Chapter How Is Human Language Unique?

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1Chapter 6. How Is Human Language Unique?

How different are the communicative capacities of the great apes from those of humans? This chapter explores the communicative capacity of the great apes as revealed through research with chimpanzees and gorillas. The chapter explores the signing capacity and tactic abilities of chimpanzee.

1. The Goal of Animal Communication Studies

As we pointed out in Chapter 1, the exercise of defining terms is important because it helps us to more clearly understand what we are and are not talking about. In this chapter, we return to the question of what role language plays in defining our humanness. Part of this question involves answering the question of how different is human language from other semiological systems. One way of answering this question is to compare the human system with that of other species. Another is to attempt to teach human language to other species and see what happens.

The Problem.

Up until the onset of the chimpanzee language experiments in the 1960s, anthropologists and linguists commonly understood that the capacity to use signs constituted the fundamental difference between humans and other species. Leslie White, a leading figure in anthropology at the University of Michigan summed this as follows: “Only man has the ability to originate, determine and bestow meaning upon things and events in the external world” (1975). In retrospect this statement was made with out any empirical (observable) support. As such the statement fits the definition of a legitimation (chapter 11), in that it offers a justification for human uniqueness, but it does not fit the definition of an empirically grounded fact.

Herbert Terrace: Chimpanzee Researcher, Psychologist

Can an ape produce a sentence? A chimp will not sign unless you encourage him to sign. Signs do not mean the same thing to humans and chimps.

John Lilly: Dolphin Researcher

Communication is the transfer of ideas from one brain to another.

Roger Fouts: Chimpanzee Researcher, Psychologist,

Language is the expression of thought in a social context.

Stuart Hermann: Linguist

Grammar [syntax] tells us how to put words together to make meaning. Word order is the essence of grammar.

Another difficulty that inhibited this research came from the lack of a clear characterization of language. For example in a 1983 Nova program entitled Signs of the Apes; Songs of the Whales, several researchers were asked to comment on the significance of recent research in chimpanzee and other animal communication. These responses represent two different characterizations of language. For Terrace and Hermann, language was seen as grammar (or structure), while Lilly and Fouts took the view of language as discourse (or communication). In chapter 2, we presented each perspective as an important dimension of language. Consequently, these comments are not in disagreement but represent different domains of language. This means that we can compare human language from the perspective of communication and from structure.

Language as Grammar or Structure

One of the ways of comparing communication among humans with that of other species is to compare and examine the properties of their grammars. In chapter 3, we introduced Saussure’s semiological framework of signs operating within a closed system and that the human semiological system was only one of many such systems. A semiological perspective argues that if other species communicate, they would have to use a semiological system. Thus from this perspective, we can ask, how does the semiological system of humans differ from those of other species?

With a Saussurian (semiological) framework would we can compare the communication systems of other species of other by examining their semiological (structural) properties. In this section we will examine the following properties:

Principle of the Sign: A sign is a combination of signifier and signified.

Arbitrariness: The association between signifier is arbitrary (non essential).

Learned versus Innate: associations are learned as opposed to innately fixed

Complexity: Signs may be simple or complex

Tactic Ability: The capacity to use atactic, paratactic and syntactic signs.

Comparing Language as Discourse

Questions about communication have to do with intent, interaction, interpretation and power. From this perspective we would ask to what extent the communication of other species differs from that of humans with respect to the following?

Intentionality: Signs are intentionally sent and not the consequence of an involuntary response.

Creativity: The ability to use language in new and different ways.1

Intersubjectivity: Communication enables members of the group to share common understandings.

Interpretation: The meaning of signs differs according to the context in which they appear.

Power: Communication is a mechanism to establish and assert power.
As we will see in chapter 10, the study of discourse, as it is defined here, is more recent, and as a result less is known about the differences and similarities of this dimension of language and other species.


