Dogs and language, revisited

In an earlier post I argued that dogs understand words in much the same way as very small children do -- as symbolic sounds. By 'symbolic' I mean something a bit more sophisticated than merely associating sounds with phenomena: a bobcat could hear the shriek of a bird, for instance, and know that some other predator has got its dinner. A symbolic sound is not only artificial, in that there is no necessary connection between the particular sound and what it means, but it also has a certain 'shape' that is independent of individual pronunciations. This sounds a bit highflown but it isn't really: I'm just saying that dogs, like children, can recognize a word despite the many slight variations in sound that come when different people speak.

Certainly, my dog responds in the same way to the same words despite the fact that I have an English-American accent (more English in some respects and more American in others), while my husband is fully American. My pronunciation of 'water' is different from his. Other words that differ slightly include 'doggy', 'go', 'paw', and 'hurry' (I say HUH-ry; he says HER-y). Since I was responsible for most of Chummy's training -- I was at home during the day so it naturally fell to me -- I was also responsible for teaching her most of the words she knows. That means that she learned them by listening to my accent. Yet she had no difficulty in understanding the words as spoken by her other main human, even though his accent is very distinct from mine. His mother's New York accent is distinct from both of ours, in turn. But Chummy readily understands what is being said to her, regardless of who is saying it. And that suggests to me that she understands words as having a certain quality beyond mere intonation. The fact that words have an independence from any given speaker strikes me as a strikingly humanlike characteristic in dogs that are assumed to be not that clever about language. 

Flower... with flowers

Flower... with flowers