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Thursday, 06 May 2010


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We have shared our life with an African Grey for 15 years now. While Cozzie may not know exactly what he is saying I do believe he understands much of what he says. A couple of examples: I get up early for work so it is still dark, Cozzie greets me with "Good morning Cozziemoto, daddy has to go to work now." When I get up later on the weekends Cozzie greets me with "Good morning Cozziemoto, let's make coffee."

When he hears my keys rattle he starts in with "Goodbye." Does he know what goodbye means? I don't think so. Does he know that I'll be gone from the house for a few hours? I'm sure of it.

Cozzie listens to me and talks to my wife. The number of times he comes up with an appropriate response is uncanny. There is a lot more going on then just repeating things that he has heard.

You may find common ground here:


I have a Blue-Fronted Amazon, Charlie. He'll be 5 on the 4th July, and he does exactly the same things Elmo does. I have read in one of the scientific magazines (New Scientist I think) that through research they have discovered that birds consider different inflections and pronunciations of a word to actually be distinctly different words, with entirely separate meanings attached to them.

I see evidence of this with Charlie. He says hello in a variety of ways. The one pronunciation is reserved uniquely for when he has crashed, tripped up or fallen somehow. He always responds with a short, sharp almost bark of the word hello, and will walk about (usually in a bit of a dwall) repeating it a few times until he has regained himself.

He has a standard mimic of the way I naturally pronounce the word which he always uses to greet me.

And then he has an exaggerated version of hello that is very expressive and comes with a fluffing up of his feathers. 90% of the time, he's on top of the door when doing this. I have no clue what this means to him. But it's something to consider when observing Elmo.

It would be great to hear recording or watch a short video of Elmo playing "peekaboo", any chance of posting it on TOP, Ctein?

Does Elmo enjoy rhyming ? Are there certain consonants he vocalizes more than others ? I'm always fascinated reading about Elmo.

The place to read lots of diverting stuff on this and related subjects is the Language Log blog. See http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=25

Working variations on a theme seems to be common in mimic birds. There's a mockingbird that lives outside the building where I work that seems intent on reciting every possible combination of the birdcalls audible in the area, and my mother's cockatiel's riffing on the theme song to "The Andy Griffth Show" would have done a bebop jazz saxophonist proud.

I recently read an interesting book discussing language in a small Amazon tribe: "Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes", by Daniel Everett.

I suppose this column is thought to be of interest to TOP readers because this parrot belongs to a noted photographic expert who on most Thursdays publishes excellent columns on photographic topics.

However, it is not interesting to me. The web is full of articles about every topic under the sun, and even topics not under our sun or any sun, but what makes TOP worth reading every day is that it, like other sites worth reading, is narrowly targeted. That's an advantage of the web over old media.

The occasional off-topic article is OK, especially on a Sunday, which Mike traditionally reserves for off-topic subjects.

Of course, this is Mike's blog, not mine, and he is free to do anything he likes with it.

I'm only commenting to warn that if TOP continues its trend of getting off subject, it will cease to be a compelling read. It will instead be one of those personality-cult blogs. Yuck.

When I saw Ctein's headline, I immediately thought, "There is nothing interesting in photography today, or Ctein doesn't want to talk about anything interesting in photography today, or Ctein doesn't know what's interesting in photography today."

None of those can be true, right?


The anti-Chomskyites are even now preparing the tar and feathers...

There's a joke in here somewhere about not being able to distinguish between Elmo and a human posting to photography message boards...I'm just not smart enough to flush it out.

Elmo speaks more correctly than Yoda. Surely that counts for something.

Elmo knows nothing about grammar. What he does know about is music. Imagine that you sang the Beatles' song "When I'm Sixty-Four" around both the parrot and a child with a little musical talent. As they learn the song, they might isolate a phrase:

When I get older
When I get older

But neither one of them is going to reassemble the phrases out of order, like this:

Losing my hair
When I get older
Will you still need me?
Many years from now

The parrot surely won't understand the words, and the kid might not either. (Think of the jokes about kids who thought the hymn words were, "Gladly the cross-eyed Bear"; I'd mention a cute mistake my nephew made, saying that girls were made of "Silver bells and taco shells.") But both the kid and the parrot would get the melody right.

