This place matters

This place matters

Thursday, September 29, 2011

If we could talk to the animals

Animals, as far as we know, don't have language. The jury is out for some people on whales... scientists have recorded whale sounds, studied them, and can't seem to figure out what the heck they're for. They make a wide variety of sounds, and some of them seem to be mating, some for echolocation but some, nobody's sure. Maybe they just like the sounds of their own voices. 
But I don't want to talk about whales. I want to talk about something closer to home - in my home, as a matter of fact. Cats. And dogs too. There are a couple of things I find intriguing about house pets when it comes to language. One is what they can say, the other is what they can understand.
So one lazy Saturday, Jeremy is chilling in bed, cuddling with Loki. Loki hops out of the bed and starts out of the room and Jeremy says "Loki, come back here, I wasn't done cuddling yet." And Loki got back in bed and commenced cuddling. I can't imagine Loki actually understood that whole sentence, or even anything other than his own name, but it was eerie and hilarious. We've never gotten him to do it again.
My cats know their own names. They will also occasionally respond to any of the many nicknames we've given them. Loki knows that sometimes he is called Walrus, and Puck knows that he is sometimes called Weasel. Loki has been known to come running to Tons o' Fun, proving I should never, ever have children. But I digress, as usual.
The average trained dog, according to How Stuff Works, can understand about 160 words. Let that sink in a minute. Folks with kids - at about what point did your kid understand 160 words? Chances are that for months and months, your kid was dumber than a dog. No offense. Jeremy says that the average dog has a bigger vocabulary than most of the football players at his high school. And two of the hundred or so words were de-fense
 One dog, called Rico, knows about 200 words. Crazier yet, Rico can use process of elimination to find an object. If you stick a bunch of items Rico knows the word for, plus a kumquat, for which Rico doesn't know the word, and then you tell Rico to get the kumquat, he comes back with the kumquat, because he knows what all the other things are, and none of them are kumquats. I mean, I don't know Rico personally, so it's possible Rico would just eat the kumquat, but you get the idea.
My in-laws' dog doesn't just know words like treat and squirrel. He knows light (he has a thing with lights. You can hand the dog a flashlight and he will amuse himself for ages just staring at the pool of light it makes). He knows "Grandma." He gets all excited when he gets to visit Grandma, because my grandma-in-law is awesome, and everybody should be excited when they get to visit her. Also, she usually has a ham bone for him. She's that kind of grandma. 
Once, I went to visit my best friend, who lived in Columbus at the time. I called her when I left Akron to tell her I was on my way and Jean announced to the dog, "Brigid's coming!" Jean didn't expect the dog to understand - the poor girl sat in the window wagging her tail for two hours. Jean tried seeing if "But she won't be here for two more hours" mean't anything to the dog. It did not. This is because, while dogs can learn the words for persons, places, and things, they can't learn abstract concepts like time and particle physics. Then again, I can't learn abstract concepts like time and particle physics. Seriously, ask me what time it will be in a half an hour. No clue. I have to count on my hands. 
But I find it weird that people say that animals can't talk. Cats can say they're scared, say they're going to cut someone, can say they're hungry, mad, annoyed, horny, bored, and can scold their children. My friends' dog makes this "sadsack" noise that sounds exactly like the noise I make in the same situations. Loki makes these creepily human moaning noises when he's enjoying petting, which may be a bad idea on his part, because I usually get creeped out and stop doing whatever it is that's making him make the noise. Okay, that's a lie, I just do it with a creeped out expression on my face.
In case you haven't seen enough pictures of my cats:


Bonnie Jacobs said...

Have you tried teaching the cats hand signals? My cat usually does look when I say her name -- looks to see if she like what I'm about to say. If I say, "Come with me," or if I simply wiggle my fingers in the "come" signal that you and I would understand, she either comes (into my lap, onto our bed, or into the kitchen for her food) or looks down at the floor to indicate "not interested." She definitely knows that word "treat" and listens carefully when I say "eat," just in case it's the better of the two words instead. You have a beautiful cat.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Puck actually knows a whole bunch of words because I've taught him tricks. He can even do them without the hand signals.
Neither of them know treat, oddly, although Loki comes running every time I tell Puck to do a trick because he assumes treats will be forthcoming.

The Vegetable Assassin said...

MORE! More pics of the cats! :)

All my pets have been geniuses I like to think. Cats know more than they let on. For example, they can stare haughtily at you when you say something it clearly DOES understand, but projects an aura of "I do not understand your inferior noises, human!", however, when those noises include words relating to food they understand THAT fast enough. Dogs know more and are too dumb in general to play games. You say words like "play", "park", "yard", "dinner", "out", "walk" etc., and they will bound around like lunatics till that word has been produced for them. It doesn't even matter the order the words are in. "Park the want you go to?" Same result. Idiots. :)