Issue 168, Winter 2003
When I bought a parrot I assumed that the bird would develop a degree of autonomy in its use, or apparent use, of language, but it did not. My plan was to teach the bird a single phrase and to encourage it to use the phrase at the appropriate moment, much as humans learn to use language by matching phrases such as I want one to situations in which the phrases are deemed relevant. When I got the parrot home I found that it was, from a lexical point of view, a blank slate, which was a great relief, since I intended the bird neither to acquire a great many irritating words and phrases nor to select among them or confuse their usage. The phrase which I had selected for the parrot was welcome home, which had been my sister’s nightly salutation prior to her recent marriage to a Finnish banker and consequent departure from my apartment. I did not conceive of the bird as a replacement for my sister but as a kind of memento or faint echo.
The parrot was a quick learner. Within a week it could produce, when prompted, a staccato shriek that sounded—eerily enough—something like come home. Another two weeks of refinement and the bird had nearly mastered my sister’s intonation, complete with its rising, prolonged stress on the final syllable. It could now repeat, whether I was facing its bamboo perch or preparing sandwiches in the kitchen, a convincing, if shrill, version of welcome home.
Unfortunately, this early felicity and success was short-lived.
My problems with the parrot began with its failure to expand beyond a strictly literal sense of parrot, that is, with its refusal to state its greeting without first hearing the greeting stated. It did not, in fact, appear to view its phrase as a greeting at all but rather as a pure response. Not once did it state, of its own accord (as the species, once trained, is supposed to do), welcome home. Whereas my sister, upon hearing me enter the apartment each evening, had dispensed her customary greeting, the bird waited mutely in its cage until I had first said welcome home—before, as it were, relaying the salutation, which rendered the exchange at once perfunctory and drearily mistaken, since the parrot never left the house. What I finally could not endure was having to constantly prompt the bird to do what I had, presumably, taught it to do voluntarily. After three weeks of mounting frustration I realized that the parrot was incapable of initiating dialogue and discontinued all verbal contact, after which we lapsed into near complete silence.
The bird seems indifferent to this change. Apart from an occasional flutter or tilt of the head, it sits motionless on its perch in the hallway. Previously, I assumed that it held this position at all times but recently I awoke in the middle of the night and heard it drifting through the darkened apartment. The following morning it was back on its perch as usual.