May 10, 2007

linguistic uberpooch

A friend recently asked me which Germanisms in the English language I could think of most easily. There are words like zeitgeist and weltschmerz, of course, but the ones I came up with first were words formed with the affix ueber- ("above" in German).

Uberpooch -- that's the name given to Border Collie Rico by the Washington Post. Rico is famous for his linguistic abilities. Not only can he remember the name of 200 different toys and retrieve them correctly, he also can figure out the meaning of new names.

To test Rico's learning ability, researchers with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology [in Leipzig, Germany] placed a new toy among seven familiar toys. When the owner asked Rico to fetch the new item, using a name the Border collie had never heard before, Rico correctly retrieved the new item seven out 10 times. Even more remarkable: Not only can Rico connect a new word with a new object on the first try, he can also remember the word when tested a month later.

This is known as the Mutual Exclusivity Principle in language acquisition: Children expect that a word is associated only with one meaning. A different word must mean something else. In other words, children are biased learners. When they encounter a new word, they don't entertain the idea that it could refer to something they already know a word for. Just like Rico.

The affix uber-/ueber- goes back to Nietzsche's concept of Übermensch (superman, literally "overhuman"). In English, it is used to express an impressive degree of something (ueber-intelligent), but, according to, it can also be used as an adjective. As far as the spelling is concerned, the OED prefers "ue", the standard representation of the German ü-umlaut in a writing system without diacritics. but one often sees the plain "u" as well, as in uberpooch.

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