The 2007 Ig Nobel prize in linguistics has been awarded to three researchers who successfully demonstrated that rats cant distinguish between Japanese and Dutch sentences played backwards.
The Ig Nobel prizes, co-sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, are awarded each year for real research shortly before the actual Nobel Prize winners are announced. While this is the first time that a prize has been awarded in linguistics, two earlier prizes in literature have been given for language-related research. John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, won in 2001 for his efforts to protect, promote, and defend the differences between the plural and the possessive. Daniel Oppenheimer, of Princeton, won in 2006 for his report, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” And the 2007 award for literature honors Australian research on the definite article, the, in indexes.
A write-up of this year’s winning research on rat foreign language backwards sentence recognition appeared in 2005 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Drs. J. M. Toro, J. B. Trobalon, and N. Sebastian-Galles, cognitive neuroscientists at the Parc Cientific de Barcelona, trained a group of 64 Long-Evans rats to press a lever and receive food when they heard Dutch and Japanese sentences that they had never heard before (remember, these were English-speaking rats). Researchers then played the sentences backwards to see how that affected the rats’ comprehension. They concluded that sixty rats had no idea what was going on (P < .05), while four rats “failed to finish the experiment because of low lever-pressing rates.”
Scientists have known for several years that human infants can’t tell the difference between Dutch and Japanese sentences played backwards, and neither can cotton-top tamarin monkeys.
This Long-Evans rat knows Japanese and Dutch forwards, but not backwards.
Now we have definitive proof that Long-Evans rats are similarly stumped by sdrawkcab language, a finding which suggests to the researchers “that these effects might reflect general auditory constraints that shape aspects of language acquisition.” Or in other sdrow, that both humans and animals have to hear language forwards, not backwards, to make sense of it.
A control group of rats listening to palindromic sentences, sentences like “Madam, I’m Adam,” and “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” only in Dutch and Japanese, not in English, ran back and forth in their maze, proving that rats are easily confused.
A second experiment, in which rats were rewarded with puffs of smoke for listening to Beatles lyrics played backwards at slow speeds on a phonograph, had to be aborted when half of the rats began repeatedly pressing the lever even when no sounds were being played, while the others seemed too preoccupied with eating junk food to listen to the music at all.
The Barcelona experiment doesn’t explain why human beings process spoken language in only one direction. After all, we write some languages, like English and Spanish, left to write, and others, like Hebrew and Arabic, right to left. Some forms of ancient Greek were written right to left and left to right, alternately. Chinese can be written top to bottom, though so far as anyone knows, no culture writes its language bottom up.
Nor does the Ig Nobel prize winning experiment explain why lab rats, like human infants, have more trouble understanding language when they hear different speakers than when only one voice is played for them. Humans eventually figure this speaker difference thing out, which suggests that humans use language better than rats. Interestingly, tamarin monkeys can discriminate among different speakers, though they themselves never learn to talk. But apparently, so far as monkeys, lab rats and humans are all concerned, speaking backwards is an ability that may come in handy at cocktail parties and award ceremonies (the Barcelona scientists gave their acceptance speech in Hsinaps), but otherwise it gets us erehwon.