That said I will relate something that my sister's parrot used to do. She had a cat, too, and to call the kitty to dinner, she'd take a spoon and bang it on the side of the cat's metal dish, and the cat would come. The parrot learned to mimic that sound EXACTLY, I mean, I could not tell if it was the parrot or Memorex. And the cat would come running. I never could be sure, but I did wonder if the parrot wasn't doing it just because it got a rise out of the cat.

Popular demand?! Did I mention I don't like Parrots, don't like photos of parrots and couldn't polly want a cracker care less about different varieties of parrots:) Back to photographic obsessions please!

Wow, fascinating.

I have heard before that African Grey parrots are very good at speech (from the fictional book Harry's Mad by Dick King-Smith)

I've thought it would be great to be able to hold a proper conversation with an animal. There are several species which I believe are probably intelligent enough for us to do this, its just we do not speak each others language.

It's somewhere in which I would envisage our race moving next, communication with animals, only a matter time (probably a relatively long amount of time). I have never concerned myself much with animals, and I hope no-one takes offence to this ( I am not trying to compare people to animals, I realise that it is completely different), but I would not be surprised if one day, certain species of animals demand the same rights as humans.

I would love to hear more about your Parrot


Ctein, if you haven't already read "Seeing Voices" by Oliver Sacks I highly recommend that you pick up a copy. Much food for thought regarding language structure and grammar.

Popular or not, my demand would be for less OT posts. On the current screen starting at the bottom with "America gets colored Pentax" to this parrot thing, there are 16 posts, of these 10 are either non-photo related or pretty irrelevant. This more and more resembles the old geezers evening chat under the canopy of the village chestnut. Truth be told, I could also do w/o abundant trivia from the Residing Manager's (and some commentators') personal life. Yes, I do cherish Mike's personal tone and experience - very much the USP of this site -, but that doesn't mean I want to know what he had for breakfast. Me, I want to learn about all things photography. I get enough trivia on the Net already w/o actively seeking it out. Sorry, but this wanted out for some time and this was the cue.

Interesting stuff. In some human languages (e.g. Thai and Chinese) the tones affect meaning. So when you observe 'peekaboo' still sounding like 'peekaboo' when said in different tones, in tonal languages that could stop it from meaning the same thing. Apparently 'ma' can mean mother, horse, hemp (or rope) and scold. http://mandarin.about.com/od/pronunciation/a/tones.htm

It would be interesting to know whether Chinese parrots learn from their humans not to vary the tone in the way you've described.

@Marc, Hendrik,

I suppose that Ctein is making a somewhat laboured point about signal/noise ratio and filtering (which I believe, although this time he didn't tell us*) to be within his area of expertise ?


If you choose to tackle this subject, you'll find Stephen Pinker to be a good popular introduction to your literature review.


(no apologiez for any spulling pistakes. Neither African Grey nor Macspeech in training, just painstakingly tryped on an iPhone...)

Dear Marc and others,

Mike and I had an argument about just this matter almost a year ago. Mike was encouraging me to write occasional off-topic posts if I felt so inclined. I bet that there was no way the readers would stand for it. He ran an online poll on that question, which garnered over 2000 responses (at least 10% of Mike's total readership). Within 1 or 2 percent, it broke down like this:

Four out of seven readers preferred that I write about whatever I felt like, photography or not.

Two out of seven readers wanted me to write occasional off-topic columns.

One out of seven readers wanted me to stick to photography.

I lost that bet big time, and you're outnumbered 6:1. Even if you only count the people who have an active preference in the matter, you're still outnumbered 2:1.

The vote's over and settled. It's not going to come up again. Accept that you are in the minority, vocal or otherwise.

BTW, my last column about my parrots was 22 columns ago. I go totally off topic perhaps one in 10 columns.

