Once again, by popular demand, we're Off Topic and On Parrots*.
As I've explained in previous columns, Elmo, my African Gray parrot, has a substantial listening comprehension of English and an extremely large repertoire of utterances, but he shows no evidence of understanding when he "speaks" English. Maybe he could be trained to, a la Dr. Pepperberg and Alex, but we haven't made any attempt to do so yet. The words he speaks are just sounds that fall into (broad) contextual categories but don't have specific meaning. Still, he makes me wonder how deep the biological roots of language go, considering that birds and mammals diverged some 300 million years ago.
Item 1: Elmo likes to play "peekaboo." I hold up a book or newspaper in front of my face and say, "Where's Elmo?" He responds by saying "Peekaboo," and I drop the newspaper and say, "I see you!"
Elmo has several different ways of saying "peekaboo." The basic way is in the little singsong voice that you would use with a small child. He will also say it with a flat inflection, in a drawn-out lower tone, "peeeeekaaaboooo." He can also whistle it, in a way that no human could without the aid of electronic filtering: Several octaves higher, it's the same 'tune' as the singsong version of the word, except it's whistled and superimposed on that are the phonemes (p)eeeee(k) aaaa (b)oooo—the consonants are almost inaudible, more like glottal stops.
There are several variants of these three major forms. Why is this interesting? Because Elmo considers them all equivalent replacements in the game, and they all sound clearly like "peekaboo" to us humans. He and we are processing inflection versus content in the same way, even when the content is wildly distorted.
Item 2: Elmo's picked up a number of words and phrases from us, mostly related to eating. Among them: "fresh water," "corn chip," "tortilla chip," "Would you like fresh water, Elmo?" and "Here's fresh water, Elmo."
Elmo likes to riff on things that he's learned to say. He will babble, manipulating those sounds and phrases. Sometimes it's just repetition; he'll repeat the word "chip" (one of his favorites) with different tones and inflections. Much more interestingly, he does recombination. He'll say "Would you like (a) chip?" "Would you like a tortilla chip?" "Here's a corn chip," and so on. On occasion he'll say "Would you like (a) Elmo?"
Why do I find this interesting? Because it's grammatical, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense. He always strings verb clauses and object clauses together in the right order. He never assembles them in a nonsensical way. We never hear "Here's Elmo, corn chip" or "Corn chip would you like?" or "Would chip you like?" Although we have solid evidence that Elmo does not use words in a specific way, he does seem to use a rudimentary grammar.
Possibly I'm just easily amused (possibly?!) but I'm intrigued by Elmo's ability to construct new inflections and pronunciations for words and still have them sound like words, and his ability to combine and recombine individual utterances without losing grammatical construction. I can't help but think that has something to say about the deep biological underpinnings of human language.
*While I have many areas in which I can claim expertise, linguistics isn't one of them. So, for all I know, what I've written in this column is utterly obvious to anyone who has any substantial knowledge of that field...or it could be entirely wrong. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances. (Seeing as you're reading this for free, I suppose you're getting full value.)
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
"Corky could ad lib very emotional falsetto opera sounds at will, for long periods, and at great volume, just like he heard on the radio all his life. He could say things that would make you think he knew what he was saying, like 'goodbye' at the appropriate time, 'Hi Corky,' etc., and when everyone was quiet at the dinner table he could be relied on to ask 'What's your troubles, Bubbles?'
"He loved to whistle, 'Shave-and-a-haircut, two bits,' and especially liked it if we would fill in the 'two bits' for him. He'd give you the the 'Shave-and-a-haircut...'" and wait. And if there was no reply he would do it again, and again. He had nothing else to do. If he was having no luck at all, he would start to vary his approach; an octave higher, then lower, faster, very slowly now, maybe with a little pathetic quiver to the whistle—damn, that was funny.
"Eventually we'd relent, and give him his two bits. Then from the kitchen there would be a wall of joyous operatic sound that can't be described; let's just say the bird was as happy as birds can get, and all for the cost of two bits."