Spontaneous Imitation of Human Speech

Lately, there have been a string of news articles regarding animals imitating human speech sounds. First, there was an account of the nine year-old beluga whale named NOC who was recorded making unusually low, clipped bursts of noise. Then, today, news from the University of Vienna was reported of an asian elephant named Koshik using his trunk to imitate Korean words.  Koshik does attempt to match both the pitch and timbre of the human voice, though the researchers doubt there is any meaningfulness to his phrases beyond an attempt at social affiliation.

The more interesting aspect of NOC’s speech is that, unlike the dolphins that are trained to imitate human noises or computer generated whistles, it is the first recorded spontaneous imitation of human speech. Similarly, the marine animals previously studied were raised primarily in captivity. NOC is not only a wild beluga whale, but his speech was also recorded in the wild. The study,  published in Current Biology, can be found here (only the abstract is available for free).





Sam Ridgway, Donald Carder, Michelle Jeffries, Mark Todd. Current Biology – 23 October 2012 (Vol. 22, Issue 20, pp. R860-R861)

Angela S. Stoeger, Daniel Mietchen, Sukhun Oh, Shermin de Silva, Christian T. Herbst, Soowhan Kwon, W. Tecumseh Fitch. “An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech.” Current Biology, 2012; DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.022

What Does It Mean To Mean?

I’ve been agonizing somewhat over what to write as my first post. I am currently delving into the wonderful word of pragmatics via a graduate seminar at the University of Virginia, but I do not yet feel proficient enough to comment on the complex philosophical theories that I am reading. So, I am going to briefly present an overview of what I will be attempting to accomplish in my year-and-a-half long thesis project. Upcoming entries will most likely be related to this topic, similar topics, and research done that bears on the outcome of my investigation.

I recently was watching a debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the nature of the human species and its origin. To no one’s surprise, language was brought up when discussing human origins.  Specifically, recursive, productive language as a distinguishing marker of the human species. What may seem obvious to the evolutionary linguists here actually came with some interesting problems, from a biological perspective. As Dawkins discusses in the debate, evolution is rather difficult for the animal kingdom. Whereas for plants, there may be distinct moments at which one can point and say “Here is when a new species emerged!”, this identifiable moment is less overt for animals.  One key problem with determining the exact moment of a new species’ emergence is the question of interbreeding.

If we consider the development of a language (a system of communication with the aforementioned characteristics) to be a marker of the human species, then do we suppose at one point we have a child emerging with the ability to form a language with mute or animalistic parents? To whom would the child speak? If Dawkins is correct and language is partially rooted in a specific gene, we could theorize that the “first” human with the gene would thereby mate with proto-humans lacking the gene. All of this is, of course, very sketchy and difficult to elucidate, as even the theory that language is rooted in a gene can be disputed. The problem remains an integral one, not only for understanding the evolutionary origins, but as the philosophers in my pragmatics class would point out, it would also have significant bearing on ontological and ethical questions regarding human origins.

I do not hope to solve this entire issue in my senior thesis; however, I do hope to show the development of language less as a suddenly produced trait and more as a gradual process from a less developed system of communication to a more developed one. From a pragmatics point of view, the question might be, how do we jump the gap, so to speak, between the lesser developed systems of communication (conventionally, these include animal communication, natural meaning, etc.) and the fully fledged unique system of human language? Paul Grice, as one might discover in my handy dandy Wikipedia link above, proposed a distinction between natural meaning, which he defined as being a cause/effect indication and considered in terms of its factivity, and non-natural meaning, as a communicative action that must be considered in terms of the speaker’s intentions. Yet, as stated above, the question remains: how do we (evolutionarily) progress from natural meaning to non-natural meaning?

Not to overly simplify, but my answer rests in the question of what it means to mean something. I hope to show, in my subsequent posts, that an investigation into semantics, and, more specifically, a natural progression through a hierarchy of types of meaning, might shed light on this problem. In short, taking a look at the development of meaning, intent, and the qualifications for a language proper can shed light on how language developed into the complex, unique phenomenon we study today.  (Oh, and to satisfy the philosophers in my class, I may ramble occasionally about the implications for a philosophical conception of our species!)