In addition to the research on the great apes, a good deal of research has investigated the communicative capacity of other animals: von Frish (1966) on bees; Lily (1978) on porpoises; Seyfarth (1980) on monkeys; and Nottebohm (1980) on birds. Porpoises were considered to be good candidates for this kind of research because of their sizable brains (larger than humans), social nature and frequent vocalizations. But the most remarkable research to date has been with the great apes and especially the chimpanzees. Here research has taught us to recognize that these creatures have far more mental capacity than we have previously given them credit for. Tanner notes that recent “Experiments with common chimpanzees in the laboratory and observations in the wild show that they make fine differentations, generalize, and cognitively "map" the objects in an area; they can recognize, interpret and respond to a wide range of signals; and they can "think." (Tanner 1990: 109-10).

One of the earliest of these experiments took place in the 1940s with the work of x and y Kellogg (Ref xx). Other important research included Premack and Premack (19xx), Gardner and Gardner ((19xx), Fouts (19xx), Gill (19xx) and Terrace (19xx). All of these investigations involved working with chimpanzees in laboratory settings, though some of these attempted to replicate a family like situation. Other research has focused on observation of chimpanzees and other species in the wild. Goodall (19xx), Fossy (19xx) and Seyfarth (1980). Each of these experiments has revealed something about the communicative abilities of other species. But rather than review the findings on a project-by-project basis, we return to the issues raised above and address them one by one.

Comparing Language as Grammar (structure)

The Properties of the Sign (Signifier-Signified), Arbitrariness, Learnability).

The psychologists David and xxxx Premack reintroduced the study of chimpanzee communicative capacity with their work with Sara. As described their article entitled “Teaching Sign Language to A Chimpanzee 19xx), their task was to teach Sara to recognize different colored plastic shapes as having meaning. For example, she learned to recognize a blue, plastic triangle as the signifier for ‘apple’. Sara had no difficulty with this task. Furthermore, when asked to describe the thing represented by the blue triangle, Sara responded that it was round and red, the properties of the signified (the apple) and not the signifier. These responses clearly show that Sara had no difficulty with the principle of the sign or the arbitrary association of the signifier with the signified. In addition, Sara showed that that these signs could be learned by a chimpanzee.

The experiments with Sara focused on the ability to recognize signs as opposed to producing them. Other experiments followed (Gardner and Gardner 19xx, and Terrace 19xx) focused on teaching chimpanzees to produce signs in addition to recognizing them. But before we review this research this question, we need to consider the distinction between simple and complex signs.

Complexity: Signs may be simple or complex

One of the most striking aspects of chimpanzee communication in the wild is that they take advantage of a wide variety of communicative channels. For example, some signs use a vocal channel (hooting, crying, and whimpering), some may be visual channel (stances, smiles, pouts), while others use a tactile channel (hugging, patting, grooming. This type of sign display is representative of a simple (lexical) sign system. In each case, we see that these messages are lexical signs, because each has a unique signified (meaning) and a unique signifier (a gesture, a vocalization, or a facial expression). However, these signs are termed simple because each signifier is unique and totally different from other signifiers in the system

We suspect that these signs are innate rather than learned, for similar signs have been reported for diverse groups of chimpanzees. This does not, however, rule out the possibility that some signs are learned. But the important point about chimpanzees in the wild is that they are capable of communicating with signs which includes the ability to associate a meaning (signifier) with a token (signified).

In contrast, humans use complex lexical signs. What makes a lexical sign complex is that it’s signifier itself consists of a string of (representational) signs. In human language the most common signs are termed phonemes (chapter 3).

Complex signs enable humans to use a primary communicative channel, that of vocalization, through which almost all information is conveyed, with other channels, like gestures, facial expressions supplying only a very small amount of additional information. This is not to say that this secondary information is unimportant, but only to say that the amount of non-vocal information is very small when compared to that which is vocally communicated.

