Elizabeth Svoboda reviews Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion: Animals and the Uniqueness of Human Language by Stephen R. Anderson, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Alex, an African Grey parrot, knows what he wants and intends to get it. “Want nut!” he squawks at his scientist owner, Irene Pepperberg. Before he can get his reward, though, he has to perform a task. “What matter?” Pepperberg asks Alex, showing him a cloth ball. “Wool,” he answers correctly — he can also identify wood, plastic, metal and paper — then munches on his requested treat. Unlike some parrots with a vast capacity for mimicry, Alex has a “vocabulary” of only about 100 words, but he has an important cognitive advantage: He actually seems to know what he’s talking about. Watching Alex and Pepperberg interact, it’s easy to conclude that the parrot, like Hugh Lofting’s Gub-Gub the pig or Jip the dog, has mastered the fundamentals of human language.
Not so fast, says Stephen R. Anderson, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Yale University.