wood-parrot.jpgI haven’t really got an awful lot to say about N’Kisi, the talkative parrot whose ability to talk seems to contradict the usual suggestion that that parrots merely mimic. I don’t know enough about the science, my philosophy of linguistics is extremely rusty and scientists just don’t budge unless really pushed. Its a nice enough story, snappily headlined “Parrot’s Oratory Stuns Scientists” – without a physically stunned scientist in sight. No what really hit me was the following sentence slipped into the article where the parrots 950 word vocab is discussed:

“About 100 words are needed for half of all reading in English, so if N’kisi could read he would be able to cope with a wide range of material.”

Let us dissect this statement shall we?

1) The parrot cannot read. What is remarkable about his parrot is that it seems to be able to talk with some semblance of comprehension. Not read. Whilst reading is a function of language, it would not only be a major leap, but since the big question is the parrots actual degree of comprehension of situations and the language specificity of this, it seems a rather stupid thing to say.

2) The 100 words (or so) which consist of 50% of written language are, unsurprisingly, key parts of grammar which don’t so much impart direct meaning as allow the other words, not in the 100 to make sense (ie in this sentence they would be: the, or, so, which, of, of, are, of, which, don’t so as the, not, in, to, in, this). Thus knowing these words would not be very helpful in understanding what the written language was saying. This also gives me the opportunity to link to Wordcount again, which I love. It is a given that the proper usage of these words is much more complicated than repeating and replacing the appropriate nouns or verbs.

3) The statement seems to suggest that being able to understand 50% of the words would equal being able to read 50% of all books ever and comprehend them. Which is clearly nonsense.

Must try harder BBC!

(By the way, my science is good enough to note that the parrot in this picture is actually a wooden model. When the BBC website stalks about copyright in photos, I listen.)