As mentioned above, the first experiments were conducted in the 1940s by the Kelloggs who attempted to teach a chimpanzee, named xxxx, to articulate words like cup. These experiments showed that imitating the human vocal tract was difficult. For example, in an effort to articulate the /k/ sound in cup, the chimpanzee would take one hand and cover his nostrils. This had the effect of closing off the nasal passage, which humans do by moving the velum (see the articulatory diagram in chapter 2) to the pharynx. The next segment did not pose as serious a challenge. This is because the vowel // (as in the word cup), or its approximation (see chapter 2), is the consequence of a straight, seventeen millimeter tube. The final consonant in cup /p/, however, required the chimpanzee to place a second hand to close off the mouth at the lips, something that humans do easily with their lips.

This example dramatically illustrates the importance of the neurological and physiological adaptations that humans have made in their evolutionary history (see Chapter 3). While we take the articulation of a word like cup for granted, the chimp’s inability to articulate this word draws our attention to the differences between the vocal apparatus in humans and its counterpart in chimps.

The most prominent difference between humans and almost all other species is the pharynx. Recall from Chapter 5, that the presence of the pharynx, when coupled with the oral cavity enabled the articulation of the cardinal vowels: /i, a, and u/2 and that while the lack of a pharynx does not prevent the production of vowel-like sounds, the range of these sounds is more limited than the human capacity and the nature of these sounds different. Thus while, a chimp can produce the vowel // in ‘cup,’ the chimp cannot articulate the vowels found in see, hot, and food. This is because thee pharynx is virtually non-existent in all species but the human, and furthermore, it is not present at birth, but develops between the first and second year of life. This fact helps to explain why human infants do not begin to produce adult-like sounds until their second life. In addition to the pharynx, we saw other evidence in chapter five that the vocal tract had adapted to language.

This evidence suggests first that the human vocal tract has been adapting3 in the context of increasing vocal communication and second that even if the chimpanzee has an ability to use sighs, this ability may not emerge due to the limiting capabilities of its vocal tract. Thus, one finds clear evidence again that the vocal tract of humans has adapted for language. This also helps to explain why chimpanzees have such a difficult time in attempting to articulate human sounds. This observation led Professors Norman and Beatrix Gardner at the University of Nevada to explore the use of the gestural sign system used in American Sign Language (ASL) with a chimpanzee named Washoe.

ASL is a natural human language with a syntax, a lexicon and a representational system of gestures, as opposed to phonemic signs. The gestural system of ASL parallels the phonemic system. Both are sign systems at the representational level. Both are used as signifiers to spell out words at the lexical level. Thus ASL words are complex signs as are words represented with phonemes.

To almost everyone’s surprise and delight, Washoe began learning to recognize and to use about the lexical signs of ASL. This discovery meant that Washoe had entered into the world of meaning, previously thought to be exclusively human. Because their discovery challenged established tenets, the Gardners constructed elaborate tests, such as the clinical, double-blind test, to prove that Washoe had this ability. Washoe passed these tests easily.

The Washoe research also clearly showed that chimpanzees could learn signs, though again there were differences from humans. While the human acquisition of signs is rapid and occurs without reinforcement, rewards were an integral part of the learning process for the chimpanzee. And while humans acquire vocabulary at a rapid rate from the start and continue through their entire life, no chimpanzee’s vocabulary has exceeded two hundred and fifty items.

Tactic Ability:

The capacity of chimpanzees to use atactic sentences is remarkable, as is their ability in problem solving and tool use (once thought to be an exclusively human domain), has raised the question of how closely could chimpanzees, if given enough training, approximate the semiological system of humans.

3. Chimpanzee Tactic Ability

Washoe’s ability to communicate atactically, using the representational gestural signs of American Sign Language, is a remarkable feat in itself, but simply because chimps are capable of using this representational sign system says nothing of the chimpanzee’s tactic potential for these signs with respect to parataxis and syntax. Whether chimpanzees do so, can only be determined by observing the types of messages that chimpanzees use and comprehend.


