Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Streams of sound

Even though it's not the area of linguistics I concentrated on, I've always been fascinated with phonetics -- the sound repertoire of languages.  There's more variation in language phonetics than a lot of people realize.  The language with the smallest phonemic inventory seems to be Rotokas, spoken on the island of Bougainville (east of Papua-New Guinea), which has only eleven distinct sounds.  The Khoisan language ǃXóõ, spoken in parts of Botswana and Namibia, is probably the highest, with around a hundred (depending on how finely you slice them), including twenty or so "click consonants" and four different tones (i.e., speaking a vowel with a rising or a falling tone can change the meaning of the word -- a characteristic it shares with Thai, Mandarin, and Vietnamese, and to a lesser extent, Swedish and Norwegian).

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Snow white1991, Phonetic alphabet, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The result is that languages have a characteristic sound pattern that can be picked up even if you don't speak the language.  Check out this video from a few years ago, illustrating how American English sounds to a non-English-speaker:

Then, there's the song "Prisencolinensinainciusol," written by Italian singer Adriano Celentano -- which uses gibberish lyrics with American English phonetics to create a pop song that doesn't make sense -- but to an English-speaking American, sure sounds like it should:

What brings this topic up is some research out of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest that appeared in the journal NeuroImage this week, that looked at how dogs hear human language.  We can identify the phonemic repertoire of languages we're familiar with, even if we don't speak them.  Can dogs?

Turns out, amazingly, the answer is yes.

"Some years ago I moved from Mexico to Hungary to join the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University for my postdoctoral research," said lead author, neuroscientist Laura Cuaya.  "My dog, Kun-kun, came with me.  Before, I had only talked to him in Spanish.  So I was wondering whether Kun-kun noticed that people in Budapest spoke a different language, Hungarian.  We know that people, even preverbal human infants, notice the difference.  But maybe dogs do not bother.  After all, we never draw our dogs' attention to how a specific language sounds.  We designed a brain imaging study to find this out."

What they did was to use fMRI technology to look at the brain activity in the primary and secondary auditory cortexes (the main parts of the brain involved in the recognition and processing of sounds) of the brains of seventeen dogs, including Kun-Kun.  First, they compared the response the dogs had to language vs. non-language -- the latter being just random strings of phonemes.  Turns out, dogs can tell the difference, giving lie to the old claim that you can say damn near anything to a dog and as long as you say it in a pleasant tone, they won't be able to tell.

Then, they compared the response the dogs had to speech in the language they were familiar with, and speech in an unfamiliar language -- and it turns out dogs can distinguish those, as well.  So it's not the "naturalness" of the sound flow, which might have been the issue with the nonsense phonemic strings in the first experiment.  But somehow, dogs are picking up on the overall sound pattern of the language, and can tell the one they're familiar with from ones that are unfamiliar, even if the words and sentences they're hearing are ones they've never heard before.

"This study showed for the first time that a non-human brain can distinguish between two languages," said Attila Andics, senior author of the study.  "It is exciting, because it reveals that the capacity to learn about the regularities of a language is not uniquely human.  Still, we do not know whether this capacity is dogs’ specialty, or general among non-human species.  Indeed, it is possible that the brain changes from the tens of thousand years that dogs have been living with humans have made them better language listeners, but this is not necessarily the case.  Future studies will have to find this out."

So your ability to identify spoken languages based upon how they sound, even if you don't understand the words, is shared by dogs.  Makes you wonder what else they understand.  I've had the impression before that when my dog Guinness gives me his intent stare and head-tilt when I'm talking to him, it's because he is really trying to understand what I'm saying, and maybe that's not so far from the truth.  If so, I'm going to be more careful what I say around him.  He already gets away with enough mischief as it is.


One of my favorite writers is the inimitable Mary Roach, who has blended her insatiable curiosity, her knowledge of science, and her wonderfully irreverent sense of humor into books like Stiff (about death), Bonk (about sex), Spook (about beliefs in the afterlife), and Packing for Mars (about what we'd need to prepare for if we made a long space journey and/or tried to colonize another planet).  Her most recent book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, is another brilliant look at a feature of humanity's place in the natural world -- this time, what happens when humans and other species come into conflict.

Roach looks at how we deal with garbage-raiding bears, moose wandering the roads, voracious gulls and rats, and the potentially dangerous troops of monkeys that regularly run into humans in many places in the tropics -- and how, even with our superior brains, we often find ourselves on the losing end of the battle.

Mary Roach's style makes for wonderfully fun reading, and this is no exception.  If you're interested in our role in the natural world, love to find out more about animals, or just want a good laugh -- put Fuzz on your to-read list.  You won't be disappointed.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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