Transmission II: How much of language is
cultural, how much biological?
In particular:
Can non-human primates learn
language from humans?
Where are we in the course?
We have just looked at
how culture is linked to
biology in the area of
growth and body size?
What is the role of
cuisine and diet and (we
might add) life style in
relationship to
phenotypic unfolding of
the genotype? These
processes of transmission
involve interaction
between biology and
Now we want to look at
studies of how much of
language (and culture)
can be transmitted across
species. How much of
the exaggerated
prominence of social
learning in the human
species is a result of
biological adaptation for
such learning, how much
is the accumulation of
What is at stake?
If chimps or bonobos or gorillas can be taught human
language, then language is cultural, i.e., humans are NOT
uniquely biologically programmed for language.
If non-human primates cannot be taught language, then
some part of language must be dependent on the specific
biological endowment of human beings, an ability to learn
language (and other aspects of culture).
1. Can chimps be taught to speak English?
2. What are the principles of inference through which
communication takes place in the animal world?
3. What are the distinctive properties of human
language as a means of communication?
1. Can chimps (or other non-humans) be
taught to speak English?
Recall that chimps do appear to have rudimentary
culture. And to review:
• the human-type family with its role of
husband/father is not essential to culture.
• some transmission can be achieved through
the mother-child bond without the husband-father
However, it is one thing to ask whether rudimentary culture
could be achieved without human-type families. Another to ask
whether complex culture (including language?) would be
possible without human-type families. We’ll see that the more
successful attempts to teach language to non-primates typically
involved placing the animals into human family situations.
Preliminary observation:
Some aspects of language are obviously cultural, that is,
they are socially learned.
6-7,000 languages on the planet (6,059-7,300)
A child brought up among speakers of any one
of those languages will learn that language and no other;
The child will speak that language without an
accent, and speak it fluently, barring physical
Languages differ considerably in their lexicons,
sound patterns, word morphology, and syntax, as well as
in patterns of discourse.
Historical overview of attempts to teach non-human
primates to speak English:
1909 Clinical evaluation of a trained chimp
("Peter") by L. Witmer; claim that the chimp had
learned to say "mama."
1916 W.H. Furness claims to have taught an
Orangutan to say the words "papa" and "cup."
1930s Research by Louise and Winthrop Kellog
raised a baby orangutan (named Gua) together with
their son Donald (then 9 1/2 months old). When
Donald was 12 1/2 months old, he could comprehend
20 verbal requests; Gua evinced comprehension of
21. Thereafter, Donald began to outstrip Gua.
1940s Keith and Cathy Hayes attempted to teach
English to a chimp named Vicki.
[Popular movies based on
these experiments, e.g.,
"Bedtime for Bonzo"
(starring Ronald Reagan)]
Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)
Reagan plays a psychology
professor who treats a
chimp, Bonzo, as his child
for a nature vs. nurture
experiment. Bedtime for
Bonzo is a silly, cute film.
The movie has been cited as
Reagan's most ridiculous
career move, but the film
displays his comedic ability.
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Observations Vicki’s speech:
1. Chimp is able to learn some fragment of human
speech; evidence here for transmission of culture from
humans to chimps, however fragmentary.
2. Chimp produces recognizable words "papa," "mama,"
and "cup," although the sounds she produces are distinct
from their English counterparts:
bilabial click
voiceless [m]
[x], i.e., velar fricative
voiceless [a]
Observations Vicki’s speech:
3. Vicki produces the words in response to verbal cues.
4. However, she never learns to speak like a human.
Why can't chimps learn to speak English?
One popular answer: their vocal tract
anatomy is different from that of humans
(Philip Lieberman, Jeffrey Laitman).
[Note: I don't think that is probably the principal reason].
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Alex the Parrot (research of Irene Pepperberg, U of
• Capable of distinguishing fine grained-sound
differences, for example, "key" versus "pea" = [ki]
versus [pi]
• Capable of extremely clear pronunciation of words
and phrases, including a clear differentiation of [ki]
from [pi].
• These distinctions are like those that form the basis
of what linguists call "phonemic" (as opposed to
"phonetic") contrasts.
• Alex is learning all of this from his human teachers;
hence, this is further evidence for the transmission of a
porition of language (words and phrases) to a nonhuman species.
2. What are the principles of inference through which
communication takes place in the animal world?
Associationalist psychology of the 19th century
proposed two:
1. Contiguity: you can reason from something (a
sign) to something else (the meaning) by asking
with what else that something is or tends to
connected physically (that is, through space-time
co-presence). For example, a smell might be
associated with a particular animal; a vocal call
might be associated with the kind of animal that
produces it).
The other is:
2. Similarity: you can reason from something (a
sign) to something else (the meaning) by asking
what else that something resembles in its physical
appearance. (photograph might resemble the thing
photographed; one situation might remind you of
another; one individual (for example, of a species)
might resemble another).
Semiotics = the study of signs in relationship to their
index = a sign whose meaning is inferred
through contiguity
icon = a sign whose meaning is inferred
through similarity
Much of human linguistic usage is indexical or iconic
"how are you" ------------------> "Fine, and you"
"what's that?"
-------------------> ”a cup"
cup visible
Much of human communication with animals is
through indexes (and icons).
"how many?"
+ ---------------------> "two"
two objects visible
"what color bigger?"
