Monday, May 22, 2006

On Animals and Language: My Multi-lingual Canary

Dogs by the hundred dwell in the high-rise, Communist-era apartment buildings that line Pyshkinskaya, the pedestrian boulevard which bisects our city. I live on Pyshkinskaya myself and enjoy observing the poodles, chihuahuas, dachshunds, German shepherds, rottweilers and bull dogs out with their owners taking care of personal business in the mornings. In the evenings, the dog crowd shares the boulevard with the baby buggy brigade as folks parade until dusk with their little ones, both the four-footed and two-legged varieties.

I notice that the dogs understand Russian. The owner says “syest” and the dog sits.

“Sta-YAT” and the dog stays.

“Ko mne” and the dog goes to the owner. On a good day, anyway.

That got me thinking about animals and their understanding human language. By the way, the average dog understands 165 words, a quick Google search showed. But I’m wondering if the owner were to give a Russian-trained dog the commands in English if the animal would understand. I’m wondering, is it the word itself that the dog comes to understand? Or does the dog understand the word in combination with intonation, particular gestures or the situation?

* * * * *

Actually, I’m more interested in my own pets, Sunny the canary and Kesha the cockatiel. I like to think that they are multi-lingual. I base that on some quasi-scientific experiments I’ve conducted with Sunny.

I say “Good morning,” and he chirps a greeting.

“DO-broy OOT-rah,” and he responds to the Russian.

Today I added Greek to the mix. “KAL-i MER-a,” and he answered.

I like to think he understands. I have yet to test his response to Turkish or perhaps Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, I have yet to test his response to “Today you will be fed to a cat” in any language. (Perish the thought!)

Languages and animals: Maybe someday we’ll understand each other perfectly. In the meantime, there’s some sort of understanding.

“Sunny, heel!"

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