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So What If Apes Can Use Language?

editorial by David M. Switzer

If things had been different, perhaps we would have a different perception of our relationship to the apes... It is unfortunate that there are no nonhuman great apes in the West. If we as a culture had "grown up" around great apes, we would have gotten to know them better. The Dyak of Malaysia understand that orangutans are a sort of person; their word "orangutan" is translated as "reasonable being of the woods" or "old person of the forest." Meanwhile our tradition, at least until recently, held that apes were bloodthirsty monsters (like King Kong).

Humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor around 6 to 8 million years ago. If there were other species alive today descended from the same ancestor, we likely would have perceived a closer relationship between ourselves and the chimpanzees. (Such species did exist, but they're all extinct.) We tend to categorize beings as either "humans" or "apes." In fact, chimpanzees are biologically closer to humans than they are to gorillas.

If we had started ape language experiments earlier, we might have gained a greater understanding of the capabilities of apes by now. The question of whether apes could use language has actually been asked for some time. In 1661 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about what he called a "baboone" (probably a chimpanzee): he believed that the creature understood much spoken English, and he also speculated that it might be taught to speak or make signs. During the first half of the twentieth century, the first experimental forays into the area of ape language were, in fact, attempts to teach apes to speak. In the most successful of these attempts, chimpanzee Viki was taught to speak four words. (Experiments in which chimpanzees were raised as human children were successful in other respects, though: the chimpanzees learned to understand a great deal of human speech, and they often communicated with their "family" to some extent by gestures.)

If there were an isolated community of humans who had absolutely no spoken or written language (for whatever reason), I don't think anyone would argue that these people didn't have basic human rights. But what would be the difference between these people and nonhuman great apes? Certainly the people look more like us, and you might hypothesize that they're more intelligent than apes -- but you couldn't prove it.

If a physically superior force came along, say aliens, we wouldn't want them to start performing painful and degrading experiments on us. But the aliens could respond to our complaints that "it's not right" with "Why not? You did it to the apes." When this scenario happens in the movies we always cheer for the human underdogs. We certainly don't think might is right when we've got the short end of the stick.

The great apes consist of bonobos (sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees), chimpanzees, gorillas, humans, and orangutans. It's time we brought our closest nonhuman relatives into the family.

Humans have often asserted a fundamental difference between themselves and other animals. One of these assertions which has had many proponents into the twentieth century is that humans differ from animals in their use of language. (Another was that humans were the only species that used tools -- which Jane Goodall discovered to be false.) In the past thirty years extraordinary claims have been made by some researchers about the linguistic capabilities of their subjects, mostly chimpanzees. Can the apes use language, or are the researchers just seeing what they want to see?

Some people say that an ape's use of sign language is not "real" language. Of course, if these are the same people who say that language separates humans from animals, and if it can be shown that an ape can learn sign language that is somehow "real," then these people are saying that deaf people who use sign language are not human.

The first sign language experiment started with an infant chimpanzee named Washoe in 1966. Since then many experiments have been undertaken with bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans using sign language, plastic tokens, and even computer keyboards.

Washoe was able to transfer her signs spontaneously to a new member of a class of referents; for example, she used the word "more" in a wide variety of contexts (not just for more tickling, which was the first referent). She transferred the "dog" sign to the sound of barking by an unseen dog. Washoe began to use combinations of signs spontaneously after learning only about eight or ten of them. Washoe considered herself human: when categorizing photos, she would place photos of herself with humans and photos of other chimpanzees with animals.

One of the most remarkable developments in this research occurred when Washoe adopted an infant named Loulis. For the next five years, no sign language was used by humans in Loulis' presence; Loulis still managed to learn over 50 signs from Washoe and other chimpanzees.

Chimpanzee Sarah used pieces of plastic that represented words; these tokens varied in shape, size, texture, and colour. Sarah was taught nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and quantifiers; she was also taught same-difference, negation, and compound sentences. When a trainer put a question on Sarah's board and walked away, Sarah showed little interest in answering it -- which is similar to the way a conversation dies when one person stops paying attention to the other.

Chimpanzee Lana learned to use another system, a language of lexigrams on an electronic keyboard. When keys were pressed accidentally, Lana used the "period" key (end of sentence) as an eraser so that she could restart the sentence; Lana did this on her own before it occurred to the researchers. Lana also started using "no" as a protest (for example, when someone else was drinking a Coke and she did not have one) after having learned it as a negation ("it is not true that..."). Lana acquired linguistic skills which showed her ability to abstract and generalize. She invented names for things by combining lexigrams in new ways. For example, she knew apple and the colour orange but not the fruit orange; when someone came in with an orange, Lana called it an "apple which is orange."

