Why do we talk to animals (and things)?


baobao ou / Getty

Review of Why Do Humans Talk to Animals If They Can’t Understand? by Arianna Rebolini in The Atlantic | AUG 18, 2017

I talk to animals all the time, whether they are dogs, goats, cows, pigs, chickens, etc. (I volunteer at an animal shelter and a farm sanctuary.) I know they speak different languages from mine, but I know at least they can hear me. I believe whatever affection I melt into my speech will reach them through the sound. It is one of ways I express my love and care for them. I know it works because they respond differently when I talk to them sweetly (e.g. patting) versus when I talk to them sternly (e.g. giving commands)

When people are asked to define ‘language’, they often use the word ‘communicate’ to describe its meaning. So when I talk to animals, although my message is not conveyed 100%, I intend to communicate with them at some level. This is supported by recent incidents at my animal shelter. We currently have a deaf and blind dog, Pretty Girl. I noticed that I talk to her significantly less than to other dogs. I start by talking to her upon our encounter but quickly hold myself back realizing she can’t hear me. Then I try to focus on other ways to communicate with her–mostly through slow touch and smell.

Not only do I talk to animals, I talk to objects, too. When I drop my phone, I will say “sorry” to it. When a copy machine finishes copying my material, I will commend it by saying “good job, copy machine!” Why do I do that? I know they don’t hear me, so the purpose is not to communicate. (And I know I’m not cuckoo, either.) This article by Arianna Rebolini provided me with some answers to this question. It started with the topic of talking to animals, but it gave explanation to why humans talk in general.

Hal Herzog, the anthrozoologist and professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, states

talking to our pets is absolutely natural. Human beings are natural anthropomorphizers, meaning we naturally tend to [ascribe] all kinds of thoughts and meanings to other things in our lives.

Yes! I’m a ANTHROPOMORPHIZER! (In face, we humans all are.) This word comes from a verb–anthropomorphize.


/ˌæn θrə pəˈmɔr faɪz/

to ascribe human form or attributes to (an animal, plant, material object, etc.).

Source: dictionary.com

However, we are NOT all same anthropomorphizer. Ha! It turns out some people tend to talk to animals (or non-humans) more than the others. A 2008 study by Northwestern University found that individuals who chronically feel lonely or desire control in their lives treated their pets more like human companions. This definitely explains Chuck Noland’s relationship with Wilson the volleyball in the film, Castaway. Stranded alone on a small island, Chuck paints a face on a volleyball and names it Wilson. Wilson plays a vital role keeping Chuck, who feels deeply lonely and utterly out of control, alive and sane during this four-year-long isolation until he gets rescued.


This study might also explain my behavior of talking to just about anything: I have constant craving for socialization and control over uncertainties in life. Or I might be just idiocyncratic, believing that we CAN communicate with all things in our surrounding, at least spiritually.



The Divide between North and South Korean Players in the Unified Ice Hockey Team: Language

10 days before the Winter Olympic commenced in PyeonChang, South Korea, the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team had its first joint practice. The 38th Parallel had kept the players separated from either side of the Demilitarized Zone until this day, and now they had to overcome the last barrier: one of their languages.

North and South Korean women's ice hockey athletes talk during their training session in Jincheon National Training Centre in Jincheon

Players from North and South Korean women’s ice hockey teams talk during a training session at Jincheon National Training Center in Jincheon, South Korea, on Sunday. | REUTERS

It turns out the biggest language barrier was due to the different system of adapting English ice hockey terms: South Korean team modified their sounds to fit Korean phonology, but North Korean team created new words partially through translation.

[In South Korea] Skating is called “seu-ke-ee-ting” and a “t-push” — a defensive technique by a goalie — is “tee-pu-sh.”

But the North created its own Korean-language words for each move, calling skating “apuro-jee-chee-gee,” while a t-push is a “moonjeegee-eedong,” literally meaning “a move by a gatekeeper.”

Source: Two Koreas’ Olympic ice hockey team faces unexpected challenge: language | The Japan Times

In order to bridge the gap, a list of approximately 70 ice hockey terms, different in North Korean and South Korean, was disseminated to players and coaches.

I once wrote about this difference in a proposal for my MA thesis research on English loanwords in Korean.

This research can potentially serve as a basis for bridging discrepancy between North and South Korean languages, since they have been diverging ever since their division in 1948: a big part of language divergence is treatment of loanwords in each language where North strictly restrain use of loanwords and South is more open to adopting them. For example, pama meori in South Korean for ‘permed hair’ with the English loanword pama versus bokeum meori in North Korean with native Korean word bokeum for ‘fried’.

