Talking Birds

Mowrer, O. Hobart 1950. On the psychology of "talking birds": A contribution to language and personality theory. In: Learning theory and personality dynamics: Selected papers. New York: Ronald, 688-726.

The research here reported was made possible by a grant from the Laboratory of Social Relations, Harvard University. (Mowrer 1950: 688)
This tidbit may explain why Jakobson, who moved to Harvard University in 1949, only two years after Mowrer began working with talking birds, was familiar with this work. It may not be out of the question that the two had casual exchanges in that institution.
Later in the same article Lashley remarks: "There is no experimental evidence bearing upon the motive which impels parrots to imitate sounds foreign to their species. The bird described in this note was in a constant state of rage during the experiments. ... These facts suggest that reward is not an important factor in the parrot's reproduction of sounds. The whole attitude of the bird in reacting suggests the action of an instinct for competition. His movements during reaction frequently suggest the courting activities of other birds, and it seems not improbable that the principal motive for the parrot's reproduction of sounds is to be sought in a perverted form of sex rivalry. (Mowrer 1950: 689; footnote 1)
This is not far removed from the human speech phenomenon of talking just for the sake of talking, that is, for out-competing other talkers. At least in an academic context, in which talking is one of the prime modus operandi's, in would make sense in a competitive sense.
After a good deal of speculation and trial-and-error, we hit upon the following procedure. We made a practice of feeding and watering a new bird entirely by hand, thus facilitating its taming, and as we did so we said the word or phrase we wished to teach. For example, we might say, "How are you?" and then present a bit of food; again, "How are you?" and more food; and so on. This method worked well, and one can conjecture that the way it works goes something like this. Since the word or phrase that is being taught is connected with eating (and/or drinking), the word will become a "good sound," one the bird likes to hear; and we may suppose that when the bird is later alone and hungry (or thirsty), if it happens to make a noise something like the word previously heard, the bird will be rewarded and will be prompted to "practice" and perfect it.
Elsewhere (see Section II) I have described this method and the theory behind it in considerable detail; but the gist of the procedure is that you try to make the bird like to hear the sounds you make so that it will also like to hear itself make them. This is sometimes known as the process of "identification" and is importantly involved in the psychological development of small children. I believe - though much more evidence will be required to prove - that this is the way in which one gets both birds and babies to say their first words. (Mowrer 1950: 691)
For me, as a novice in behaviouristic theorizing, it sounds a lot like classical conditioning (e.g. Pavlovian conditioning). When "identification" was mentioned in the introduction I thought that maybe it has something to do with Mead's autonymous term. E.g. emotional identification or Einfühlung since Scheler (cf. Wispe 1991). But at this point it's difficult to tell; probably not, though.
In the early stages of training, I have found it useful to tie up the training procedure, as I have said, with the feeding and watering of the bird. But once a bird has learned a few words and has become gentle and attached to the trainer, a very different type of procedure may be followed. When this stage has been reached, one can feed and water the bird more or less routinely. Then the presence and attention of the trainer are important to the bird. When the bird is perfectly comfortable as far as its physical wants are concerned, it will now still make every effort to keep the trainer near at hand. (Mowrer 1950: 692)
This part makes Jakobson's phatic function somewhat problematic. Or, rather, it makes it dependent on the relationship between the speaker and hearer. In Dorothy Parker's example (which Jakobson quotes repeatedly) about a boy and a girl exchanging ritualized formulas to keep the channel open, they are presumably doing so because they do enjoy each other's presence and attention. Notice that at least the aspect of attention is present in Bühler's exposition of Appell.
But one must still keep in mind the fact that a bird talks because and only because such behavior is, in one way or another, rewarding. Initially it is rewarding to the bird to make and hear sounds which it has heard the trainer make in pleasant contexts. At this first level of performance, words may be said by the bird without much reference to the outward effects they produce. In this respect they may be compared to the "babbling" or "vocal play" of human infants. Only at the next stage - when the bird finds that by means of saying words it can get food or water from the trainer - does talking become useful in the practical sense; but at both of the stages so far mentioned, we can see the operation of the principle of reward. And finally the bird becomes so attached to the trainer that it is rewarding just to be with him or her. This may be shown in any of several ways. The bird may scold when the trainer starts to leave or may beg to be taken with the trainer. If the bird is encouraged to talk on these occasions, it will often do so with special enthusiasm and clarity. (Mowrer 1950: 693)
The "lapse" of reference may be why Jakobson associated this with Malinowski's phatic communion. The fact that talking can be useful in the practical sense concerns energetic interpretants in the model I'm trying to construct. And the last bit about communication being rewarding in and of itself can be linked with Ruesch's discussion of the same in psychiatric context.
Friends (Mr. and Mrs. A. T. Alper) have reported the following incident. Some years ago they were vacationing in Bermuda and were told to be sure to visit a certain park. They also learned that near one of the gates of the park was a parrot, famed for his remarkable fluency. But my friends were disappointed: they stood in front of this bird's cage for a long time and tried, all in vain, to get him to talk. However, the moment they started to leave, the bird opened up with the repertoire for which he was justly famous. In other words, as long as these persons were standing in front of this wise old fellow's cage, entertaining him, why should he exert himself? But as soon as they started to leave, then he went into action. (Mowrer 1950: 693)
This would explain Jakobson's emphasis on sustaining communication or, rather, avoiding the termination of contact.
Only by indeed letting the bird gain some control over the trainer by means of vocalization does it seem possible to bring the bird's powers as a talker to their fullest development. (Mowrer 1950: 694)
The power of phatics stems from the so-called "language band" - that while someone is talking it is difficult to disengage from them.
It was a cool day and the parrot was a bit on the grumpy side. As a result he would say not a word to the children, but as they started to walk away across the yard, he said very clearly, "Don't go." No attempt had ever been made to teach him this expression, and only once since has he been heard to utter it. (Mowrer 1950: 694)
The ultimate phatic utterance.
Someone has said that it is too bad that behavior, unlike bones, does not fossilize. (Mowrer 1950: 695)
That is indeed too bad.
We say, of course, that this accomplishment is "due to imitation," but to name a process is not to explain it. (Mowrer 1950: 698)
The same should go for concourse, which I have named but have yet to explain.
In suggesting that the utterance of word-like noises occurs first on a purely autistic basis, I mean, specifically, that when a child or a bird is lonely, frightened, hungry, cold, or merely bored, it can comfort and divert itself by making noises which have previously been associated with comfort and diversion. These sounds have become "sweet music"; and they are reproduced, not because of their social effectiveness, but because of the intrapsychic satisfaction they provude. Later, once particular sounds have been learned on this autistic basis, the stage is set for them to function instrumentally, in connection with the child's (or bird's) interactions with the external world; but this appears to be a second stage in language learning, not the first one. (Mowrer 1950: 700)
In other words, intrapersonal communication precedes interpersonal communication.
That the appearance of the trainer shall be rewarding event to the bird seems universally accepted as a condition of effective speech learning by the bird. And it is probably no accident that birds more readily learn to repeat their trainer's "Hello" than his "Good-bye." (Mowrer 1950: 700)
In a phatic context this sounds like an interesting tidbit.
All that this theory says, in essence, is simply that words, as a result of being combined with "loving care," take on alike for the bird and baby secondary reinforcing value and that they have this value when uttered, not only by others, but also by the bird or baby. This, it is believed, lays the basis for the "self-contained" or "autistic" trial-and-error learning which, in the favorable instance, eventuates in the bird's or baby's reproducing the word - but, in the beginning, more as a self-signal than as a signal to others. (Mowrer 1950: 708-709)
A self-signal is a private sign.
Langer astutely observes that "Gua was using the coveralls even in his [the 'foster-father's'] presence as a help to her imagination which kept him near whether he went out or not" (p. 92). On an earlier page we have posited that talking birds use their trainer's "noises" in precisely the same way: long before a word is used as a name for or means of calling the trainer, it appears to function precisely like a fetish, a little part of the beloved one which the bird can "have near" even though the real person is far away. It is therefore all the more astounding that Langer should take the position that these rudimentary symbols inspire "delight or comfort" by their sheer aesthetic quality and have "no biological sifgnificance." (Mowrer 1950: 711-712)
This passage may have implications for phatics that are difficult to elucidate at this point. Do humans take delight or comfort from the mere presence of other humans?
Perhaps a superficial distinction that is worth drawing between these two terms is this: When one individual serves as a model for the behavior of the other, with both individuals present, we may speak of imitation; but when one individual acts like, or copies, another individual in the latter's absence, we may speak of identification. (Mowrer 1950: 714)
A worthwhile distinction.


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