Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/August 1893/Studies of Animal Speech

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1217781Popular Science Monthly Volume 43 August 1893 — Studies of Animal Speech1893Edward Payson Evans




AUGUST, 1893.


By Prof. E. P. EVANS.

THE enthusiasm with which Mr. Garner has devoted himself to the study of simian speech, and the general interest excited by his discoveries, naturally suggest a comparison of his investigations with those of his predecessors in this department of linguistic research. Perhaps the most serious and scientific attempt of this kind was made nearly a century ago by Gottfried Immanuel Wenzel, who published at Vienna, in 1808, a volume of 216 pages entitled Neue auf Vernunft und Erfahrung gegründete Entdeckungen über die Sprache der Thiere (New Discoveries concerning the Language of Animals, based on Reason and Experience), in which he maintained that the lower animals are capable of expressing their thoughts and emotions by means of articulate sounds, and that these utterances are not only intelligible to their kind, but may also be understood by man, indicated by alphabetical signs, and thus reduced to writing. He made a list of the sounds uttered by thirty different birds and beasts, and prepared a dictionary of more than twenty pages, to which he added a number of translations from animal into human speech. These so-called translations are very free, and give merely a paraphrastic statement of what he supposes to be the significance of certain canine and feline tones, the versions being confined to his interpretations of the colloquies of cats and dogs. As an illustration of his proficiency in this language and the practical value of such

I knowledge, he relates an incident, which sounds as though it might belong to the ancient and fabulous literature known to the Germans as Jãgerlatein, or hunters' Latin. He once went to visit a friend, who was a great huntsman, but on learning that he had gone out with his gun waited for him to return; meanwhile he took a book and sat down under a tree near a pen in which some foxes were confined. Suddenly he heard them utter certain sounds which according to his vocabulary were expressive of surprise and joy, and after listening for a time came to the conclusion that the foxes had discovered some means of escape and were exulting over the prospect of regaining their freedom. When the hunter returned, Wenzel informed him of what he had heard and advised him to look into the matter, but was only laughed at for his credulity and assured that the pen was perfectly secure. They went into the house, where they were taking some refreshments and talking about other affairs, when a servant rushed in greatly excited and announced that the foxes had escaped.

Wenzel admits that the language of animals is extremely simple and limited, and consequently monotonously repetitious; the same combination of sounds uttered with a stronger or weaker intonation serves to denote a variety of mental states and must be largely supplemented by lively pantomime. In conclusion, he has eighteen pages of what he calls an "animal pathognomic-mimetic alphabet," showing the value and function of each part of the physical organism, from the teeth to the tail, as a vehicle of expression. Dogs and cats fairly bristle with strong emotions, and birds show their ruffled feelings in their feathers and wax eloquent with their wings. Wenzel is convinced that every species of animal has its own dialect, which is to be regarded as a modification of the common or generic language of the race to which it belongs. Thus he seems to think that the zebra would understand the ass more readily than the horse, because the first two are more closely affiliated, although all three are endowed with equine speech. The same principle applies to the different varieties of the domestic hog in relation to other suilline quadrupeds.

As an example of the extent to which animals may acquire a knowledge of human speech he prints a communication from a clergyman who had taught his dog to fetch books from his library in an adjoining room. "Fido," he would say, "on the table near the window are a quarto, an octavo, and a duodecimo; go and get the quarto." Fido never failed to bring the volume designated. He had trained the dog to perform this service by showing him a book and saying very distinctly and repeatedly quarto, octavo, or duodecimo, and then laying it down in the library and making him fetch it. In the same manner the dog was taught to bring many other objects, the names of which he seldom confounded or misunderstood. The clever animal could also be sent on errands.

"Fido," the clergyman would say, "go to Mr. B. and tell him that I shall call upon him to-day." Thereupon Fido ran to Mr. B.'s house and on finding him gave three short barks, which were perfectly intelligible to the person thus addressed. If any one called when the clergyman was out, Fido barked once; and he did the same if his master did not wish to be disturbed and bade him tell the caller that he was not at home. He announced a visitor by scratching on the door and barking twice. A Bavarian family at Munich has a dog that deems it highly improper for gentlemen to wear their hats in the house, but is sufficiently gallant not to find fault with ladies for doing so. An American, who wished to test the animal's discriminating sense of the fitness of things in this respect, entered the room and sat down with his hat on. The dog looked at him disapprovingly for a moment and then began to bark, with eyes intently fixed upon the hat. As the unmannerly visitor continued the conversation without paying any attention to these admonitions, the dog sprang up and, seizing the hat by the brim, pulled it off and quietly laid it on a chair.

Wenzel also tells the story of a dog whom his master used to send to the market for meat, and who would stand before the kind of meat he was instructed to get, beef, mutton, or veal, and bark once, twice, or thrice, according to the number of pounds desired. The butcher filled the order, and the dog trotted home with his purchase and the cheerful consciousness of having done his duty. Wenzel's little book is full of interesting anecdotes illustrating his subject, and has a frontispiece representing a landscape, resembling the traditional pictures of the garden of Eden found in old Bibles, with an ape, a dog, a horse, and a bull in the foreground, and the legend underneath: "They do not lie; their speech is truth."