NA = Not Applicable







Word Order Significant

Parts of Speech

Case Meaning

Fixed Case Meaning

No of words per sentence

Mean Length of Utterance

Utility of Embedding






















Using the table that summarizes the properties of the tactic stages in humans introduced in chapter 5, we can examine the properties of sentences produced by chimpanzees to determine how they compare with human tactic types.

The best data available for the analysis of the sentences produced by a chimpanzee were collected by Terrace (1979) who videotaped every learning session with Nim Chimsky and transcribed the signs produced by Nim. Somewhat surprisingly, the other investigations into the signing ability of chimpanzees and other great apes have not reported in any detail, the types of sentences produced.

Example (No) Example (No)

more apple (12) apple more ( 5)

more banana (62) banana more ( 5)

give apple ( 9) apple give ( 3)

give gum ( 4) gum give ( 3)

brush me (35) me brush ( 9)

brush Nim (13) Nim brush ( 4)

Word Order

Significant word order is a property of syntax; lack of it is a property of parataxis. The adjacent table shows several instances of two word sentences in which Nim has used either word order. Although Nim, has a preferred word order, as do humans during the paratactic stage, Terrace provides no evidence to show that the ordering marks a difference in meaning.

Parts of Speech

The lack of word order suggests the absence of parts of speech in Nim’s grammar. However, the real test for parts of speech is to determine whether a specific string of such word classes spells out a particular sign with a specific functional meaning. None of the examples from any of the tables in this section show any evidence that a particular sequence of words marks a specific meaning. In fact, there are numerous examples of messages containing the same words, but used in different contexts which have different case meanings. This too is a property of parataxis and not syntax.

Case Meaning

Example Case Relationship

eat Nim action-agent

eat grape action-object

eat tickle two propositions

food Nim object-beneficiary

food there action place

Nim out agent-action

out shoe action-object

out pants action-object

Fixed case meaning is a property of syntax. The adjacent table of selected sentences shows that the presumed meaning of these sentences all represent case meanings such as agent-action, action-object, action-beneficiary and the like. The case-like meanings of these examples were determined by the context in which they were uttered. However, as the data also shows, these relationships are not assigned to specific tactic signs. Thus the evidence from case meaning argues that Nim’s sentences are paratactic and not syntax.

Sentence Length

Age (mo)













Eating cereal.

No the toy.

Want more apple.

Here need apple.


See window.

Here the clown.

Here comes (ma)chine.

I get horsie (ma)chine.

One of the common indicators of the transition from parataxis to syntax in humans is the statistic known as “mean length of utterance” or MLU for short shown on the vertical axis in adjacent graph. MLU is a straightforward average length of sentences recorded during a specific time period. In the adjacent graph the sampling period is two months starting with 22 months. As noted earlier, the number of words in a paratactic sentence is two, while the number is virtually infinite for syntax.

Thus, when children start producing sentences of more than two words, it is a good indication that they are moving into syntax. Because of the intermingling of one and two word sentences in the child’s discourse, the MLU at this point is below two. The adjacent graph charts the language development of hearing and deaf children in their third of life. Both deaf and hearing children show a dramatic increase in MLU from two words to four. Nim’s MLU during this same period hovers at slightly above two.


A small fraction of Nim’s sentences contained three words or more. The existence of these sentences have boosted Nim’s MLU slightly over the two word threshold and might be taken to signal the onset of syntax. However, as the chart shows, Nim makes no further progress. This is because the sentences produced by Nim of three words and more represent iterations, that is, sequences of paratactic sentences and not true syntax. The following table shows Nim’s most frequent two, three and four word sentences.

Two Word Combinations

Three Word Combinations

Four Word Combinations







Play me.

Me Nim.

Tickle me.

Eat Nim.

More eat.

Me eat.

Nim eat.

Finish hug.

Drink Nim.

More tickle.











Play me. Nim.

Eat me. Nim.

Tickle me. Nim.

Hug me. Nim.

Me. Nim eat.

Eat me. Eat.

Eat Nim. Eat.

Banana. Eat Nim.

Grape eat. Nim.

Yogurt. Nim eat.











Eat drink. Eat drink.

