Posted by: lcm | May 13, 2012

The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 2

The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 2:
Dog Linguistics and the Perception of Categories

Border collies like Scarlett are known for their linguistic skills as well as their extreme cuteness.

In my previous post, I wrote about a few of the many delights associated with the process of introducing undergraduate students to the discipline of linguistics. I observed that despite their overall tendency to acquire general linguistic terminology and the concepts they denote with admirable ease and considerable aplomb, a lot of the students find one key linguistic concept to be an ongoing source of torment, and that is The Phoneme.

I won’t go into the definition again here, so if you need a refresher, please refer to that previous post. I will say that a key theme of that post was that the definition and functions of The Phoneme tend to be difficult for students to get their heads around and that it takes considerable persistence over the course of an entire semester for everyone to get to where they feel OK about it. This difficulty is completely understandable. The idea of the phoneme was initially conceptualized by structural linguists and the definition is thus fluid, relational, and complicated.

On what is going to seem like but really isn’t a completely unrelated note, you’ve probably heard about this really smart dog from South Carolina, a border collie named Chaser, who in three years of training not only learned to understand over 1,000 English words but is also reported to be capable of referential understanding of the words. That means she actually demonstrates understanding of the connection between words and their real-life referents (i.e. she can connect a word with the thing it stands for), rather than merely processing the human articulation of a noun such as frisbee as a command to go get the object so named.

Now, understanding each one of 1,022 words as a distinct command to go get a specific object that is not any of another possible 1,021 objects would be pretty impressive in its own right, and it certainly demonstrates yet another way dogs are awesome. But for Chaser’s study (Pilley and Reid 2011) and similar experiments with other dogs, the researchers indicate that their primary interest is in what word-learning by dogs might help us to understand about processes of language evolution and of language acquisition in young children and about similarities and differences in human and animal communication. (I should note that I am far from convinced by the body of research on this topic that I have consulted so far that the real motivation isn’t just fascination with and love of dogs on the parts of the researchers, which motivation I completely understand and am very much in favor.)

Chaser’s most famous predecessors, border collies named Betsy and Rico, were also renowned for their large vocabularies. Rico could “quickly form rough hypotheses about the meaning of a new word after a single exposure by inferring that the new word is connected to an object he is seeing for the first time,” according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The researchers who worked with Rico, Kaminski, Call, and Fischer (2004), described what Rico was doing as “fast mapping,” which is essentially making educated guesses at meaning on the basis of context (which of course people do all the time). They say that Rico’s example could suggest that fast mapping, which some researchers believe is a key element in child language acquisition, is “mediated by general learning and memory mechanisms also found in other animals and not by a language acquisition device that is special to humans” (my emphasis, because damn). As AAAS explains, Rico’s achievements offer clear evidence that “the ability to understand sounds is not necessarily related to the ability to speak,” and even more intriguing, that his example suggests the possibility that “some aspects of speech comprehension evolved earlier than, and independent from, human speech.”

The beautiful and intelligent Betsy.

But these claims did not go unchallenged. For example, Bloom (2004) questions whether Rico really made a referential connection. He argues that the dog “might not understand reference at all and might be limited to associating the word spoken by the owner with a specific behavior” (Bloom 2004: 1604). In other words, Rico might have interpreted a given word as a command rather than as a name that refers to a specific object. Pilley and Reid (2011: 189) do a better job than I can explaining Bloom’s skepticism:

For example, when Rico was told to “fetch sock,” did Rico comprehend that the label “sock” referred to a specific object and separately comprehend that the word “fetch” meant that he should produce a specific behavior involving that specific object?

If Rico actually treated the label “sock” as a command to “fetch sock” only, then it would not be evidence that he understood reference. That is, Rico may not have understood that the label “sock” referred to a specific object, independent of a behavior directed toward the sock.

If so, then Rico’s word learning may have little to do with language learning as exhibited by humans. In essence, Bloom’s concern addresses the question as to whether Rico understood . . . that objects are independent in meaning from the activity requested [involving] that object.

The adorable and brilliant Rico.

In their work with Chaser, Pilley and Reid (2011) designed their experiments to address the kinds of questions raised by Bloom and others (see especially Markman and Abelev 2004) about whether dogs are actually capable of the kind of referential understanding that Kaminski, Call, and Fischer claim that Rico had demonstrated. The article is a fascinating and accessible read, and I encourage anyone who is interested to check it out in its entirety. In the meantime, their abstract will give you a good idea of what they were after and how they addressed questions such as those raised by Bloom and Markman and Abelev:

Four experiments investigated the ability of a border collie (Chaser) to acquire receptive language skills. Experiment 1 demonstrated that Chaser learned and retained, over a 3-year period of intensive training, the proper-noun names of 1022 objects.