The French physicist, R. Radeau, in a work on acoustics, published in 3869, treats incidentally of the language of animals, which he thinks one could, by careful observation, learn to understand and even to speak with fluency. Mersenne, in his Harmonie Universelle, asserts that men speak from a volitional impulse and utter vocal sounds in the exercise of a power of the mind which they are free not to exercise unless they choose to do so, whereas the lower animals use their voices under the influence of natural necessity, howling, shrieking, singing, etc., because under the circumstances they can not do otherwise, being subject to forces which they are absolutely unable to resist. The vexed question of the freedom or necessity of the will in human action, which metaphysics has vainly endeavored to solve, has been reopened by natural science and evolutionary biology and is now discussed on a broader basis and with the prospect of positive result. What Iever may be the final issue of these investigations, it is certain that the old Cartesian distinction between man and brute in this respect can no longer be maintained. Radeau is right in rejecting Mersenne's theory as involving a too subtile psychological distinction and in declaring that his doctrine of natural necessity might be applied with equal force to many an inveterate gabbler who can not hold his tongue.

In this connection he relates the following anecdote on the authority of Jules Richard: In 1857 this gentleman had occasion to visit a sick friend in a hospital, where he made the acquaintance of an old official of the institution from the south of France, who was exceedingly fond of animals, his love of them being equaled only by his hatred of priests; he claimed also to be perfectly familiar with the languages of cats and dogs, and to speak the language of apes even better than the apes themselves. Jules Richard received this statement with an incredulous smile, whereupon the old man, whose pride was evidently touched by such skepticism, invited him to come the next morning to the zoological garden. "I met him at the appointed time and place," says Mr. Richard, "and we went together to the monkeys' cage, where he leaned on the outer railing and began to utter a succession of guttural sounds, which alphabetical signs are scarcely adequate to represent—'Kirruu, kirrikiu, kuruki, kirikiu'—repeated with slight variations and differences of accentuation. In a few minutes the whole company of monkeys, a dozen in number, assembled and sat in rows before him with their hands crossed in their laps or resting on their knees, laughing, gesticulating, and answering." The conversation continued for a full quarter of an hour, to the intense delight of the monkeys, who took a lively part in it. As their interlocutor was about to go away, they all became intensely excited, climbing up on the balustrade and uttering cries of lamentation; when he finally departed and disappeared more and more from their view, they ran up to the top of the cage and clinging to the frieze made motions as if they were bidding him good-by. It seemed, adds Mr. Richard, as though they wished to say, "We are sorry to part and hope to meet again, and if you can't come, do drop us a line!"

No one who has observed the actions and listened to the utterances of a clever parrot will accept Mersenne's assertion that the exercise of the vocal organs of animals is not free, but subject to natural and irresistible necessity, or that speech is in a greater degree the product of inevitable causation in the mouth of the cockatoo than in that of the cockney. Humboldt states that, after the Aturians on the Orinoco had become extinct, the only creature that could speak their language was a very aged parrot, condemned by adverse fortune to spend the remnant of its days in comparative solitude as the sad survivor of a once powerful tribe. From a philological point of view, the venerable bird was as interesting a character as the old Cornish woman with whose decease, some years ago, the dialect of her people ceased to be a spoken tongue. It is also a historical fact that when, in 1509, the Spanish freebooters Nicuesa and Ojeda wished to surprise the village of Yurbaco, on the Isthmus of Darien, in order to capture a cargo of slaves, the vigilant parrots in the tops of the trees announced the approach of the enemy, and thus enabled the inhabitants to escape.

Perhaps the most cultivated and certainly the most celebrated parrot of which we have any record belonged from 1830 to 1840 to a canon of the cathedral of Salzburg, named Hanikl, who gave the bird regular instruction twice a day, from nine to ten in the morning and from ten to eleven in the evening. The parrot made rapid progress in the development of its mental faculties, and soon showed what a remarkable degree of intelligence it is possible for such a creature to attain under systematic tuition. The sayings and doings of this parrot which lived fourteen years after Hanikl's death and died in 1854, have been reported by a number of careful and competent observers and are unquestionably authentic. One day, as some one entered the room, it cried out in a harsh tone, "Where do you come from?" On seeing that the person was an ecclesiastical dignitary, it added, apologetically: "Oh, I beg pardon of your Grace; I thought it was a bird." It took part in general conversation, and was sometimes so loquacious that it had to be told to stop; it was also fond of talking to itself, and imagining all sorts of exciting scenes: "Beat me, will you? Beat me, will you? Oh, you rascal! Yes, yes, that's the way of the world." It whistled tunes and sang various popular songs, and even learned an entire aria from Flotow's opera of Martha.