Eat Nim. Eat Nim.

Banana Nim. Banana Nim.

Drink Nim. Drink Nim.

Nim eat. Nim eat.

Play me. Play me.

Banana me. Nim me.

Banana me. Eat banana.

Grape eat. Nim eat.

Banana eat. Me Nim.











If, following the paratactic hypothesis, we analyze Nim’s four word messages as a sequence of two paratactic sentences, we can see that (with the exception of the last four-word message) the second sentence repeats a word found in the first sentence. This is consistent with a strategy of iteration for expanding on the information in a message. In fact the first six four-word messages, the second paratactic sentence is identical to the first. In humans, this type of repetition occurs in other tactic types as well (often for emphasis) and this may well be the reason here. The next three four-word messages show the introduction of a new word in the second sentence, but taken together, the content of the messages suggests a common topic, because one of the words of the first sentence is the same as one of the words in the second pair. Furthermore, we see that each of the sentences shows a different case relationship between the two words. In the last four-word message the second sentence does not repeat information introduced in the first, but the sequence “Me Nim” which does suggest iteration.

The three word messages can be analyzed in much the same way, this time as an iterated combination of paratactic sentence and an atactic message. The first five three word combinations can be seen as a paratactic sentence with an iteration of the subject of the sentence, given that Nim and me (the speaker) as have the same referent. The last three word combinations have three different words and could suggest syntax, nesting or iteration. Because of the variation in word order (Grape eat Nim vs. Yogurt Nim eat.) syntax is ruled out. This would mean that a sentence like Banana eat Nim. could be analyzed either as iteration (a sequence of a paratactic sentence followed by an atactic sentence (Banana eat. Nim.) or as a nested sentence as shown in the sidebar. As pointed out in chapter four, the problem with a nesting (one sentence dominated by another) analysis is that it is possible to assign two parse (assign a tree structure) it in two different ways and more importantly, neither alternative offers any insight about how to interpret the sentence beyond the iterative analysis.

All this seems to suggest that Nim is using the second paratactic sentence either to emphasize the information or to elaborate on the information in the first sentence. Both types of iteration represent strategies for enriching paratactic statements. Were a syntactic grammar available, these strategies would be abandoned in favor of the richer syntactic statement, for example the paratactic message “Grape eat. Nim eat.” can be replaced by the syntactic statement “I (Nim) want to eat a grape.”

On the basis of this evidence, we can make the following observations:

  • most of Nim’s messages are paired words;

  • even though Nim favors one word order over another, word order is not significant in Nim’s grammar;

  • there is no evidence to support the existence of word classes;

  • Nim’s three and four word messages can be more successfully analyzed as iteration of paratactic and atactic sentences.

This analysis has been chosen over another possibility that these examples represent nested paratactic sentences. As the illustration shows, one of the problems of nesting in parataxis is that there will always be two possible parsings (analyses) of the sentence and that therefore there will be two equally valid interpretations. In fact, in parataxis, because the meaning of the sentence is the semantic intersection of the meaning of the two words there is virtually no difference between iteration and nesting. This is the reason I have analyzed these three word examples as iteration rather than nesting.

This analysis allows us to see that iteration is a very useful technique that appears in the paratactic speech of both chimpanzees (illustrated by Nim) and humans (illustrated by Brenda). This analysis also allows us to interpret a sixteen word message produced by Nim, not as a good example of gibberish, as suggested by Terrace, but as an eight-sentence sequence of iterated paratactic sentences.

I claim that this paratactic message is equivalent to the syntactic statement: You give me (Nim) the orange to eat. My analysis (Dwyer 1986) begins by analyzing the paratactic message as eight (iterated) paratactic sentences, each with a functional relationship, as shown in the figure below. For example, the first sentence, Give Nim shows the action recipient relationship of the first action give. This is equivalent to the give Nim part of the syntactic sentence. By proceeding in this way we can match each of the functional relationships of the paratactic message to a component of the syntactic message. Thus, we see that rather than being gibberish, Nim has characterized, using a paratactic grammar, the same sort of information that adult humans would convey paratactically (though the last three paratactic sentences appear to have been repeated for emphasis). This analysis shows that paratactic statements take more words to express the same message than its syntactic equivalent and have a greater likelihood of misinterpretation.

