We’ve all heard of spelling bees – and we’ll be reading all about them in the run-up to the big bee next month, as kids compete in regional bees around the country hoping to win a coveted place in the Scripps National Spelling Bee final in May.
Now here’s a question: is it conceivable that a pig will one day enter — and even win — the National Spelling Bee? Will we be talking about spelling pigs as well as spelling bees? The idea might not be as far-fetched as it sounds, given the unexpected findings of a recent study by English psychologists examining the language acquisition skills of non-human mammals.
In a 4-year study by scientists at the University of Sheffield in the UK, involving 240 pigs of four different breeds — Vietnamese Potbellies, British Lops, German Landraces, and Guinea Hogs — the little porkies were given instructions directing them to eat, drink, wash or lie down using simple verbal imperatives – such as “EAT FOOD” or “DRINK WATER”, and the instructions were enhanced by accompanying spoken directives. The study was designed to assess porcine reading and word recognition skills observed — sometimes quite notably — in particular breeds. But an error by one of the study technicians, at a hog-farm in Nether Edge, produced a surprising result in the porcine subjects: when a simple spelling error was inadvertently introduced (in this case it was the transposition of two letters), the normally literate pigs didn’t follow the instructions, and in some cases they became mildly agitated or displayed unusual behavior. One Guinea Hog circled around his tail for several minutes; a Vietnamese Potbelly lifted his head and snout and sniffed in the air repeatedly. To investigate this surprising observation, further spelling errors of different types (ie. dropped letters, letter substitutions) were introduced into the study, and researchers found that a significant proportion of the literate pigs failed to respond to familiar instructions that they had previously followed. The results of the study were published last week in the Journal of Language Development and Acquisition, vol. xvi.
Linguists in Denmark hope to replicate the experiment using other breeds of swine; if the results can be corroborated by similar responses in Danish Landraces (whose spatial recognition skills aren’t as pronounced as those of their German cousins), we should prepare for the eventuality of little piggies stealing crowns from diminutive spelling champions. As George Harrison asked and observed:
“Have you seen the bigger piggies
In their starched white shirts?
You will find the bigger piggies
Stirring up the dirt
Always have clean shirts to play around in” …