Applied Psycholinguistics


Referential mapping: A technique for attaching functional significance to the innovative utterances of an African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus)

Irene M. Pepperberga1 c1

a1 Northwestern University


A set of procedures called referential mapping has been used to assign meaning to spontaneous vocalizations of an African Grey parrot. These spontaneous vocalizations were combinations and phonological variations of specific vocal English labels that the bird had previously acquired in a study on interspecies communication. These recombinations were not necessarily intentionally used to describe or request novel objects or circumstances, even though our earlier data demonstrated that the bird could use vocalizations referentially and intentionally to identify, request, refuse, and categorize various objects. The procedures for dealing with this bird's spontaneous modifications neither attempted to nor needed to evaluate the intentionality of his behavior. Rather, the procedures instructed his trainers to respond to the novel speech acts as though he were intentionally commenting about or requesting objects, actions, or information. The success of such procedures in attaching functional significance to his spontaneous vocalizations and in encouraging subsequent innovation suggests that the technique might be applicable to intervention programs for humans with specific communicative deficits.


c1 Department of Anthropology and the Program on Language and Cognition, Northwestern University, 1810 Hinman Ave., Evanston, IL 60208