What Did You Say?

April 9, 2008 at 10:22 pm 3 comments

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has studied the links between brain structure and function including the phenomena of synesthesia where people experience sensations such as seeing tastes or hearing colors. He proposed that language may have evolved from cross-activation of adjacent sense and data processing areas in the brain.

Humans innately recognize properties that senses such as sound and sight or touch and taste have in common. The common characteristics, such as the sharp sound quality of a word — and the jagged shape that that sound evokes have been studied in the ‘bouba/kiki effect.’ The bouba/kiki effect is based on the results of an experiment where two abstract shapes, one blobby and the other spiky, were shown to people who were then asked to relate the nonsense words bouba and kiki to the shapes. People consistently (95 to 98% of the time) described the blobby shape as bouba and the spiky shape as kiki.

In an interesting parallel, the author of this website proposes that testing non-hearing people would likely provide similar results.  The author noted that when he finger-spelled the visual-phonetic words bouba and kiki in manual alphabet, he discovered that the hand-shapes for K and I are angular and sharp and the hand-shapes for B and O are round and soft. 

Ramachandran proposes that human language may have evolved through this cross-wiring of sensory information in three steps.  First meaningful synesthetic correspondence between sound and vision are recorded in memory.  Second, in a sort of mimicry we imitate the sound relation with our mouths to express an idea of the visual relation.  Third, body language and hand gestures could be linked to the tongue, lip and mouth movements.  These three systems may have worked together synergistically to create primitive language.

A study conducted at the Department of Ethology, Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary found that humans were able to accurately categorize recorded dog barks according to emotional context. The study reported that acoustic parameters including tonality pitch and inter-bark time intervals were the key factors used by human listeners in assessing the meaning of the barks.

According to the study, the emotional content of the barks could be described by Morton’s structural–acoustic rules. Low-pitched barks were generally described as aggressive and high-pitched barks were described as either fearful or desperate.  

Morton hypothesized that low-pitched and atonal sounds signal aggressive intent and that high-pitched and tonal sounds signal friendly or submissive intentions.  His basic argument was that larger bodied animals emit lower frequency sounds and young or small-bodied animals emit higher pitched sounds.  This allows the animals hearing the sounds to predict the size (and general degree of threat) of the animal making the sounds. 

We communicate with our dogs using a combination of all of our senses. Both humans and dog place emphasis on body and facial signals and, though sound is important, it is not the key factor in our interspecies communication.  Through thousands of years of domestication, dogs have become sensitive to human communication signals. This process was aided by the dog’s acute senses.

In light of the ‘bouba/kiki effect’ I find it interesting to note that the words used for many commands that require a dog to pay attention and take quick action (sit, front, fetch – or Bam!) tend to be atonal and sharp-sounding; and the sounds we use when we want to slow or calm a dog (whoa, down, wait, stay) tend to be tonal, round-sounding words.

Many people yak at their dogs in endless, pointless syllables that encourage the dog to just tune them out.  Instead of chattering on in a constant, meaningless way to your dog, keep in mind that the words you use to communicate with him are important.

Say less to your dog.  Pay attention to the words and the tone you use.  Use words to create meaning in your dog’s life – don’t add to his confusion.

Entry filed under: animals, behavior science, dog, dog training, dogs, science. Tags: , , , .

Obedience and Etiquette How Smart is Your Dog?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jan  |  April 9, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    While I don’t babble endlessly to my dogs, I think it is important to have quiet conversations with them instead of always giving orders. Dogs, like human babies, learn words and concepts in a context. My dogs have strong verbal skills and can recognize a wide range of words, but I think it is because I talk to them and don’t treat them like mindless robots.

  • 2. SmartDogs  |  April 10, 2008 at 12:10 am

    But see, context is the key. If you are selective about what you say and how, the words become meaningful to the dog. If you just yak endlessly on and on about nothing (and I see a lot of people who do this), the dog (much like a husband 😉 learns to just tune you out.

  • 3. Fuzzy Logic  |  April 10, 2008 at 1:21 am


    I was in a class where this person just said ssssiiiiiiittt… siiiiitt.. like a question….

    instead of a short clipped sit!

    Incidentally, I dont’ believe that when we “chatter on” with our dogs that they tune us out…. when we NAG them, they wonder “when does she mean it?”

    I honestly believe that when we speak, we communicate intent. And, I don’t expect my spouse to tune me out either..
    maybe it’s the “yaking endlessly part” that I”m not doing

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Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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