I can guarantee ya, it's not gonna get better (by your standards) than that.

pax / Ctein

With birds, think "language jazz" instead of linguistics.

Mike, Ctein, et al, write what you want. For the naysayers, my rejoinder is that with out some interest in the world beyond photography; what exactly is it you're trying to photograph?

I, with no interest in cleaning up after another critter, still enjoyed the article, and found the discussion on language, etc. most pleasant.

An old friend had an African Gray that used to call the dog: "Here Loki Here Loki!" He also did bells, alarm clock and the telephone.

Just after posting a comment here I went to Roger Ebert's site, where his latest journal entry, "A Golden Age for Movie Critics" was up. Long, but very apropos to being narrowly focused. Well worth the time.

I was a little surprised to see several comments objecting to the off-topic posts.

I like the content, amount, and tone of the OT stuff. Those who don't can easily skip them. To me, they are usually interesting and provide welcome and unexpected variety.
My vote: keep them coming (in moderation).

"watch a short video of Elmo playing "peekaboo", any chance of posting it on TOP, Ctein?"

I second that.

In counterpoint to the two petulant comments, above, I'd like to say that articles like this one, and the car ones, and the audio ones are great fun because they're well-written and interesting in their own right. Providing future eccentric entries continue to be fun, well-written, and interesting, I'll be happy for the occasional break from photographic obsessions.


I don't understand the somewhat strident complaints about off topic subjects. There are lots of relevant items on this site every week. I imagine a large group of folks with similar interests view these pages. Often folks with a common interests will discuss other topics of interest (or deemed to possibly be of interest). Some folks will drift away from these conversations to others that interest them. All of this should be fine with the readers of the site. This is, after all - Mike's site. If his friends have interesting stories to share that may not always be photographically oriented, and Mike likes them, why object when he puts them up on HIS site? I don't think others have any legitimate right to complain, as most of us are at best passive consumers of the content he graciously provides. I have no complaints at all about the varied and interesting subjects covered, with a distinctly photographically oriented core, this site is continually entertaining to me, and I have high hopes that Mike keeps it up. Everyone's free to not read the articles that don't interest them. I do that on numerous sites daily. It's easy, just click through if it doesn't grab you that day. I bet it's a rare reader that hasn't learned some interesting stuff from this site. For what it's worth, my vote is keep up the good work, I think your site is a great place to visit. On and off topic...

Dear folks,

Re: Elmo's general listening comprehension and speaking abilities, see my lengthy comments to Scott and others after this article:

OT: Self-Incrimination (http://tinyurl.com/yhlg6ql)

The other two parrot-related articles I've written are these:

On Topic (Really!): Parrotspeak / Parrotvision (http://tinyurl.com/yfmgk4u)
Weird Adventures in A.I. (Animal Intelligence) (http://tinyurl.com/yh85ne8)


Dear Ray & Jim,

I have no doubt that this behavior differs from species to species. I doubt that the New Scientist article was meant to apply to all kinds of birds, although I'm sure it's true of most of them. But by the same generalization, one could say that primates were incapable of complex language.

Amazons are awfully intelligent. Interesting that yours treats different inflections and pronunciations as different words, whereas Elmo doesn't. No way of knowing, of course, if this is representative of the two species as a whole or just our particular weird birds. Still, a fascinating distinction.

And Jim has brought up the perfectly brilliant point that in a language that is innately tonal, different intonations can be different words. I'd be very surprised if parrot who speak those languages aren't much more careful about their pronunciation than Elmo. Elmo, of course, is learning by mimicry from people who aren't careful about this, because English doesn't much care.


Dear David Bennett, William & Randolph,

What Elmo's behavior means is a very good question. I couldn't say, based on what I've seen, that it makes the case for deep grammar. It could be statistical grammar (viz. the Wikipedia article). After all, Elmo has a very large sampling of human utterances to go by.

Of course, the fact that he can process that into some semblance of proper grammar is fascinating, regardless of the underlying mechanism.

