animal languages 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 26)

Hi again, everybody! More on alleged animal languages, starting with non-human primates.

Opinions vary greatly among linguists and other researchers as to the degree to which human-like primates (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utans, other apes, monkeys), sharing as they do large percentages of the human genome, display the capacity for language or indeed display genuinely linguistic thought and behaviour involving systems of complexity and flexibility similar to those of human languages – featuring, for instance, double articulation and syntax.

Some rather impressive cases, adduced by supporters of the view that genuinely linguistic features do occur among non-human primates, involve monkeys. Wild putty-nosed monkeys apparently combine tokens of their three basic calls to generate novel messages, as it were syntactically, or vary their individual calls by adding what appear to be morphological suffixes, in some cases apparently distinguishing between predators which they have observed directly and those which they know others have observed. These features appear quasi-linguistic, near-linguistic or associated with roughly equivalent features in human language, although none of them seems to be strictly syntactic in nature.

Even where spontaneous linguistic thought and behaviour is not claimed, it is often claimed that primates do possess the capability of being taught key aspects of human language, again involving, for instance, double articulation and syntax – even if they have not developed these characteristics themselves, and even if they are incapable of phonation and require to be trained in other modes of expression (notably signed languages such as are used especially by deaf humans). For instance, some chimpanzees which have been raised largely among humans have reportedly become capable of acquiring and manipulating large vocabularies (150 words or more) and other significant aspects of human language, and on this basis it is argued that they demonstrate genuinely linguistic thought and behaviour. On this basis, a New York Times reporter competent in sign language, Boyce Rensberger, was able to conduct what he regarded as the first newspaper interview with a member of another species when in 1974 he ‘conversed’ with Lucy, a chimpanzee who had been instructed in signing (see below).

Scholars critical of such claims argue that even the ‘higher’ primates are unable to link symbolic sounds together in sentences or produce other key features characteristic of language, either after or without attempts at instruction, and that attempts to teach animals human language are doomed to failure. Scholars with such views include Noam Chomsky and his followers such as Stephen Budiansky and Steven Pinker, who adopt such positions largely on theoretical grounds (involving the alleged ‘hard-wiring’ of the language faculty in humans specifically) but who also present empirical evidence supposedly upholding their views. Some active empiricist researchers also reject or at least challenge claims regarding primate language use or language acquisition. Yet other researchers adopt intermediate views on the issue, regarding the empirical evidence as mixed or equivocal, or hold that some primate communication systems should be considered not strictly linguistic but pre-linguistic in character. The debate continues.

R.M. Seyfarth and D.L. Cheney (with Klaus Zuberbühler, whose own wording is linguistically naïve) suggest that non-human primates have not developed their pre-linguistic behaviour further predominantly because, unlike Homo sapiens, they lack a ‘theory of mind’: the recognition that others have thoughts. At some point in human evolution, on the other hand, humans developed the desire to share thoughts, and natural selection led to the development of language as a means of achieving this. This suggests that non-human primates might be regarded as quasi-autistic; the notion is that both non-human primates and (by preference) autistic humans (and maybe also horses, cetaceans and birds; see below) think and communicate pictorially rather than linguistically. Ideas similar to those proposed by Seyfarth are proclaimed by Temple Grandin (who has close personal experience of autism as well as relevant professional expertise), and there seems to be much to commend them, although the specifics are open to debate.

Another group of authors, of a clearly non-mainstream kind, who uphold the view that language is specific to the human species are Christian fundamentalist writers such as the psycholinguist Clifford Wilson. Wilson supports a Chomskyan species-specific model of language as part of an anti-evolutionist program. He analyses the communication systems of various species in terms of distinct ‘types’ of animal, as is usual among creationist thinkers, with the different types each possessing their own, unrelated and in fact specially created systems.

One increasingly important aspect of this debate involves genetics. Since mid-2002 evidence has accumulated regarding the appearance of the supposedly crucial FOXP2 chromosome-code at the relatively recent date of 200,000 BP – around the time when Homo sapiens may actually have begun to speak or at least sign; some of the physiology needed for speech seems to have appeared later. On this ground, many scholars have argued that it is unlikely that non-human primates have the capacity for genuine linguistic behaviour (or indeed that pre-sapiens hominids had such capacities). Even the closely related chimpanzees display possibly crucially different forms of the relevant gene.

It must be noted, however, that not all linguists agree as to the significance of FOXP2 in respect of the human language faculty. Very different interpretations of some of the key findings have been advanced by non-nativist linguists such as Geoffrey Sampson. In addition, it is conceivable that non-human species might possess very different systems of similar complexity and flexibility which are based otherwise than in any given genetic feature such as FOXP2. Indeed, members of Homo erectus (to all appearances) must have built boats to reach insular Flores around 840,000 years BP and it is suggested by some that they must have been able to speak or sign in order to organize such a complex enterprise.

Manipulation of the relevant genes is reported to have altered the mental and behavioural capabilities of mammals such as mice; and a more ‘positive’ interpretation of the situation with respect to non-human primates could involve the suggestion that chimpanzees and bonobos could now be readily induced to develop language, or at least to learn human languages more effectively, by manipulation of the relevant gene.

I will say a little later on the alleged (near-)linguistic capabilities of supposed human-like cryptids (sasquatch, etc.).

As ever, detailed references on request. More next time!


3 Responses to animal languages 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 26)

  1. Pacal says:

    Thanks! Your pieces on the alleged language abilities of other animals is fascinating. However I sort of get the feeling that a lot of discussion in this area is sophistical sematic pendantry over definitions. Much of it designed to preserve the idea that humans have some unique characteristic that other animals don’t share.

    Well whether or not what the various apes taught sign language or other means of communication were doing if it isn’t “language” it certainly seems to have been language like and has such worthy of serious consideration in showing that human language abilities are not entirely unique.

    I used to have in my possession a book called Nim by Dr. Herbert Terrace about an attempt to teach a Chimpanzee named, far too cutely, Nim Chimpsky Sign Language. THe attempt supposedly failed. Dr. Terrace published his papers concluding that humans remained unique in having language and that the supposed sign language using apes were simply engaged in reward generating behavior and a lot of the Clever Hans effect with researchers.

    The result was that funds and interest in Sign Language and language development in Apes dried up. No doubt all sorts of people breathed a sigh of relief that human distinctiveness was once again preserved. In fact the precipitate decline in such studies after Dr. Terrace published is rather remarkable. I guess a lot of people wanted to hear this.

    At the time I had serious problems with the sign language studies but IU thought also that Dr. Terrace’s study with Nim was seriously flawed. The more or less complete stop to such studies was a little premature in my opinion.

    Studies that some how managed to continue after Nim,; more especially studies teaching Chimpanzees non sign language methods of communication, notably Kanzai’s use of pressing symbols on a board led to a gradual revival of language and Ape studies. Especially since the Clever Hans effect seems to be less likely with such methods. Also more material coming out seems to indicate that if anything Dr. Terrace’s study with Nim is even more flawed than revealed in his published papers and book.

    I recommend the movie Project Nim about the study. If even 1/2 of it is true, Dr. Terrace’s refutations are not very convincing, than not only was his Nim study scientifically stunningly flawed but that his ethics were also seriously wanting. What I can’t get over though is how eager so many Scientists were to embrace Dr. Terrace’s study and conclusion, despite it’s truly large flaws.

  2. dmarx says:

    what’s the harm of little idiots?

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