Chimpanzee and Syntax

There is some evidence that chimpanzees can understand syntax, even if they cannot produce it. Savage-Rumbaugh and Rumbaugh (1993) report that a chimpanzee named Kanzi was able to comprehend the difference between sentences in which contextual clues cannot help resolve the meaning like: Pour coke in the lemonade and Pour lemonade in the coke. Kanzi is reported to have responded correctly to such sentences about 80% of the time, even though Kanzi could not produce such sentences. Rumbaugh also reports a situation where a chimpanzee named Lana, living at the Yerkes Primate Laboratory of the University of Georgia, understood the difference between: Tim (a researcher) tickle Lana. and Lana tickle Tim. In contrast, most children can produce and distinguish between these two sentences by their third year of life with 100% accuracy.

This evidence seems to support the view that both chimpanzees and humans can comprehend syntactic statements at a time when neither can produce them. If this is true, then the human linguistic universal for syntax may be in the area of being able to produce syntax and not comprehend it. Recall the remarkable fact that humans have two areas of the brain, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas and that Broca’s area is located in the motor area of the Sylvian fissure that controls mouth and throat movements and that Wernicke’s area is adjacent to the ear and in a part of the brain having to do with memory and associations. Also recall that, aphasics with injuries to Broca’s area, have little difficulty in comprehending, but cannot produce syntactic messages, while those with damage to Wernicke’s area have difficulty in comprehending but can produce syntactic messages, though they often are incoherent.

This evidence strongly suggests that Broca’s area is associated with the production of messages, not only syntactic signs, but vocal representational as well, and that Wernicke’s area is associated with comprehension and the storage of lexical information. Thus, if Broca’s area does not mature as rapidly as Wernicke’s area, we could understand why very young humans can comprehend syntactic messages while not being able to produce them. This observation is consistent with a tenet of second language acquisition that comprehension precedes production. Along these lines, we can hypothesize that Wernicke’s area serves as a monitor of the output of Broca’s area. This may help to explain why the speech of people who has lost their hearing loses some of its naturalness. Yet, there are numerous cases where context will not rule out incorrect interpretations such as when either noun in a subject-verb-object sentence could be either the subject or the object as in:

As noted above, we know that in humans a nerve cluster called the acurate fasciculus connects these two areas. We also know that this nerve cluster is not found in other species. What we do not know is what these nerves transmit. If the monitoring hypothesis were correct, then we would expect that one kind of information that these nerves transmit is correctional information from Wernicke’s area to Broca’s area about the quality of the output.

Chimpanzees and the Faculty of Language

The astonishing discovery that chimpanzees could learn to use signs, that they could learn use atactactic and paratactic sentences, and possibly understand syntactic messages suggests that chimpanzees have some of the capacity for language which we previously ascribed to humans. This is especially remarkable if we include the case-like meanings needed for both parataxis and syntax. Although we do not provide an answer we do point out that this reopens the question of what we mean by the human faculty for language.

Comparing Language as Discourse

Intentionality: Signs are intentionally sent and not the consequence of an involuntary response.

Washoe showed an ability to interact with others, issue commands, create new combinations of words, utter verbal abuse and even tell falsehoods. Washoe’s ability clearly demonstrated that the ability to use signs was not the defining difference between humans and others that had been assumed previously.

One common distinction often used to distinguish between human communication and that of other species is that of intent (see the discussion. G.H. Mead and E. Cassirer in chapter 11). Humans communicate with a willful desire to convey information as opposed to other species whom Mead claims that merely respond to stimuli in their environment. In fact, Herbert Terrace (1979), who taught sign language to a chimpanzee he named Nim Chimsky, claimed that all that Nim ever did was to imitate his teachers.

