Perhaps it's a recent rewatching of Galaxy Quest or the recent release of The Invention of Lying (which I haven't seen yet), but it struck me when reading about deciphering the language of chimps that scientists figure out vocabulary from long, hard observation, but test usage mainly by telling whoppers--"Look! A cheetah!" It won't be long before Campbell's monkeys develop a new suffix that means, "according to the jerk."


Grendel said...

Without a Rosetta Stone, we can't even decipher ancient human languages. How do they possibly expect to know what monkeys are saying (or elephants or bees or birds or whales, etc.) unless they have identical brain structures and sense organs? Look, even if you met a Pygmy and he didn't know English, you'd think at most that he was maybe "chattering" about food, hunting, etc. -- in fact that's what scientists thought for centuries when they found new populations. It's hubris and prejudice. I feel there's a failure of imagination when I read stuff like this. Of course animals communicate, all the time. Go stand by a tree in summer -- what in the world are those birds doing if not having a daylong gabfest? It's just not in the same way we do, with our particular meat and wind apparatus. So we say, eh, they don't have language. In all likelihood, the hell they don't. We just don't understand it.

HGF said...

Right. The way insects can communicate through smell--what kind of grammar does that have?! Or the increasing (and baffling) evidence for "hive minds" like the ant cities built with ventilation systems that suggest ants get "smarter" the more of them there are. There's evidence that plants use chemicals to communicate with one another. Self-reflexive "language" as we understand it? That would indeed be too narrow a way to think about it. I think articles like this, in their defense, also show how much we really would like to reach out. Scientific methods, however, may not be well suited to the desire.