Ape talk

Adrian Teo (AdrianTeo@mailhost.net)
Thu, 26 Feb 1998 10:24:49 -0800

Gregory Peterson wrote:
> Adrian wrote:
> While it may be true that nonhuman primates do have the ability for rather sophisticated communication, their language structure has never be demonstrated to even come close to the complexity of human language. Human language universally involves complex rules which even those celebrated apes (Nim Chimpsky, Washoe, Koko, Sarah etc.) trained to sign were never able to reproduce.
> Guess that means we don't have to worry about them animals talking behind our backs about us.
> There is obviously a gap between humans and other non-human primates. However, Savage-Rumbaugh's research with Kanzi (a language-trained bonobo) indicates, at least, that Kanzi can comprehend some grammatical utterances and relationships. She also suggests (although not very conclusively, in my opinion) that Kanzi also produces some grammatical utterances. The gap may not be as wide as we think.
> Savage-Rumbaugh, E. Sue, et al, eds. Language Comprehension in Ape and Child. U of Chicago, 1993.
> Greeenfield, P. M., and E. S. Savage-Rumbaugh. "Grammatical Combination in Pan paniscus" In "Language" and Intelligence in Monkeys and Apes: Comparative and Developmental Perspectives. Edited by Sue Taylor Parker and Kathleen Rita Gibson. New York: Cambridge U Press, 1990.

Yes, I am aware of those research. Such claims have been repeatedly made
in the past three deacdes or so. These trainers claimed to have taught
the apes hundreds of words, form meaningful sentences, and even coin new
phrases. Wallman (1992) book on _Aping Language_ is a good read. Over
several years of training the average length of their sentences remain
fairly constant, "repetitious to the point of inanity" (Wilson, 1972).
Within the field of psychology and psycholinguistics, few are making
such claims anymore, with one notable exception: Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and
Duane Rumbaugh.

Kanzi was trained to bang on symbols on a portable tablet and is claimed
to be doing substantially better than common chimps. He uses symbols for
purposes other than requests, but only around 4% of the time. He is able
to make three-symbol sentences, but these are really fixed formulas with
no internal structure. His mother was also trained on the same system,
while Kanzi watched, but her training was relatively unsuccesful. When
one studies the complexities of human languages and the consistency of
their internal structures, the language abilties of these apes fall far
short, even compared to that of a two-year-old.