Experts say nearly half of vocabulary words used in daily conversation in the North and the South are different, and the gap is bigger in professional work places: about 66%. Although the unified team became one despite of the language difference as one of the players testified below, it will still pose a big challenge in the potentially unified country, Corea.

“It was kind of a mess at first because of the different speaking styles and accents, but once I realized their genuineness, we were able to communicate emotionally,”


Korean’s women hockey team captain Ko Hye-in holds a jersey signed by all 35 members of the team. | HanKyoReh

Source: Unified Korean women’s hockey team says a tearful goodbye | HanKyoReh

After all, I am not alone. (“To Speak is To Blunder” by Yiyun Li in The New Yorker)

Original article in The New Yorker

This year, my husband and I made a scheme for reading The New Yorker. This came about to prevent stacking up a whole-year-worth of The New Yorker magazine issues without reading any of them. We pick one article to read from each issue and discuss about it after a week. Meanwhile, one person reads it and passes it onto the other.


Illustration by Jun Cen

This article is from the first issue of Year 2017. To Speak is To Blunder by Yiyun Li. She turns out to be a fiction writer, but this piece is about a personal history.

This picture describes Li’s current state very well. One of her identities is fading away: her identity in Chinese. After she moved to the United States, she started using English. Now she writes in English only, a foreign language to her.

At the beginning of this year, I started two blogs, one in Korean and another in English. The choice of running two blogs came to me naturally like “the switch from one language to another” felt “natural to” Li. I acquired another language, English, and quite often I think in this language. Then why not write in it? Of course, there were more factors under consideration such as the prospective readers of each blog, but most of all, it seemed unfair for me to choose just one language to write my blogs in. I spent 16 years using only Korean and 19 years using Korean and English. I could not abandon either.

Li chose to abandon her native language, Mandarin Chinese on purpose. Or rather she chose to live her life in her new language, English. By thinking in English and especilly remembering in English, she had more control over her memories. If the memories in Chinese from her childhood and youth were forced upon her, the memories in English were chosen by her. Furthermore, she rewrote her Chinese memories using English. In this new version of the memories, some painful elements were erased, and only the nostaligic ones remained.

When a person moves from one country to another (or one environment to another), it is like your soul flies to the new destination, except there is no airplane. You soul is moving through the air without any signage or safety net. You are on your own and need to figure which direction to take. A mother language is tied to the core of one’s soul. It is through the mother language a person first connects to the world around them and shapes their view of it. It is powerful to have a thought in a language. On a flip side,

can you draw a thought in your head without using a language?

An immigrant goes through constant challenges on their identity, and their language plays a big part in it. I often feel split or pulled in two opposite directions of maintaining my Korean identity and adopting American identity. I feel comfortable building relationships with Americans using English, but at the same time I constantly crave chances to connect with Koreans speaking Korean. As much as I am quite aware of my physical and mental states, I am aware of the linguistic dynamics in my heart.

After all, I was not alone.

There might be more people out there like me navigating through the confusing journey of finding one’s own identity as an immigrant (without an actual destination). At least, there is Yiyun Li, who wrote a whole-four-page article about a similar experience as mine on The New Yorker. I thank her for sharing her very intimate and personal story.

‘Flu Theory’ vs ‘Ripe Apple Theory’

Bad Language by Lars-Gunnar Andersson and Peter Trudgill (p.47)

Two theories are suggested for a person’s acquisition of a new word. Here is my summary:

  • Red apple with leaf isolated on white backgroundflu001Flu Theory: We pick up the word used by others and start using it right away, like cathing a flu virus from another person.
  • Ripe Apple Theory: Upon hearing a new word, we go through a lengthy process of considering and evaluating it and reach a decision to use it, like waiting for an apple to ripe.

Andersson and Trudgill continue with their analysis of ‘the role of attitudes and free will in language change.’ They acknowledge that both theories are somewhat true and this role plays a bigger part in language acquisition for adults than for children. That’s why we oftern say kids absorb everything they observe including language.

My Theory: Stone Inscription Theory

stoneAs a teacher of ESL, I thought of my students learning and memorizing new English vocabulary. I also thought of my own experience of learnign foreign languages. I rather liken the process to inscribing on a stone. When you hear a new word a couple of times, it merely makes a scratch on the stone (storage files in your brain). As you hear and see the word more and more, the inscription becomes deeper and deeper. Finally it sticks in your head so you can remember and retrieve it later.