Experiment 2 presented random pair-wise combinations of three commands and three names, and demonstrated that she understood the separate meanings of proper-noun names and commands. Chaser understood that names refer to objects, independent of the behavior directed toward those objects.

Experiment 3 demonstrated Chaser’s ability to learn three common nouns – words that represent categories. Chaser demonstrated one-to-many (common noun) and many-to-one (multiple-name) name–object mappings.

Experiment 4 demonstrated Chaser’s ability to learn words by inferential reasoning by exclusion – inferring the name of an object based on its novelty among familiar objects that already had names.

Together, these four experiments indicate that Chaser acquired referential understanding of nouns, an ability normally attributed to human children, which included: (a) awareness that words may refer to objects, (b) awareness of verbal cues that map words upon the object referent, and (c) awareness that names may refer to unique objects or categories of objects, independent of the behaviors directed toward those objects.

Pilley and Reid (2011)

Chaser has thus demonstrated not only that she is a very, very smart girl but also the referential understanding that was not conclusive in the earlier work with Rico. In other words, she has demonstrated that she understands the difference between a word that denotes an actual object and a command to go get the object.

Additionally and astonishingly, Chaser comprehends categories to which different objects belong. She knows that toy means any one of the 1,022 things she is allowed to play with (and has individual names for) but she also recognizes ball as a subcategory to which 116 of the toys belong (by virtue of their being spherical and bouncy), each also with its own individual and distinct name, and frisbee as another subcategory of 26 of the toys, each with “disk-like qualities” (Pilley and Reid 2011: 191) and an individual name. In other words, Chaser understands the 26 member-objects of the category frisbee as individual items with a certain level of distinction from one another but she also understands that all 26 frisbee objects are collectively distinct from all the other non-frisbee members of the category toys.

It is partly Chaser’s understanding of categories that got me thinking about whether dogs might be able to predict phonemic splits, which will be the topic of my next post, and partly my experience with Scarlett, my own adorable and astonishingly smart border collie, who responds to an array of verbal and non-verbal cues, most of which I am probably completely unaware although I am in awe of her just on the basis of the ones I am aware of.

And it is partly my recent exploration of The Phoneme, which we talk about in some ways as if it is a discrete unit of sound, except that it is complicated by the rest of its definition as “a class of speech sounds that a native speaker will identify as the same sound.” The multiplicity of different sounds that can belong to such a class and be close enough to one another so that speakers will mostly ignore the differences between them functions in some ways like the differences among the 26 objects that Chaser knows as members of the class frisbee. But sometimes a sound within a category actually sounds less like other members of its own class than like some sounds considered to be members of other classes, while it is unlikely that any but the most questionably labeled frisbee is going to be more like any ball than like any other frisbee. What I am saying, then, is that I think frisbee and ball are more discrete categories than, say, [Ι] and [i], the vowel sounds in the words sit and seat, respectively, but it’s still pretty awesome that dogs can understand such categories at all.

On that note, I am going to stop for now. But stay tuned for the gripping conclusion to what is going to have to be a trilogy because this post, part 2, is already up to 2,000 words, and there are still lingering questions about dogs, phonemes, and the arbitrariness of boundaries that have to be dealt with.

So join us next time for The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 3: Can Dogs Predict Phonemic Splits?

Chaser: brains and beauty.

Works Cited:

Bloom, Paul (2004). “Can a Dog Learn a Word?” Science 304, pp. 1605-06.

Kaminski, Juliane, Josep Call, and Julia Fischer (2004). “Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for ‘Fast Mapping’.” Science 304, pp. 1682–83.

Markman, Ellen M., and Maxim Abelev (2004). “Word Learning in Dogs?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8:11, pp. 479–480.

Pilley, John W., and Alliston K Reid (2011). “Border Collie Comprehends Object Names As Verbal Referents.” Behavioural Processes 86 (2011), pp. 184-95.


As always, the usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

The photo of Scarlett in this post is my original work and I own the copyright, so please do not use it without permission.

I hope National Geographic won’t mind the use of their cover photo of Betsy and that ABC News won’t mind the inclusion here of their picture of Chaser. The photo of Rico used here is all over the internet and I could not find its original source. I hope that none of these pictures will get me into trouble with the law and that if anyone knows the original source for the picture of Rico, they will let me know so that I can cite it.


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