A parrot of the same species (Psittacus erithacus), ash-gray, with scarlet-red tail, is now in the possession of M. Nicaise, a member of the Anthropological Society of Paris. This bird is nearly fifty years of age, and endowed with wonderful versatility of intellect. It imitates to perfection all the calls and cries of the street, and when in 1870 it was sent away from the beleaguered city into the country, it came back with its repertory immensely enlarged, having learned to reproduce the whistle of the quail, the hoot of the owl, the merry scream of the magpie, the crow of the cock, the cluck of the hen, and the tones of a great variety of wild birds and domestic fowls and quadrupeds. One of its histrionic masterpieces is the phonetic representation of the killing of a pig which it witnessed nearly a quarter of a century ago, but of which it has not forgotten a single characteristic grunt or squeal. Nothing is omitted, from the deep gutturals, alternating with piercing shrieks, as the porker is dragged to the place of slaughter, to the last faint groan of the dying animal. Indeed, the reproduction of the scene is so intolerably realistic, that the persons present are fain to stop their ears and to bid the bird keep silence. It listens attentively to any conversation that is going on, and expresses its approval or astonishment by exclaiming "Oh!" or "Ah!" and always at the appropriate time or place. If any one tells a funny story or gets off a joke, it laughs with the rest of the company, although this outburst of merriment is doubtless due, not so much to a humorous appreciation of what is said, as to the contagion of the general hilarity. When it wants something, it calls its mistress by her Christian name, Marie, and, if she does not come at once, calls her again with a sharp tone of impatience. Once, when a firebrand fell on the hearth and filled the room with smoke, it cried, "Marie! Marie!" in a voice indicating extreme anxiety and alarm. This parrot is a provident creature, and when taking its dinner always lays aside a piece of bread and jam for its supper, thus showing that it has the power of looking before and after, which Shakespeare deems a peculiarly human attribute. It not only sings songs correctly, but also inprovises musical compositions, which it renders each time with new variations, and performs, as M. Nicaise assures us, "with a taste and style and spirit that might excite the envy of any pupil of the conservatory." The fact that these pieces invariably close on the tonic or keynote proves that all the modulations are referred to the fundamental tone of the chord, and gives evidence of a musical feeling and sense of harmony such as only human beings are usually supposed to possess. These improvisations are whistled, and sound as though they were played by a flute, the performance being uniformly preluded with runs and trills and other vocalizations.

The parrot is an exception to the rule that the period of infancy is longest in the most intelligent creatures. Its babyhood is, in fact, very short, although its average life seems to be somewhat longer than that of a man. It attains the full splendor of its plumage and is pubescent at the early age of two, and often survives all the members of the human family in which it has been reared, outliving even the children much younger than itself. During all this time it retains its mental plasticity and progressiveness, never ceases to learn, and goes on developing its inborn capacities from the beginning to the end of its prolonged existence. It is quite as inquisitive as the monkey, and quite as capable of close and continued observation. Merely through its association with man it is constantly making new acquisitions of knowledge, and there is no telling what might not be accomplished in this direction by systematic instruction carried on through successive generations.

If Mr. Garner's object had been to ascertain how far animals can acquire the use of human speech and what effect such discipline would have in enlarging their intellectual faculties, he would have done better to choose parrots instead of monkeys for his experiments; but as his purpose is to learn the langnage of animals, and not to teach them his own, he has done well to select apes as the objects of his study. It must be confessed, however, that the results of his investigations, embodied in his volume recently published, are rather disappointing, and are, in fact, less comprehensive, although doubtless more accurate, than the observations made by Wenzel at the beginning of the present century. He is prone to lay great stress upon matters that are really of no importance whatever, as, for example, when he discovers that "No," accompanied by a shake of the heads is the sign of negation, and adds, "The fact that this sign is common to both man and simian I regard as more than a mere coincidence, and I believe that in this sign I have found the psycho-physical basis of expression." It is difficult to perceive how a logical thinker could draw such a sweeping conclusion from so slight premises. If he finds that gorillas and chimpanzees in their native wilds, unaffected by human associations, express dissent by shaking their heads and shouting "No!" it will be a fact well worth recording.

Mr. Garner's superiority to his predecesssors in this department of linguistic research consists in the greater excellence of his material rather than of his mental equipment. The possession of the phonograph alone gives him an immense advantage in this respect, by enabling him to record and to repeat the utterances of monkeys with perfect accuracy. Armed with this scientific weapon of phonetic precision and all the instruments and appliances which modern invention has placed at his disposal, he may perhaps completely conquer a province of investigation hitherto but partially explored, and, by making important contributions to zooglottology and working out a system of alphabetical signs for the language of the anthropoid race, become the Cadmus of the simian world.

A Bengali in India has made a contribution toward the expenses of a "snake laboratory" which it is proposed to establish in Calcutta. The work of the establishment will include the scientific examination of supposed cures for snake-bite, and the investigation of the properties of the snake poison. The laboratory will be the only institution of its kind in the world.

The expedition of Sir William Macgregor to Mount Owen Stanley in New Guinea found a remarkable native bridge spanning the Vanapa River, It is a woven bridge, suspended from trees on each bank, and is similar in every respect to the bridges built by the Malays of Sumatra and the Dyaks of Borneo. The view of it given in Mr. J. P. Thomson's British New Guinea shows it to be au elegant and picturesque structure.