Yet there is considerable evidence to suggest the contrary: that chimpanzees do communicate willfully. Menzel (1973) reports a situation where researchers were investigating the communicative capacity of chimpanzees in the wild by placing a stalk of bananas near a chimpanzee that had moved away from the group. Usually the chimpanzee would then return to the group and convey the message that food was available in the direction that the finder was about to move. One of the older, less-mobile members of the group discovered that when this happened, the group would rush off and run past him to the bananas. The old chimpanzee would arrive later at the scene to discover that the food had been consumed. Subsequently, the old chimpanzee devised a scheme in which he would first head off in a false direction and wait till the troop rushed a head of him and then head off in the direction of the food. This would give him enough lead-time to eat some of the food before the rest of the troop arrived.

The movement of the old chimpanzee away from the troop (after having gotten its attention) is a semiological sign, albeit, as we will show, a simple sign. Thus we see in this episode that the act is both willful and semiological.4 Other observers have reported similar episodes with the captive chimpanzees they work with. The important point that these episodes make is that there can be no doubt that the act of misinforming is an intentional act and that we are dealing with willful semiological communication and not an unconscious response to a stimulus.5

Creativity: The ability to use language in new and different ways.6

Intersubjectivity: Communication enables members of the group to share common understandings.

Interpretation: The meaning of signs differs according to the context in which they appear. =

Power: Communication is a mechanism to establish and assert power.

4. The Uniqueness of Human Language

Differences between chimpanzees and humans

This comparison of the semiological capacity of chimpanzees and humans reveals that these two species, far from being worlds apart, show a remarkable similarity.

 At the representational level, both species show an ability to produce representational signs, though the capacity of humans for producing vocal signs, reflects the series of evolutionary adaptations of the vocal tract described in chapter four.

 at the lexical level, both Chimpanzees and humans show the capacity to produce lexical signs. This is true of both wild and captive chimpanzees, though only captive chimpanzees have only clearly shown the ability to produce complex lexical signs. Yet, while the repertoire of signs for the chimpanzee peaks at about 250 entries, that for humans is substantially higher. A number of estimates claim that college freshmen have at least 20,000 entries.

 at the tactic level, both chimpanzees and humans show the capacity to produce both atactic and paratactic signs, though only captive chimpanzees have shown the later. At the paratactic level, both chimpanzees and humans show a similar, if not identical, set of functional relationships, which show up in both paratactic and syntactic grammars. On the basis of the sentences produced by captive chimpanzees, there is some evidence that they can comprehend syntactic messages, but virtually no evidence that they can produce syntactic messages.

This comparison between chimpanzees and humans could be understood as an attempt to prove why humans are superior to all other species, though I offer another interpretation. As humans, we are naturally more interested in who we are and what makes us different from other species - birds can fly and bees can make honey. In the case of communication, we have found that far from being unique in an ability to use signs, that the differences have boiled down to a rather remarkable vocal tract along with modifications in the brain which allow us to use the vocal tract and give us the capacity for syntax. In this sense then, chimpanzees are telling us about the nature of human language and that the specializations of the human vocal tract and brain reflect an evolution which has resulted in a distinctly human mode of communication.

Questions for Study and Review

  1. Compare the quotes from the researchers on the issue of chimpanzee linguistic abilities. Can the perspectives of Fouts and Terrace be reconciled?

  2. Using the discussion of the vocal tract (chapter 4), explain why experiments with chimpanzees using sign language were more successful than those using oral signs.

  3. Why is the property of intent so important to communication?

  4. Ernst Cassirer 1944:24 noted that: “Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals, man lives not merely in a broader reality, he lives, so to speak in a new dimension of reality.”

  5. What reasons can you propose to explain why humans rely so heavily on the oral-aural channel when compared to chimpanzees?

  6. Why does Nim rely more on iterated parataxis (using sequences of paratactic sentences) than human children?

  7. What are the implications of the similarity of case meanings of Nim’s two word sentences with those of humans (chapter 5)?