Like all the other studies of human brain activities, finding out how a brain works in inquiring a new word is difficult. However, contemplating different theories about it may help deepen our understanding of it.


3 Questions Posed in “Bad Language”

Lars25-questions-to-ask-ts-gunnar Andersson and Peter Trudgill pose three questions in the Introduction of Bad Language. (p.6)

  1. Are people’s vocabularies smaller today than before?
  2. Is English changing faster today than it did before?
  3. Is English getting better or worse?

These are my takes on the questions.

  1. Looking at the data we can access on Corpus of Contemporary American English website, it might be actually possible to measure the scale of vocabularies used by people in today’s world and compare it to that of other eras in the past. The somewhat moral question that can follow is whether the smaller vocabulary is bad. It can be bad if the smaller vocabulary directly limits the way people express their thoughts and feelings. However, before the avent of internet, there was no emojies, right? (Whether emojies are part of language is a separate question.) Can a person feel the difference in their expression with different amount of vocabularies they own and use? If a person can’t feel the mere difference, does it even matter?
  2. This also seems to be measurable. One way might be looking at the rate of words being added to the lexicon and being faded out of it.
  3. This is THE question that I was drilled with in my Introduction to Linguistics class. The answer is ‘neither.’ Mainly because we can not define how a language is good or bad. In the modern linguistics, the study of language is done descriptively rather than prescriptively. Linguists observe and describe the way a language is used by native speakers. They do not judge or evaluate whether it is used in a good or bad way. However, we are not all linguists, and there are plenty of people who judge a language and/or its speakers.

My added questions would be these:

  • What is the motivation behind judging a language and its speaker? Merely to keep a status quo?
  • Is there a way for us to stop these judgements? Maybe through teaching linguistics in schools K-12?

The first dive in the phonetics world

kakaotalk_20170111_140129107I fortunately secured a few days of cleaning up and getting ready for the new semester th
is week. While organizing notepads I used last semester, I found several pages of notes from the first phonetics class. (There were plenty more notes, but most were disposed of last December.) Some were IPA transcription from dictation practices, and some were notes I made reviewing for the final test.

Ah… phonetics. The class brought a whole different level of challenges that I hadn’t experienced before: listening to unfamiliar sounds and identifying them. Maybe I had been introduced to the foreign languages I’ve learned gradually. I don’t particularly remember having such difficulty of distinguishing different sounds while learning them. Or I didn’t realize that I couldn’t distinguish them until this class. The notoriously similar pairs from English, according to my ears, were [ɪ]/[i], [d]/[ð], [æ]/[ɛ], [ʒ]/[dʒ]. I got them incorrect so often in class that even my classmates became aware of my weak spots. Ironically I taught a low level phonetics ESL class in the same semester. It was a constant switch of hats between the one who suffered hearing problems and the other who inflicted suffering onto the learner.

Learning a variety of non-English sounds was also enlightening. I was a fish in a bowl! Going through implosive, ejective, clicks, and etc, broadened my limited perspective of world languages. Believe me. Speaking (sorta) four languages, I used to think I was well-exposed to different languages. Wrong and wrong!

At the end of the semester, feeling defeated with some sounds that I never succeeded in identifying, I forwent the idea of pursuing phonetics as my area of concentration. However, all the noble challenges and knowledge that I got showered with were definitely worth taking the course. (It was a requirement though.)

Spotted the book “Bad Language”

Right before the winter break, I’ve settled on a topic to research.

My advisor and I already had gone through a handful of potential topics including perceptions on various English accents and euphemism of tabooed words. Among the topics, I found that recently-formed Korean slang was rarely studied. It ranked second on my interest level next to the euphemism one. The latter topic required more of socio-linguistic knowledge and an professor who can mentor me in that field. Both were non-existent. So there it was: the topic of my first research project in linguistics–formation of contemporary Korean slang.

The plan was collecting data over the winter break. It would be better if it’s organized in a spreadsheet and transcribed with IPA. We would see how far it gets.

Then it happened in Brooke’s office during my final visit to her to wrap up the semester. She is my friend and mentor in the department. Bad Language. The title of the book caught my eyes, and I inquired about it immediately. “You can kakaotalk_20170110_215416944borrow it,” she said. “Really?” I said, “I’m just about to research bad language.” I flipped through it and decided to take it with me to read over the break. ‘Ha! ha! There ARE linguists who study bad language!’ I felt like I just found a comrade. ‘I will follow your track, Andersson and Trudgill. I will take advantage of your sharing of knowledge in this matter and take it further, in Korean.’ The book couldn’t have shown up at any better moment!