-----------------------> "yellow"
larger of two objects
is yellow
This is not to belittle the remarkable findings of Irene
Pepperberg in her research with the African Gray Parrot,
Alex, or that of other researchers with non-human
primates. One anthropologist who studies language as it
is actually used (Michael Silverstein - U Chicago) has
suggested that the vast majority of human communication
is through indexical and iconic signaling. Research has
demonstrated that a considerable amount of human
culture can be passed to non-human species. But the
question remains of whether they are actually acquiring
the kind of language that all human cultures have.
3. What are the distinctive properties of human
language as a means of communication?
The ability to generate new signs that another individual has
not heard (or seen) and to have that individual be able to
correctly interpret those signs.
The ability to correctly interpret a sign that you have not
before heard (or seen).
What makes this possible?
Answer = the combinatorial character of human languages
morphology = the combination (in accord with rules) of
elementary meaningful units (called morphemes) into words.
re + work
+ er
"again" "work" + "one who"
"one works something over again."
Some languages (Eskimo languages, Chinook, Kuna,
etc.) rely heavily on morphology; others makes little use
of it (Chinese); English is not terribly big on
What makes this possible?
Answer = the combinatorial character of human languages
syntax = the combination (in accord with rules) ofwords
into sentences.
the + cat + sat + on + the + mat
"The cat sat on the mat."
Beyond teaching spoken English
to non-human primates - I
1960s Beatrice and Allen Gardner attempted to teach
sign language (AMSLAN = American Sign Language)
instead of spoken English to the chimp Washoe; Washoe
learned more than 150 signs; claim that she could use
some novel sign combinations. Her adopted son Loulis
is said to have acquired 50 signs from her, without
human intervention.
Beyond teaching spoken English
to non-human primates - II
1960s David Premack with 6 year old chimp Sarah -demonstrated that she had ability (with colored plastic
tokens instead of speech) to understand and use some
grammar: pluralization, "and", "if...then" constructions.
1970s+ Francine Penney Patterson with the gorilla Koko
(and later Michael); claim that Koko uses 1,000 plus
gestural signs.
An Internet Chat with Koko the Gorilla
This is the transcript of the AOL Live Internet Chat
with Koko the gorilla. Which took place on April 27th, 1998, at 7pm
EDT. In honor of the month long celebration of Earth Day. This event
was the first ever live inter-species internet chat with Koko the gorilla.
Brought to you courtesy of H.E.A.V.E.N. (Helping Educate, Activate,
Volunteer and Empower via the Net), The Envirolink Network, The
Gorilla Foundation, and AOL Live.
These pictures are of Koko's life, from the time she
was baby being raised by Dr. Penny Patterson, to the years growing up
at the Gorilla Foundation. In the past 26 years, she has raised kittens
on her own, she has learned American Sign Language...with a
working vocabulary of 500 words. Today, she has her own computer.
The Gorilla Foundation was founded in 1976, to
promote the protection and preservation of gorillas. Project Koko,
which began in 1972, is the primary focus of the foundation.
HaloMyBaby is the moderator of the chat on AOL,
DrPPatrsn is Koko's friend and trainer, and LiveKOKO is Koko the
Scroll down to read the full transcript...
Welcome, Dr. Patterson and Koko, we're so happy you're here!
You're welcome!
Is Koko aware that she's chatting with
thousands of people now?
Good here.
Koko is aware.
I’ll start taking questions from the audience
now, our first question is: MInyKitty asks,
Koko are you going to have a baby in the
We've had earlier discussion about colors
Listen, Koko loves eat
Me too!
What about a baby? She's thinking...
She covered her face with her hands....which
means it's not happening, basically, or it
hasn't happened yet.
I don't see it.
That's sad!
In other words, she hasn't had one yet, and
she doesn't see it happening. She needs
several females and one male to have a
family. In our setting it really isn't possible
for her to have a baby.
Beyond teaching spoken English
to non-human primates - III
1970s Herbert Terrace, work with chimp
named Nim Chimsky; became a critic of ape
language research; claimed that Nim could not
use syntax. Responded only to indexical cues.
1980s+ Sue Savage-Rumbaugh with the bonobo
Kanzi; used computer keyboard. Claimed that,
while Kanzi first used indexical cues, later
developed true language. Could respond
accurately 70% of the time to a novel sentence
communicated to him.
Conclusion I: Ideological positions of
researchers and scholars
Can non-human primates learn language from humans?
YES, we have
demonstrated that
bonobos, chimps, and
gorillas are capable of
learning human
language; they have,
in the process, passed
the threshold into
NO, the research to date
does not show the ability of
chimps to acquire
morphology or syntax in
any consistent way. Much
of the research can be
explained through
indexicality and iconicity,
or through the "clever
Hans" phenomenon
(Thomas Sebeok).
Conclusion II: Realities of
research to date
Can non-human primates learn language from humans?
SORT OF, bonobos, chimps, and
gorillas show evidence of being able
to acquire through social learning
many (500 +) individual signs and to
pass some of those signs onto their
offspring (hence, they have some
culture). They also show some ability
to produce and interpret novel sign
combinations. Hence, they have
something like an incipient or protolanguage ability.
NOT REALLY, the research to date
on non-human primates is highly
suggestive. Apes clearly have the
ability to acquire culturally constituted
signs in some quantity, but their
ability to produce and interpret novel
sign combinations has not been fully
establish. The apes make too many
errors in syntax tests to have
confidence that they have made the
transition to language.
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