An aside, for readers who think these discussions of how language and grammar structure work are of little real-world significance: The big breakthrough in practical computer speech recognition was the realization that statistical analysis of word sequences was the way to go. While voice recognition systems have some rudimentary understanding of how English is put together, that was nowhere near sufficient to produce accurate voice recognition.

Sometimes the most abstract and theoretical-seeming arguments end up having distinctly utilitarian value.

And William's take on the matter starts me wondering if grammar and musical structure are at all connected (psychologically, nor logically, whatever...). Does anybody here know? Does anybody, anywhere, know?

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Well, I AM a linguist, although a retired one, and the interesting thing is that Elmo uses formulaic frames (as in "Would you like a __?") into which it seems to slot appropriate (adjectives +) nouns. If we take Ctein's report at face value, that means Elmo 'knows' what a noun is – an alarming thought if you believe that true language is restricted to humans and possibly certain apes (so don't tell me about the 'language' of bees!). Ctein will have to do some serious experimentation (à l'Irene Pepperberg and Alex) to show us that he and his family don't unconsciously model these variations, and that Elmo doesn't also insert non-nouns (and therefore rubbish, e.g "Would you like a here's a?") into these frames. What always bothers me about these stories is why Bonobo apes and parrots only seem to develop language-like abilities once they experience the pleasures of human contact.

I haven´t the faintest clue what kind of parrot used to sit on a terrace above a bar I used to pass by I only know it was green. The owners must have been english speaking and that bird had a filthy tongue. He had been taught or had heard so much bad language he/she was one hell of an expert. I still can recall two of his favourite phrases which were; "Get your godd--n fat butt down here you fat b-tch" and "yeah, yeah come on kiss my a--s". It was so funny to listen to this little animal chuck all his soul into his speeches. Mike and Ctein please feel to censor this post as you wish.

"I don't think others have any legitimate right to complain, as most of us are at best passive consumers of the content he graciously provides."

... but note, please, we are invited from time to time to consider financial support to the site, and some of us in fact do that.

I submit therefore that it is important that those who don't like the OT posts feel comfortable to speak up. Few business models can thrive where they throw away potentially even one-seventh of a revenue stream or dismiss well-meant feedback.

Personally, I'm ambivalent to the OT posts, although impatient where I perceive self-indulgence, and I strongly suspect Mike is well on top of understanding the Venn diagram intersections of who likes what and who pays. So I'm a happy guy.


"Personally, I'm ambivalent to the OT posts, although impatient where I perceive self-indulgence, and I strongly suspect Mike is well on top of understanding the Venn diagram intersections of who likes what and who pays."

I'm not quite so calculating as all that. As a matter of fact I *don't* like it when someone feels moved to complain. On the other hand, if there's one thing I've learned in doing this for as long as I have, it's that the following common aphorism based on an Abraham Lincoln quote is true: "You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time."


To those continuing to witter about parrot grammar, I commend you to have the courtesy to visit the link recommended above by Peter Marquis-Kyle. You'll find a number of your speculations tackled cogently, directly and pithily by some who do have some directly applicable expertise. My firm suspicion, comparing what's written there with what's above, here, is that you'll learn something.


Quite an interesting story. I would love to see an experiment that proves that this is a deeper understanding of grammar than just being able to group words together that can go in the same place in a sentence. Just because Elmo can use "chip", "tortilla chip", "corn chip" and "Elmo" interchangably doesn't mean he understands that they are nouns, just that they have been used in the same place. It's tricky to do an experiment that proves deeper understanding.

i feel i should comment on this since i work in a lab that studies the grammatical abilities of animals (though it's not my specialty). many songbirds (not sure about parrots) most definitely have their own grammar/syntax - different elements of bird song are always arranged following specific rules even though the birds are physically capable of arranging the song in a different way. it may be that this innate grammar gives them an increased capacity to learn other grammars. there have been a number of studies into grammatical abilities of a variety of animals as of late and it seems that monkeys agree with Chomsky:
while birds (starlings not parrots) do not:
it seems likely that any shared grammatical abilities between humans and birds (if that is really what is shown in the starling paper) most likely evolved independently rather than from a common reptilian ancestor. this brings up the very interesting evolutionary question of what circumstances drove such evolution (were they the same)? Is vocal learning a necessary prerequisite. Do other animals that exhibit vocal learning also have grammatical abilities (there are only a few others)?

