Saturday, August 3, 2013

Prairie Dog Grammar

“Biologist Constantin Slobodchikoff, in his twenty years of researching communication patterns among prairie dogs, has proven that they have the most sophisticated animal language decoded so far. Not only do sentinel prairie dogs warn the colony of impending danger from a predator, they have different calls for different species of predator, be it a badger, a red-tailed hawk, or an eagle. They can incorporate descriptive information about the individual predator including size, color and how fast they are traveling.

Focusing primarily on Gunnison’s prairie dogs near Flagstaff, Arizona, he has also found variations within prairie dog speech – call them dialects – that differ from region to region.  But studies have shown that they do understand one other. Their use of language includes not only nouns, but modifiers, and the ability to coin new words. To date, one hundred words have been identified among Gunnison’s prairie dogs. And now, with the use of advanced technology, Dr. Slobodchikoff is in the process of deconstructing prairie dog grammar. “A short chirp, about a tenth of a second, is analogous to a sentence or paragraph… If we dissect the chirp into a bunch of different time slices, each slice has some specific information in it. Time slices become words and the assemblage of an idea appears.

"...One of my Ph D students did a comparative study of the alarm calls of all five species of prairie dogs, calling for her when she was wearing a yellow shirt or a green one. All fives species had distinctly different calls for the two colors of shirts. Also, each species had different vocalizations for each color, suggesting that each species has its own language, but the languages differs from one another, much as German, French and English differ."

Page 54, ‘Finding Beauty in a Broken World’, Terry Tempest Williams

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