There are few toys as emblematic of the 90s as the classic Furby. In their prime, the owl-like creatures found their way into millions of homes, constituting one of the most pervasive (perhaps inexplicably so) fads of the era. Though considered by some to be a beloved household pet, the Furby’s eerie human-like nature has lent it a degree of notoriety over the years, and it was even the object of a national security scandal in 1999.
One of the many mysteries surrounding the Furby is its apparent propensity for learning its caregivers’ speech. Though Furbies begin speaking entirely in “Furbish”, a gibberish language consisting of random sounds, they eventually begin to learn English, and end up incorporating English words and phrases into their speech. In this way, Furbies seem to emulate children in their language acquisition.
But how do Furbies learn English? Can they actually pick up the words spoken to them? Are they recording everything that goes on around them? And can you really teach them to use swear words? Though Furby-based conspiracy theories are titillating, the reality is more mundane — despite what the NSA may have thought in 1999. Here, we’ll review how a Furby’s linguistic abilities progress over time.
A Timeline of a Furby’s Speech Acquisition
All newly purchased Furbies start by speaking Furbish, an invented language that consists of random sounds and phrases. According to the official Furbish dictionary, some of those phrases have meaning; for instance, u-nye-boh-doo means “How are you?” and wee-tah-kah-wee-loo means “Tell me a story”.
As you interact and play with your Furby, they learn new things. For instance, if you pet a Furby after it does something you like, that behavior will be reinforced, and they’ll do it more frequently. Sometimes they will demonically yell “I’m changing!” and then emerge a few seconds later with an entirely new personality. And, famously, over time, Furbies gradually begin to “learn” new English words, which replace their Furbish ones.
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But using the word “learn” here is a bit misleading, as Furbies don’t actually learn anything — they’re simply pre-programmed to incorporate basic English words the more that they’re used. For instance, a Furby might be programmed to start saying the word “Hello” after it has been turned on for the twentieth time. But this happens regardless of whether or not its caregivers have “taught” it the word “hello”. In fact, its caregivers don’t even need to speak English; a Furby taken to China will still end up saying “hello” and will never learn how to say “ni-hao”, despite how earnestly its owners attempt to teach it to speak Mandarin.
Whether you love Furbies or are totally creeped out by them, now you know the truth about them. They’re simple robots: you can’t teach them to swear, they can’t record your speech, and they can only “learn” the words that they’ve been programmed to use over time. And no — given that swear words are not part of their pre-programmed vocabulary, you can’t teach them to curse. So the NSA can breathe a sigh of relief: Furbies are limited to a rudimentary vocabulary, and thus don’t pose a threat to national security.