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It has been a long start to the long weekend; you learned this morning (via an email with the subject line: bad news) that the grant under which you are employed will not be renewed. After working for a year and a half, you’ve been given 7 days’ notice. 

Next, your GWR train to Glasgow stopped before it was fully out the station. It turned out a group of five cattle had escaped their paddock, were following the track north. Either they got out through the power of their friendship and were enacting some sort of Stand by Me-esque bovine pilgrimage to the nearest Aldi, or someone left the gate open. Regardless, the train in front minced all five. By the time you reached Banbury, pale commuters were comforting one another and warning you not to check out platform 3.

All the things that happened after sucked—suffocated vestibules, broken toilets, a station you were rushed out of, to let in “the man who shoots the pigeons”— but none of them were terrible (relative to preceding events).

The most recent, truly awful thing, to happen to you is taking place right now—you are standing on an indifferent platform in Preston Station and a little black spaniel is making unbreaking eye-contact with you as he pisses on your leg.

His owner is watching from the other end of too long a leash, saying nothing.

You understand dogs are capable of substantial language acquisition—according to an American Psychological Association article from 2009 (the first Google result), the average dog understands around 165 words, with those in the top 20% intelligence percentile capable of remembering 250. 

Surely the dog would understand if she told him to stop.

But what does it mean to understand a word?

On the most superficial level, you’d need a rough definition—some paraphrase of what you read the last time you Googled it that you can pull up if, for some reason, you’re asked to define it.

However, a definition relies on an understanding not just of other, contextualising, words, but of the framework and taxonomy of a language. Do spellings, synonyms, and etymologies play any active role in the meaning of a word, beyond what standardisation prescribes them?

Of course a dog cannot understand a word in this way. Its lexicon is limited and, without any means of sharing what it learns, it has no need to standardise.

By a similar token, we can rule out any form of written word to being essential to language acquisition or understanding, for a few reasons: dogs cannot read text; young children cannot read text; you cannot read text in the dark.

As such, we can understand the written word as more of an indicator of an indicator—a tiered lichen.

The written word is most like:




At only two years-old, the chewed brown shoes you’re wearing are the closest thing you have to professional footwear—without them, you will need to attend job interviews and DWP interrogations in birkenstocks and taped-up breadbags. Will the warm piss sphagnuming up from the insoles dissolve the stitching? Is dog piss acidic or alkali? What can ammonia do to a brogue?

Does the dog know these are from Clarks?

Is the citronella flicker off your leg, pooling round your pleather overnight bag, a form of radical fashion critique?

If taste is 90% smell, you’d think dogs would know how to express it.

Stanley Coren, Emory University psychologist, cowboy hat wearer, and recipient of the 2014 Maxwell Medal of Excellence from the Dog Writers Association of America for his blog, Canine Corner, who contributed the 165 figure you quoted earlier, might think so. According to his research, dogs are intelligent enough not only to understand words, but to deceive humans in pursuit of food, and even to spot errors in basic arithmetic.

You would love to know on what basis this last claim was made—did someone parade a whiteboard with 1+1=3 written on it round a kennel then notice the dogs go rabid, or is it total horseshit?

Given you will likely never be the sort of person to read a book with a title like What Do Dogs Know?, nor How to speak dog: Mastering the art of dog-human communication, nor The Wisdom of Dogs, nor Born to Bark: My Adventures with an Irrepressible and Unforgettable Dog, nor Do Dogs Dream? Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know, nor Why do dogs have wet noses?, nor even The Modern Dog, you will never know.

However, with the benefit of total ignorance, maybe you can trust your speculation that dogs don’t really know the difference between a plus sign and a semi-colon. If that’s true, then maybe even the most gifted dogs, or “super dogs” as Coren describes them, understand nowhere near 165 words. 

