By Jeffrey Nelson
Sometimes our dogs' ability to 'get' what we're saying is uncanny. Although it's difficult to say with precision what they really understand, it's clear our canine companions are pretty good with simple commands, word-sound associations, and even fairly nuanced vocabulary sequences.
Does this mean the smartest dog breeds are capable of using language? If Fido had the vocal chords, could he learn to make friendly conversation with the humans around him? In theory at least, one could be led to believe that Chaser the border collie might be able to. This extraordinary pooch is owned by John W. Pilley, a retired psychologist from Wofford University who has appeared in media outlets showing off his 9-year-old collie's ability to respond to more than 1,000 commands.
Pilley and Chaser's media appearances draw on the psychologist's research, in which he hypothesizes the dog's ability to learn new words is the result of referential understanding, not merely association. Having confirmed the hypothesis, Pilley and his partners go on to conclude that the collie's level of cognition demonstrates a rudimentary ability to learn language—comparable to the linguistic intelligence of a human toddler.
Is it true? Is Chaser using language to comprehend, if not speak about things and events? Pilley says yes. After all, Chaser has learned words that represent many different parts-of-speech—proper nouns and common nouns, verbs, prepositions, adverbs and adjectives. He can even learn word order, and switch it up.
The comparison to a human toddler is problematic, however. Toddlers are beginning to master not just words, or even parts-of-speech, but grammar. By the time we're about 2, we have already developed a crude ability to process, learn, and perform language using grammar. But what exactly is grammar?
If language is a game, 'grammar' refers to the rules. Think of a board game. Dogs, including smaller dog breeds as well as larger ones, can learn to recognize the pieces, name them, group them, track their behaviors and anticipate their next moves. But grammar is about knowing the rules of the game. It's an orderly set of rules for efficiently matching word-sounds to socially shared meanings. It's a sophisticated system of codes by which we parse the contents of our minds.
Parts-of-speech are certainly the conceptual building blocks of grammar. Chaser's thoughtful discrimination between 'nouns' and 'verbs'—things and actions—does imply the existence of canine concepts and referential learning. But parts-of-speech are just the beginning. Grammar involves much more than the recognition of the categories we call 'parts-of-speech.' To utilize grammar, the brain needs to be able to spontaneously manipulate those parts-of-speech according to a fixed set of rules, matching imagined, yet shared meanings with patterned sets of sounds.
As Pilley points out, most dogs are capable of referential and conceptual cognition. And it is true that the basic building blocks of grammar, words, also function as the basic building blocks of cognition. But beyond this area of overlap, humans leave dogs in the dust.
Language is not just about having a big vocabulary or a complex enough grouping of concepts, or the ability to perceive and imitate. Each of these is a conceptual ability, not a linguistic one.
Concepts, and groups of concepts, are a sign of intelligence, but it's what you do with them that defines language. Wielding the abstract toolkit of grammar, people can speak without waiting for cause or reward, spontaneously join in complex conversations with one another without undergoing training, express the contents of our imagination, and contemplate things we have never touched, seen, felt, or even heard of.
We can encode meanings from even the most abstract and hypothetical concepts into a set of sound patterns others understand on the fly. These are the impressive features of language. Unfortunately, Chaser cannot compete at this level.
Every species on the planet has the ability to communicate, one way or another. Some, such as dogs and humans, can conceptualize the means of communication, too. But ultimately, only human beings can freely take those concepts, translate them into sounds, talk about them and make new ones on a whim, creatively defying the bounds of conditioning and context whenever we feel like it. Grammatical language is the tool we use to make it happen.