Can an animal understand a rhyme
January 6, 2015 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Can any animal understand a rhyme? Different animals can process different things that we consider part of normal cognition. What about rhymes? Have there been studies done to see which species agree with humans that certain human words rhyme? Can my cats appreciate that I rap for them
posted by Greg Nog to Science & Nature (21 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I have no citation but, anecdotally, Koko the Gorilla once made up a poem: "Flower pink/fruit stink/fruit pink stink".

She was highly trained, of course.
posted by tel3path at 10:56 AM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Considering that even the animals with the sharpest grasp of human languages (certain birds, a few individual well-trained apes, maybe dogs in some capacity) tend to not have any innate sense of syntax, I'm going to say no. At least where your cats are concerned.

That said, of those few well-trained apes, there have been a few documented instances of those apes using wordplay, wit, or relatively complex metaphors. So maybe there are a few chimps or gorillas who would appreciate rap in a lyrical sense?
posted by Sara C. at 10:59 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

i'm fairly positive alliteration can be picked up by cats - since there are studies to show that cats respond best to "ck" like noises - our reclusive kitty, Cricket - is named so because it's something she can hear very well (and then promptly ignore us calling her). So I wouldn't doubt that could be extrapolated to cats recognizing repeated sounds.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 11:09 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Consider the possibility that your cats are more interested in your beats than your rhymes.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:10 AM on January 6, 2015 [25 favorites]

I did one of those paid studies in college kind of along these lines. They had a bunch of recordings of bird calls for this one bird type that sings in detailed patterns. Bird sang a pattern, I had to tap the pattern back on a keyboard. I am certain that bird was way smarter than me and would totally be able to pick up on rhymes.
posted by phunniemee at 11:16 AM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

It's been proven that animals, well parrots/cockatoos have a sense of rhythm, so they can probably enjoy the rhythm of what you are doing. I tell myself my dogs love it when I sing to them, I think they just like the attention.
posted by wwax at 11:17 AM on January 6, 2015

I would be surprised of your cats can tell the difference between some really good tight rhymes and just simply ending each line with the same word. E.g. "I would not eat them with a goat. I would not eat them with another goat". (goat rhymes with goat due to the identity property of rhymes)

Often cats just want people pay attention to them, in which case they will totally appreciate it if you rap for them. It's up to you to decide the worth of completely undiscerning appreciation.
posted by aubilenon at 11:19 AM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh and my dog likes (or at least tolerates well) when I make him dance to Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Pretty sure it's because he appreciates the musical complexity.
posted by phunniemee at 11:19 AM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Different human languages have different rhyming properties, so in some ESL classes I teach, I have students who don't understand the concept of rhyming in English. So, no, if not even all humans can agree on what rhyming is, then I think animals don't stand a chance.
posted by Literaryhero at 11:24 AM on January 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

I don't know about rhyming per se, but some dogs can understand more than a thousand nouns, such as this border collie.
posted by Melismata at 12:10 PM on January 6, 2015

Birds would be the best candidate for this. Cats don't appreciate anything
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:50 PM on January 6, 2015 [10 favorites]

Anecdotally, my dog Nesco also responded to Al Fresco, San Francisco, Pesto, and Indigesto. But not El Camino. In conclusion, maybe?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:34 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

To understand rhyme, you have to have a concept of phonemes. In the most common sort of rhyme, the word rhymes because the final vowel and final consonant cluster of the final syllable match. For an animal to understand rhyme, it would have to be able to split words into separate syllables and phonemes. This is a skill that even babies don't really have. Babies hear all the sounds humans make as distinct, rather than categorising them into groups of similar sounds (phonemes).

For example in English the t sound after an s and the t sound at the start of a word are actually phonetically very different, and in some languages those phonetic sounds count as different phonemes (ie the meaning of the word changes if you substitute one for the other.) Babies hear them as different sounds. (You test this by playing the same t sound over and over until the baby habituates to it, and then you substitute the other one and see whether the baby shows indications of surprise (faster sucking, usually).) Only over the first year or so of the baby's life does it start to categorise the two t sounds as "the same", I.e. the "phoneme t". The t sounds are just one example. All concepts that you and I have of a consonant or a vowel are actually categorial mental representations that abstract over a variety of different physical acoustic signals.

Vowels in particular are really messy, because they are continuous -you can produce a continuous stream of sound that gradually changes from an a to an i and yet native speakers of the same dialect find it easy to draw the same boundary for where one starts and the other ends. And vowels are really important in rhyme.