Maybe the owner, now cracking up as you frantically run a lemon-scented wet wipe from a Chinese restaurant you visited several months ago up and down your leg, is correct in her decision not to rebuke her pet. Maybe she’s already expended all the words he’s capable of understanding on walk, bath, b-a-t-h, here, and boy, and the inconvenience of pushing any of these phrases out by adding something new would supersede the courtesy of attempting to do so.

Even if the figures Coren quoted are correct, vocabulary is no sign of understanding.

Herbert Terrace, architect of “Project Nim” determined that the inability of lower primates to express their feelings spontaneously represented an overall failure in language acquisition. His subject, a two-week-old chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (1973-2000), demonstrated an ability to remember over 125 signs, including the longest sentence ever conveyed by a non-human animal, at a Pynchonesque 16-words:

Give orange


give eat

orange me

eat orange give

me eat orange

give me 


In spite of this, Nim did not pass the test. Terrace found, after years of conditioning, that the chimp continued to express himself only passively, in response to direct prompts from his teachers and adopted parents, generally repeating some variation of what they were asking. You are assuming this was something along the lines of:

Me give

orange you me


eat me orange

give eat give

orange eat

me orange?

As such, Terrace determined Nim was incapable of true language acquisition and returned him, after a decade of being raised as a human child—helping his parents wash dishes, playing with his siblings, wearing clothes—to the Oklahoma Institute of Primate Studies, where Terrace visited him only once. The fact that Nim became shaken with excitement and began signing the moment he saw his former father did not seem to change the Professor’s conclusion. 

Like all former child stars, it seems Nim developed a drug habit in his years of captivity, and even learned some new signs, such as “stone smoke time now”.

Nim died of a heart attack at 27, naked and surrounded by animals, because he didn’t get good enough grades.  

If chimps, bonobos, and some famous gorillas have shown themselves capable of all this and they are judged incapable of language, then how can we attribute understanding to dogs, whose retention and avenues of response to speech are so much more enigmatic?

The owner is looking at her phone now—your entertainment cachet has gone down and the world’s dullest spotlight has swivelled back inwards.

Maybe there’s nothing she can do—maybe she’s at her wit’s end, telling this dog not to piss on sad strangers.

This would be the generous thing to believe, but generosity would be, in this case, retrograde.

Thankfully cognitive science has evolved beyond adopting whatever you wish to study and sharing a home with it, and new methods have emerged for assessing language acquisition.

Back at the Emory University School of Medicine—which you are starting to suspect was founded by Dr Dolittle—Professor Gregory Berns said dogs ‘appear to have a neural representation for the meaning of words they have been taught, beyond a low-level Pavlovian response.’

This was determined by placing 12 dogs in an MRI scanner (one at a time, you’d assume). The scientists then spoke either the correct name for each toy or a gibberish control, with a consistent disparity emerging between the regions of the brain illuminating in response.

Perhaps Professor Terrace gave up on Nim too soon then—perhaps this dog’s owner is just awful. Roget Fouts, co-founder of the CHCI (Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute), and early member of the Washoe Project, criticised the methodology of Terrace’s experiment, believing it suffered for its focus on behavioural conditioning over natural social interaction. In the years since the Washoe Project (a more protracted effort at chimp language acquisition, which found their subject, Washoe, could pick up ASL not only by lessons, but by watching humans interact), chimps have been observed using ASL spontaneously in communication with one another, even teaching it to their offspring.

These observations, however, were made by believers—in the intellectual battleground of primate language acquisition, the prevailing opinions castigate each other from either side of a line twelve miles wide, and observations floated across by one side rarely maintain their legitimacy on the long journey to the other. In the words of Thomas Sebeok, semiotician, linguist, and general polymath, “the alleged language experiments with apes divide into three groups: one, outright fraud; two, self-deception; three, those conducted by Terrace. The largest class by far is the middle one.”

