The language of elephants

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Hot upon the heels of the prairie dog story comes another about animal language. This time it’s elephants.  And two different teams of researchers.  There is one in San Diego Zoo, reported on by the BBC:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8527009.stm

And another at Cornell University with field workers in Africa, reported on at some length by CBS news:

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6050249n

Essentially, they are claiming the same thing; that elephants make low frequency vocalisations which humans can’t hear, and which convey meanings, such as (in the zoo research) ‘I am about to give birth’. The CBS report has more detail and so I’ll concentrate on that.

As a piece of journalism, it has the high level of anthropomorphism you would expect, and you have to cut through all this to try to see what exactly the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University is up to. As far as I can make out, they take extensive recordings of all elephant vocalisations, both audible and inaudible to humans, while observing very closely what the elephants are doing at the time. By matching sound with behaviour, they say they hope to compile an elephant ‘dictionary’. They have a few entries already: glad to see you, hit the road, I’m upset, everything is OK, here I am!

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Do prairie dogs have language?

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 This is the latest incarnation of the Doctor Doolittle question. You can replace ‘prairie dog’ with chimpanzee, parrot, dolphin, gorilla  and find that someone, somewhere, has reported research findings that say an emphatic, “YES!”. The BBC showed a programme a couple of weeks ago in which Dr Con Slobodchikoff, a biologist from Northern Arizona University, had the best part of an hour to convince me about his research. You can download it here:

http://tinyurl.com/3xuny6l
or if you don’t have a spare hour, you can listen to a short interview he gave to public radio in the USA:

http://kjzz.org/news/arizona/archives/200602/prairiedogs

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It isn’t Latin that’s a dead language. It’s English!

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Here is a rather old one (2002, no less) but a classic piece of silliness, and as it’s still there on the Times online website, I think it deserves addressing.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/thunderer/article832530.ece

Ann Widdecombe sets out in this article her thesis that the explanation for falling standards of English amongst the young is the disappearance of Latin classes from most secondary schools in the UK. In essence, she is claiming that if you taught Latin to children their English would improve. And it really, really needs to improve because we are currently in a terrifying world,

in which linguistic anarchy prevails, where children are no longer taught the function of a verb, much less its precise formation and where bright, enthusiastic graduates produce a jumble of words, randomly punctuated, and call it a letter.”

Even allowing for hyperbole, this is over-egging things. Linguistic anarchy does not prevail, cannot prevail, because human languages are always rule governed. Always. Take the sloppiest person you know, record a few sentences he or she says, write them out and count dozens of phonological, morphological, syntactic, phonotactic and semantic rules therein. Perhaps none of the rules are consciously known, but they are rigidly adhered to nevertheless. (Want to see what linguistic anarchy really looks like? It looks like this: much although seminar very January, sign lunch; taking would and! go bear when premature vanilla. If anyone, graduate or not, wrote that and called it a letter, I’d advise a 999 call because there’s serious brain damage going on.)

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Is texting bad for children’s language development?

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On Wednesday 20th January 2010 at 08.43 on BBC Radio Four, this sticky question was debated. In the blue corner was Dr Clare Wood whose research study has shown that children who text and thus use short-cuts such as  l8r for later, or u for you are not compromising their ability to read and write, but are instead showing a very sophisticated understanding of sound-text correspondences. They appreciate the range of how sounds can be written down; for example, that ate and eight and 8 are homophones with different meanings and different ways of being written.

In the red corner, the Government Communications Champion, Jean Gross. She does not have a study that contradicts Dr. Wood’s research, but she does not want to accept her findings without a struggle. First, she challenges Dr Wood with the link that has been found between high texting use and low reading scores. This is easy to deal with. Jean Gross has made the elementary error that correlations show a clear cause and effect relationship. They don’t. They suggest there could be one, but equally there could be a third factor that is responsible for the correlation. Dr Wood points this out; children who text a lot might be more likely to come from homes where they have less face-to-face contact with their parents because Mum and Dad both work long hours, or Mum and Dad are neglectful of them and don’t read or speak to them much. So the link between texting and poor reading might be down to socio-economic factors.

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Like it or not.

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Years ago, an otherwise intelligent and sensible man wrote to the leading government minister of the day to complain about the way people were speaking. His particular beef was how they clipped off the ends of words,  dooming  the English language, he predicted, to a future of ugly monosyllables. He said something should definitely be done about it.

 The man’s name was Jonathan Swift, the year was 1712, the minister was Lord Harley. The clipped syllables included  the –ed at the end of past tenses, producing such monstrous pronunciations as walk’d and talk’d  rather than the correct walk-ed and talk-ed. Others horrors? The use of the word mob rather than its full and beautiful mobile vulgus, and phiz rather than physiognomy.

Harley’s opinion is not recorded. Perhaps he agreed with Swift but was too busy with other things, like the Treaty of Utrecht. And so nothing was done.  The abbreviation mob  became completely normal,  and both phiz and physiognomy turned out to be short-lived slang for face. The past tense morpheme -ed continued to be clipped  and pretty soon no-one noticed or cared about it. The English language continued to be perfectly capable of expressing past time, and archaisms such as walk-ed were heard only when, for example,  the metre of poetry or music demanded it. ( If you have ever sung The people that walked in darkness from Handel’s Messiah, you will have used the old pronunciation, and maybe found it charmingly archaic.)

  However, the strong opinion that  English should not be allowed to go its own way has stayed with us over the last three hundred years, with a steady stream of people taking  up Swift’s mantle.  And so here is Christopher Hitchens in January 2010,  complaining about the use of  the word like by young people.

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Only a poltroon despises pedantry, says David Mitchell.

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The Observer,  Sunday 3 January 2010

Introducing new words is all very well, but sticklers like me prefer the traditional approach to language.” David Mitchell joins the endless queue of people complaining publicly that English is not like it was when they were young. You can read the full article  here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/03/david-mitchell-english-language-grammar

 

 After eight paragraphs of pretty good discussion of some people’s attitudes to words (—teachers discouraging ‘nice’ or ‘good’ in favour of more interesting adjectives, Susie Dent’s cataloguing of the year’s crop of neologisms, silly advertising slogans that catch onto everyone’s lips—)  David Mitchell gets right to heart of his fundamental dislike of innovation in language:

“We sticklers say we fear confusion of meaning but it’s the feeling that we’ve learnt and obeyed a set of rules that doesn’t matter that really spooks us.”

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