Okay, so adults have these phonemes. Babies don't. So it's unlikely in my opinion that animals do. Which would be a barrier already to understanding rhyme. Next up would be the barrier of segmenting words at all, rather than just hearing them as a whole chunk. I don't think babies are good at this either, but I'm not as familiar with the research.

In short, no, I don't think your cats get your rhymes. But as others have said, I would be less surprised if they can't enjoy the rhythms. Birds and other animals that have a sort of beat to their own cries would have an advantage there, but I can imagine other animals have a sense of rhythm based, if nothing else, on the rhythm of hearing their mother and sibling's heartbeats when young.
posted by lollusc at 3:42 PM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh and just to be really clear about my logic, which might be wrong:
I'm saying that babies are more similar to us than cats and if they can't do it, then presumably cats can't either. Also that it is a skill babies learn along the way to learning language as a whole, and since cats clearly aren't focused on language in order to learn it, the way babies are, there's no reason they'd learn that skill.

On the other hand, I guess you could argue that if babies can't do it, it's not something innate to humans or unlearnable and therefore there's no reason why another unrelated species shouldn't be able to learn it to. I would guess the average cat is cognitively more complex than most newborn babies. (But probably not better at learning stuff).
posted by lollusc at 3:49 PM on January 6, 2015

Two more comments:

I just read the paper linked by ShooBoo about the Humpback whales. While it is similar to rhyming in some ways, I think what they are saying is that frequently a whalesong has two components ("subphrases") in a row that end with the same sound. They think this might help the whales remember the song. So it's repetition more than rhyme, I think. It's kind of like if a bird ended every "line" of its song with the same two notes. There's no reason to think that this would make whales any more likely to notice human rhymes. It just suggests that repetition (and rhythm) combine to make structures more memorable for other species besides humans too.

Secondly, I don't understand how Koko came up with that "poem", given that she was taught ASL, not spoken English. In ASL, presumably these words don't rhyme. I don't even know how rhyme works in signed languages (although I'm sure there's an equivalent). I guess the researchers who worked with her spoke aloud while producing signs, so maybe she associated the words she heard with the signs and so had a concept of rhyme from that even though she herself couldn't produce rhyming utterances? If so, that's pretty cool. I found a reference to the poem in the paper "Humor in apes" by Jennifer Gamble, and she references a paper by Frisbie 1986 for more info, but I am unable to access that paper.
posted by lollusc at 5:28 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had a dog around whom you couldn't say the word 'walk' without her getting excited.

My girlfriend and I would occasionally say to each other something like...

"Could you hand me a...SOCK?"
"Did you know that on this door is a... LOCK?"
"I want to stare, but I don't want to GAWK."

and, just before the poor dog had a heart attack, we'd ask her if she wanted to go for a WALK.

Any sentence that ended with a word that rhymed with WALK and she'd perk up immediately.
posted by Hatashran at 6:23 PM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've had the same experience as Hatashran, with cats and "treat." Anything that rhymes with "treat" gets their attention, though they can tell the difference.

I can also confirm they are not just responding to rising inflection at the end of a similar-sounding sentence. "Who rides a BOAT?" gets no reaction; "what MEAT is this" and "where is that SHEET" make them perk up with big eyes; "who would like a TREAT" and "TREAT party time" cause full freakout.
posted by jessicapierce at 6:36 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

its pretty hard to know the boundary between "rhymes-with" and "sounds-like"
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 8:10 PM on January 6, 2015

its pretty hard to know the boundary between "rhymes-with" and "sounds-like"

One of my cats has learned to associate the word "shrimp" with the tasty seafood. Because she is Cat and I must extract payback wherever I can, I send her off the deep end by running through the Ace Ventura Pet Detective Shikaka routine ("Shikaka...Shishkebab...Shawshank Redemption...Chicago!"). She does not respond to gimp, pimp or blimp and from this I conclude cats cannot rhyme.
posted by jamaro at 8:50 PM on January 6, 2015

I don't know about cats and rhyme, and couldn't find any papers on it, but chinchillas can be taught to tell the difference between "eeeee" and "ahhhh" or "ta" and "da" (happy to share PDFs on request). That's a pretty good start; there may be hope for your cats.

Now I'm eyeing my cat and trying to figure out if there's any way I could test her rhyme perception...not optimistic about getting her to participate in any sort of experiment.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:31 PM on January 6, 2015

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