As with any study, we must consider the results through the lens of the scientist’s intention—the presentation of observations is not recorded fact in and of itself. However, regardless of the varying interpretations of different academics—navigating theory far beyond your comprehension—these animals have proven themselves capable at the very least of replicating language. Whether we consider the framework in which this replication takes place autonomous, mimicry, or Pavlovian response, a degree of understanding has been asserted.

At its basest, “I sign orange, you give me eat orange”, represents a cause and effect understanding of a word. If this understanding fails to visibly incorporate the wider implications of bartering, syntactic improvisation, or oranges, on what grounds do we blame the failure on the ape?

When a whole camp of thinkers—such as Sebeok, Terrace, and even Chomsky—attribute the theories of less cynical scientists to delusion, purely products of human cognition, they erase the intellectual autonomy of the animal subjects. In deferring to any axiomatic assertion that non-humans are incapable of acquiring language, or furthermore that only communication which resembles human interaction meets the requirements to be considered language, we may be at once misinterpreting complexity as inscrutability and downplaying the role of intuition in our own communication.

It is worth noting that, although no chimpanzee has ever decided to go out and learn to speak human outside the barb-wired boundaries of a research institute, there is no particular vogue in the human populace for learning chimp either. If the interlocutory bridge between species is really so tenuous, then any time we see a human successfully interact with an animal on its own terms—Tetsuo Matsusawa of the Primate Institute of Kyoto, hollering at chimps and claiming to be understood; Cesar Milan of MPH Entertainment Ltd., who got famous off the promise of alpha status in one’s own home), we could just as easily attribute the achievement to the animal. Moreover, anyone attempting to mimic a chimp would be lucky to convey a sentiment close to the complexity of “me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you”. How dare Terrace, or any of us, assume the animal is to blame for these barriers in communication, to think humans come out any better from that interaction than the red-faced tourists who yell at waiters in a foreign country for speaking anything other than perfect English?

In any case, you are not a psychologist, a semiotician, or a philosopher, and cannot dip a toe into the debate between people much smarter, much more passionate, and much less shaking dog piss out their shoe than you. However, if even the rare points of consensus in these debates are to be believed, then we can take as read that animals can understand something of a word, even if only as a cue (as if it is ever anything else).

Your wet wipe is now turgid with piss, and the owner pets her dog. Even if animals are dumber than the cynics say, and a dog can understand a word no more than it does a dinner bell, that should be enough for the owner to convince it of at least one of the following:



With this in mind, the fault must lie with the owner. Either she’s rude or she’s hopelessly anthromyopic—you can relate to both. For the former, count your friends, for the latter, Ulla Hedeager determined that although chimps’ brains possess some internal centre for language acquisition, current evidence does not suggest they have the faculties which activate in human brains at some point in childhood, to construct grammar and syntax. Pending further breakthroughs, it seems this is enough for the moment to conclude that, by our terms, chimps do not possess language but what Derek Bickerton (linguist and straw-hat wearer) would call a protolanguage.

In the exchange of simple directives (don’t . piss) you see no need for syntax, but you appreciate the difficulty of admitting we aren’t so special. Even if language is not a zero-sum game, sharing it with every old species does feel like you’re giving something away. Perhaps she’s a linguist and fears the depreciation of her vocabulary; perhaps she’s an RSPCA volunteer taking the dog to be euthanised and she feels awkward striking up a conversation; perhaps she’s Noam Chomsky.

Maybe you’ve entered some new post-human phase of veganism and anthropoetry, maybe you’ll go back to believing language is exclusive to humans the moment your shoes are dry—for now, the humane thing to do is to give her the benefit of the doubt. You have always been told that the best way to resolve conflict is polite, human, dialogue.

Excuse me. Do you have any tissues?

She looks up as if you just came into existence, remembers your discomfort, starts laughing again.

Ok, my shoes are ruined here, do you have any tissues?

Still laughing, she returns to her phone.

Excuse me.

No more laughter, no more acknowledgement. Commuters shiver on metal benches, the tannoy crackles but says nothing, you are talking to yourself.


image: David Wright