Home > Language, Science > Parrot Speech Without Lips

Parrot Speech Without Lips

October 30, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

I love stories about our communication with animals as much as the next person. They’re irresistible. And maybe some of them are true. But my illusions about our success in communicating with our resident animal (our chosen resident animal anyway) are limited in scope. She has a few tools that she uses regularly, but she uses them indiscriminately to indicate different desires, such as her desire to go out, her desire for more water, her desire to come in, her desire to be rubbed, and her desire to get me to look at her rather than the computer monitor. (She’s not above sitting in front if it and blocking my view if all else fails.) Then again, maybe I’m just dense and her nuance is lost on me. I do know that if I fulfill her high-priority needs — opening the doors, replenishing her food and water bowls, and petting her — there’s a positive probability that she’ll calm down.

In any case, Geoffrey Pullum’s post on the Language Log yesterday was a useful antidote to the too-easy belief that the animals are really talking to us. You gotta love his opening:

No matter how hard I try to locate the world’s most stupid animal communication story, they keep outflanking me. I am always left behind. An even stupider one always comes along. All I can say as of this morning is that I never thought I would see a story as stupid as this in a respected news source, and right now I cannot imagine how it could be surpassed (though within a few weeks I suppose it probably will be).

This is with reference to the review in the current Economist of Irene Pepperberg’s book Alex & Me“:How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Pullum focuses on the idiocy of the review rather than the possible idiocy of the book itself. Here’s the part of the review that sends Pullum over the top:

Lacking lips, he could not pronounce the letter “p”, so his term for an apple was “banerry” (apparently mixing “banana” and “cherry”).

I quote part of Pullum’s analysis of this statement after the jump, including a fabulous sentence at the end. His note is a valuable reminder to read about animal communication with skepticism.

Well, you probably caught it. The phonemes (systematically distinct speech sound units) that humans produce by bringing together the upper and lower lips, known as bilabial consonants, include [p] as in pop, [b] as in bob, and [m] as in mom. Say these words while looking in a mirror and you will see that your lips come together. And when you say “banerry” or “banana”, of course, it happens just the same. Apparently the reviewer did not have the intelligence to reflect on why failing to learn one word with a [p] in it should have something to do with not having lips, when pronouncing [b] was apparently no problem for the self-same bird. I stared at the page, almost unable to believe what an asinine thing had been printed there. (I have no idea whether the reviewer’s remark has a basis in the text of the book. Quite possibly it doesn’t.)

The sheer dumbness of the reviewer’s remark gets even worse if you reflect a little more. Parrots don’t have upper front teeth either, or the bony gum-covered area behind them that is known as the alveolar ridge, or a velum (the soft membrane at the back of the mouth) that can be lowered to open the velic port between pharynx and nasal cavity, so by the logic of the above quote they should also be unable to pronounce [n], a nasal consonant produced by lowering the velum and making a closure in the oral cavity by pressing the tongue tip against the alveolar ridge. In fact parrots have just about none of the articulatory apparatus that humans have, which should mean they are utterly without the ability to mimic any human speech, right?

Of course not. They mimic the sound of human utterances brilliantly. But they do it in a totally different way, simulating the acoustic effect (not the articulatory production) by means of an organ known as the syrinx, which birds have and humans don’t. This clever flute-like organ works for mimicking all kinds of sound without using anything like the organs or movements humans make do with. Parrots don’t need the anatomical attributes of the human oro-pharyngeal tract any more than an iPod or a radio does.

Categories: Language, Science
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: