U-M Linguist Robin Queen presented the lecture, “When a Linguist Talks to a Dog,” at the 2017 Linguistic Institute. She presented two approaches when considering communication between a person and a dog in this talk; one of a scholarly approach, and one of personal reflection on the impact this research has had on her life. The full abstract for the talk can be found below.

In this talk, I present two approaches to thinking about what happens when a linguist talks to a dog. The first approach is what might be considered a canonical, scholarly approach to the topic. I discuss semiotics, referentiality, and metapragmatic communication based on data drawn from interactions between shepherds and their stockdogs—as well as between shepherds talking to other shepherds about interacting with stockdogs—in the context of cooperative sheep herding.

Drawing on over a decade of ethnographic participant observation on farms and at livestock herding competitions and demonstrations throughout North America, I discuss the metapragmatics involved in conceptualizing effective mechanisms of communication with a working dog. I further illustrate how the ideologies and semiotics involved in constituting the dog as a communicative interlocutor drive both the form of the interactions with the dog and the specifics of the acoustic output directed to the dog. These interactions pivot crucially around referentiality.

I illustrate the system of whistled and verbal utterances shepherds use to communicate referentially with their dogs and then show that the prosodic qualities in shepherds’ referential whistles vary stylistically as they do in speech, particularly along the dimensions of careful and casual (Laan 1997). The similarities between stylistic modifications made to speech and those made in communicating to a dog suggest that shepherds draw on their linguistic knowledge when working with their dogs.

The second approach for thinking about what happens when a linguist talks to a dog provides a more personal reflection on what it has meant for me to talk to dogs while also building and maintaining an academic career in linguistics, one that has included experience with different kinds of institutions, different roles within institutions and within the discipline, and different moments of clarity and of questioning,  including junctures at which I was advised not to pursue the questions I found most compelling. By engaging both of these approaches, I hope to illustrate how the life of the mind need not preclude or overshadow the life of the spirit.

Wired recently featured Robin Queen, her research, and its implications for the future.

Border collies, the elite athletes of the canine universe, are working dogs. They go a little nuts without something to do. After a little consternation, Tansy's new owner Robin Queen, a linguist at the University of Michigan, got some advice: sheep. And why not? Border collies are, after all, sheepdogs. As soon as Tansy caught sight of some livestock, “it was the first time she showed evidence of understanding something about the world,” Queen says.

That's how Tansy got into competitive sheepdog trials, a sport in which a handler and dog manage a half-dozen sheep through various tasks. Despite their name, sheep are not sheepish and often act on their own closely held ideas about where to go. Keeping a flock on track can require dogged persistence. It's difficult and takes a lot of practice. “We were a little bit unusual in that we had very little dog experience and certainly no livestock experience,” Queen says. “People like us don’t tend to stick it out for very long because it’s hard, and you don’t get a lot of fuzzies very fast. It’s hard to control a dog around sheep.”

To exercise that control, sheepdog handlers typically use a specialized whistle. Yes, literally a dog whistle. Dogs might get up to half a mile away, so you need something loud but with finesse. With a whistle, handlers deploy a small lexicon of commands. Two medium blasts, for example, means "walk toward the sheep." A single low note means "go clockwise around the herd."

Queen later competed with her dog Hamish and another pup, Ky. That was a decade ago. Then Tansy went to the big meadow in the sky and Queen got Zac, with a plan to elevate their game together. About then, Queen started to notice something. In talking to other handlers and listening not just to the lexicon of commands they used but how, and how the dogs responded, she realized: These aren’t just orders. In fact, those whistles sounded a whole lot like a language.

Continue reading “What a Border Collie Taught a Linguist About Language” from Wired.