Dear Yanchik,

The website that Peter recommend is great, and Geoffrey (that would be Professor Geoffrey Pullum,
Professor of General Linguistics and Head of Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh http://www.britac.ac.uk/fellowship/elections/pullum.cfm) is a hoot to read. Unfortunately, though, he doesn't have anything to say on the questions I raised above. You'll note that in all my posts about Elmo, I have been quite careful to not attribute aspects of mentation to what he says and I've stated that Paula and I have not seen any evidence that he uses words in a specific way that we would call language, even though his listening comprehension is huge. I rather doubt that Geoffrey would have a problem with anything I've written or the questions/speculations I've raised in this column.

It's also worth mentioning, for the benefit of those who know even less about the field than I do (which is saying something), that animal language is a HUGE hot button for folks in the pertinent scientific disciplines. The furor rivals Catholics versus Protestants, and it's not helped by the fact that there are some serious nutters on both sides (in both arenas). Geoffrey is clearly in the "ain't nothing there" camp. That does not mean he's right, and this is an area in which I don't see anything resembling scientific consensus (and I do see a lot of people talking past each other). He's informed and he's entertaining, a delightful combination, but he cannot be considered as the Authority of Last Resort on the subject.

On your comment about people complaining, I can state from long familiarity that Mike is very complaint-averse. Rather excessively so, in my ever-humble opinion. He and I have had arguments about what topics should and shouldn't get written about and when, over him getting two or three e-mails that protested a particular article. He's always listening.

Mike is also not dollar driven beyond the minimum degree necessary to survive. If six out of seven readers wanted something, he WOULD risk throwing away 1/7th of his revenue stream rather than let an obstreperous 1/7th determine what the other 6/7ths got to read. But that's not even the situation here. 2/7th of the readers said they wanted me to write off topic. So if you think Mike is risking 1/7th of his revenues by letting me write columns like this, then you'd also have to conclude that he'd be risking 2/7ths if he doesn't.

Personally, I find "I didn't like this topic" comments to be an incredible bore. It always annoys me to read them in a comment thread. Actually it annoys me less to read them in the comments thread for one of my own articles... after all, at least they're spelling my name right [self-centered grin ]. But I find a distinct irritation when they crop up in other threads. They don't add anything to the discourse or my knowledge, it's just egocentrism at work. Honestly, if I were God, those comments wouldn't even get published. Fortunately for everyone, I'm not and Mike is.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Eric,

Assuming you're using "knows" in the largest sense, I would argue that Elmo knows the difference between a verb phrase and an object phrase. HOW he knows that is, of course, the intriguing question I'm raising in this post. Deep grammar? Statistical analysis? Either works. Door number three? Possibly.

Rather than get too wound up in the implications, I think of it as signal processing. In both the "grammatical" constructions and the intonation variations on particular words and phrases, Elmo does a feature extraction and manipulation that is congruent with the way we hear words and speak them. That's the thing that I find interesting. And that's why think it *may* have bearing on interesting questions about the biological underpinnings of speech and language.

It's a very different question from the one of how much does a parrot know (in the more conventional sense) about language.

Paula and I have heard constructions and intonations that we would never speak: the equivalent of "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously;" in the case of the intonations, he creates ones that we couldn't possibly speak. At the same time, we've never heard him speak 'un-grammatically.' In other words, we hear Elmo say "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" but we've never heard him say " ideas sleep colorless green furiously."

On the other side of the intellectual scale, we've never heard Elmo re-create subject-verb-object constructions. Possibly because the idea of a subject is irrelevant, seeing as it's all about HIM? OK, I am anthropomorphizing here, but you get the idea.

