neuroscientists at the Parc Cientific de  
Barcelona, trained a group of 64 Long-Evans rats to press a lever and  
receive food when they heard Dutch and Japanese sentences that they  
had never heard before (remember, these were Spanish-speaking rats).   
Researchers then played the sentences backwards to see how that  
affected the rats’ comprehension. They concluded that sixty rats had  
no idea what was going on (P < .05), while four rats “failed to  
finish the experiment because of low lever-pressing rates.”

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Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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