  8. Explain why parts of speech are so important to the development of syntax. You may want to review the discussion of this chapter 3.

  9. What is the connection between Rumbaugh’s observation that chimpanzees can understand syntactic sentences like “Pour the lemonade in the coke” and the observation that in Broca’s aphasia (chapter 4) that comprehension is normal?

  10. From a semiological perspective, explain how human language is unique?

Suggestions for Further Reading

  1. Frisch, Karl von. The dancing bees: an account of the life and senses of the honey bee; translated [from the German] by Dora Isle and Norman Walker. London, Methuen, 1966.

  2. talking with other species. New York: Crown Publishers.

  3. Nottebohm, Fernando. Birdsong as a model in which to study brain processes related to learning. The Condor v. 86 (Aug. '84) p. 227-36.

  4. Public Broadcasting System. Why do birds sing? Nova 11/3/1974.

  5. Public Broadcasting System. Signs of Apes, Songs of Whales Nova 10/11/1983.

  6. Public Broadcasting System. Can Chimps Talk? Nova 02/15/94.

  7. Seyfarth, R. and D. Cheney. In Press. Social self-awareness in monkeys. The American Zoologist.

  8. Menzel, E. 1973. Leadership and communication in young chimpanzees. Symposia of the Fourth International Congress of Primatology. In E. Menzel (ed.), Precultural private behavior, 172-204. Basel: Karger.

  9. Leslie White, The Science of Man 1975

  10. Cassirer, Ernst, An essay on man; an introduction to a philosophy of human culture. New Haven, Yale university press, 1944:24

To Do

the work of x and y Kellogg (Ref xx) and a chimpanzee named ???.
Does the argument that because the brains of porpoises are as large as humans reflect the modular hypothesis (Chapter 6)?

X Tanner

Chapter Six: Chimpanzees as a model of the ancestral population: mental capacities, communication and socialization -bases for the evolution of the capacity of culture.

Nancy Makepeace Tanner. 1990. On Becoming Human. Publisher?

Kellogg experiments with ???,

x and y Kellogg (Ref xx

Kellogg experiments with ???,f

, “Only man has the ability to originate, determine and bestow meaning upon things and events in the external world.” f

, “Only man has the ability to originate, determine and bestow meaning upon things and events in the external world.” f

1 We draw a distinction between two meanings of the term creativity: 1) the ability for a grammar to generate an infinite number of sentences, which we call generativity; and 2) the ability for novel uses of language, which we call creativity.

2 Chimpanzees do make an [u] like sound because they have the capacity to round their lips (chapter 3). This enables at least an /u/ - // contrast.

3 In speaking of "adaptation" it is convenient to say that the human vocal apparatus has adapted to human language. This kind of phrasing suggests that the goal of this adaptation was clear from the start. It would be technically more accurate to say that the whole of process of communication, the vocal tract, the brain evolved together and that the current configuration is the consequence of the adaptational process and not the goal.

4 The relationship between semiological communication and misinformation is certainly worth further investigation as there is a good deal of truth in Mark Twain´s observation that "Man is the only animal that can lie and who needs to."

5 Intent to communicate should not surprise pet owners either. Once I was sitting in a friend’s house, he had gone for a swim and left me to mind the dog, Pepe. After a while, the Pepe went to the door and looked at me. I knew he wanted to go out, but I was not sure he was supposed to, so I ignored him. The Pepe then scratched at the door. I ignored him. He then barked. I ignored him. Finally, Pepe came to the chair I was sitting in and grabbed a hold of my pant leg and tugged it gently in the direction of the door. I let Pepe out. While some might question the meanings of Pepe’s actions, it was clear both that Pepe had an important urge to get out and that his actions represented an intent to communicate.

6 We draw a distinction between two meanings of the term creativity: 1) the ability for a grammar to generate an infinite number of sentences, which we call generativity; and 2) the ability for novel uses of language, which we call creativity.

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