I'm not terribly bothered by the question, "If animals can learn language, then why didn't they invent it?" I find that one almost metaphysical in the levels of philosophical abstraction it invokes. I find more vexatious the question, "Since animals can invent and use tools, why don't they just keep doing it?" Once humans started doing that, they just never quit. So why is it that the few other animals that do invent and make tools seem to come up with one or two useful things and then just stop? THAT'S a tough one for me!

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

"Once humans started doing that, they just never quit. So why is it that the few other animals that do invent and make tools seem to come up with one or two useful things and then just stop? THAT'S a tough one for me!"

actually once humans started using tools they didn't advance much either. it took a couple million years or more to advance out of the stone age (i'm not aware of tool use being prevalent enough in any animals for it to be tracked in the fossil record). if memory serves, rapid advancements in tool making did not occur until humans began forming permanent settlements (nomads still don't really advance when they are not disturbed). it only took 8000 years to go from permanent settlements to the computer age. things seem to have accelerated a bit, and to be honest things didn't move very fast during that first ~7500 years compared to the way they have moved since the scientific method caught on. so perhaps all the tool making animals need to advance more quickly is have the free time that doesn't need to be devoted to survival that comes from permanent settlements (and agriculture). anyway, perhaps this has diverged far enough from photography and i should stop.

Just got to say,
I am a steady visitor to this site. Steading meaning minimum once a day.
Write whatever you want!
What makes me come back here is that the writers are good. Mike is by far the best writer there is in the business when it comes to writing about photography. And, unlike a lot of his collegues (sp?) writing about photo related subjects, he also know how to write about other things.
Sorry Ctein!, this was your article. I enjoy your writings as well. Parrots or no parrots.

Now I will renew my subscribtion to this site. It got cancelled when I lost my credit card.

On topic - who cares - one of the ultimate aims of life is entertainment - and this is where things lead you if you let them:

Parrots Speak But Do They Tell The Truth

Dear David,

... and animal crime leads recursively back to my first column on this subject:

OT: Self-Incrimination (http://tinyurl.com/yhlg6ql)

pax / Ctein


I'm comfortable with all of that, and was particularly pleased to see you above the fray in animal mentation. Pullum's fine; ditto Pinker.

I'm sympathetic to your impatience with the "We don't like it" comments. But it seems to me - and this won't get efficiently resolved without a late-night kitchen table and suitable beverages - that the money is the nub of it: as support is (however shyly and carefully) solicited, the smart thing for Mike to do is what he does: full disclosure. So, once in a while, it's worthwhile to recite the arguments.

If that's getting truly tiresome, well sure, put them in an FAQ for handy reference.

But in fact, this time round, I certainly do believe we've learned something worthwhile about how Mike runs the show, and how your opinions differ. And you'll have noticed my shyness to comment directly on Mike's business model: I do that for a living on rather large businesses, and my preferred approach in that case is to know what I'm talking about. In this case, I can go no further than to sketch out a couple of applicable principles.


Dear Yanchik,

You're quite right. Those of us in this biz have learned that basic technical stuff needs to get repeated over and over, because there's always a new crop of readers who haven't learned it yet. It just comes with the territory.

The same's going to be true for basic policy stuff, and I need to get that ingrained in my brain. If I can stifle irritation at the same old exposure or DOF questions getting asked over and over, I can learn to do the same for policy.

BTW, it will be true for any and all publications that the policies and opinions of the editor and the writers will differ. Readers rarely see this because the editor, being God, always has The Final Word.

pax / Ctein

"it will be true for any and all publications that the policies and opinions of the editor and the writers will differ. Readers rarely see this because the editor, being God, always has The Final Word."

Not really. I give writers a lot of leeway to have things their way--it's their byline, and they need to be happy with what's written. Plus, this is the second time you've referred to me as "god" which I don't like, but you haven't been hit by any lightning bolts yet have you?



Dear Mike,

So, what does that have to do with being a god?

Really, every pro author I know knows this.

I could say "dictator" but that isn't strong enough, because, in principle, you can overthrow a dictator.

It's the editor's ball, editor's field, editor's rules.

Understand, if you ask editors, they'll say the Publisher is god.

It's not a monotheism.

pax / Ctein

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