Herbert Terrace was skeptical of the reported success of the chimpanzees Washoe, Sarah, and Lana. Although he admitted that the apes had achieved something significant, he compared their behaviour to that of pigeons who are taught to peck different colours in a certain order. He also believed that the apes used signs only to receive rewards from their human trainers. When Terrace set up his own experiment, chimpanzee Nim's rewards for learning to sign were his trainers' approval and being able to sign about something that was important to him. Although Nim learned many words, Terrace concluded that Nim could not combine words to create new meanings on his own. He believed, from viewing videotapes, that the combinations of words that Nim used were prompted by prior signs from his trainers. Terrace is not as much of a skeptic as some others make him out to be, though; he believed that the conditions under which Project Nim operated were not ideal, and future projects might have more success if they were able to instill a greater motivation to sign in their subjects.

Here are a few more examples... Sherman and Austin were two chimpanzees who were able to communicate specific information to each other through the use of symbols, information that they could not communicate without the symbols. A bonobo named Kanzi learned his first words by merely watching lessons directed at his mother. Kanzi has a wry sense of humour, he sometimes pretends, and he sometimes lies. Chantek, an orangutan, learned 150 signs and reached a mental age of a 2-3 year old human with some skills of older children. Koko, a gorilla, has been using sign language since 1972. Koko is creative in her language usage -- she rhymes and jokes. On one occasion she used a metaphor of an elephant to refer to herself when she pretended a long tube was her "trunk." I've seen a video of Koko and her trainer, Francine Patterson, communicating in sign language; it was almost like watching two deaf people signing.

Scientists seem to be divided into two camps on the subject of ape language research. In the one camp are the researchers who treat their apes more like children; these people tend to focus on the accomplishments of their subjects, and the similarities between ape and human language. In the other camp are the researchers who treat their apes more like experimental subjects; these people tend to focus on the failures of their subjects, and the differences between ape and human language. Both groups have problems with the research methods of the other. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Kanzi's trainer, believes that people accepted the results of the early ape language experiments too readily, and rejected them too readily after Project Nim.

In addition to the disagreements about what apes have learned, there are disagreements about the ethical implications of ape language research. Although not a primatologist, author Douglas Adams has some perceptive comments about teaching apes language in his book Last Chance to See... While sitting four feet away from a wild silverback mountain gorilla, he asks

Why [try to teach apes language]? There are many members of our own species who live in and with the forest and know it and understand it. We don't listen to them. What is there to suggest we would listen to anything an ape could tell us? Or that he would be able to tell us of his life in a language that hasn't been born of that life? ... Maybe it is not that they have yet to gain a language, it is that we have lost one.

One problem is that we have no way of communicating with apes unless we teach them some language that humans also know. There is an interesting paradox in ape language research: the more successful the findings are, the better the case for not doing the research at all. If language use gives beings rights and freedoms, we should ask the apes' permission before experimenting on them -- of course, it is difficult to see a situation in which an ape would understand the experiment before it was undertaken. Some scientists claim that it is in the apes' best interests to learn language, but we do not even know what is in the best interests of humans when it comes to language.

Shirley Strum, who studied baboons in the field, asks the question "are you responsible for what you tame?" and answers in the affirmative. Apes are cute and cuddly when they are small, but they get rather large and strong as they mature. One problem with apes raised by humans is that it is very difficult (and often impossible) to teach them how to survive in the wild.

If apes can use language, in some sense, then what is the significance of this? The members of The Great Ape Project declare that the nonhuman great apes should be included in a community of equals with humans: each member of this community should have the right to life, liberty, and freedom from torture. This declaration may seem radical to many (and not radical enough for a few), but the trend has been for people to agree with more and more rights for animals.

We've gradually agreed that more and more beings are included in the set of beings that are afforded basic rights -- women, blacks, disabled persons. The linguistic competence of apes compares favourably with profoundly mentally disabled humans. Our treatment of nonhuman animals could be (and has been) compared to that of slaves in former times.

The uniqueness of humans is a part of many -- but not all -- of our religious traditions. Many believe that humans have souls whereas animals do not. I'm not going to argue that one way or the other here, but even if that were true, so what? It doesn't follow that we can treat nonhuman animals any way we want.

The philosopher and mathematician Descartes believed that language separated humans (who have souls) from animals (who do not). If it is language that makes us human, then surely at some level apes are human too.

Recommended Reading

Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, eds, The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Dian Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.

Roger Fouts and Stephen Tukel Mills, Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are. William Morrow and Company, 1997.

Biruté M. F. Galdikas, Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo. Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

Jane Goodall, Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.

Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden, The Education of Koko. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin, Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. John Wiley & Sons, 1994.

Frans de Wall, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. University of California Press, 1997.

David M. Switzer has been inspired by Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas, both of whom he met in person. They have been studying chimpanzees and orangutans, respectively, in the field for many years.

Cover artist Alfred L. Jones was born fifty years ago in St Charles, Missouri and has been drawing for the most part of them. Though he has worked in all mediums, he prefers colored pencils or graphite, creating works that are full of composition and detail. He says pencil is "the bare bone of art in that there is very little room for mistakes or fancy flares. It's the true essence of Art." Although Alfred draws from vast subject matter he prefers to draw fantasy and fondly refers to it as his first love. He now lives in Fairborn, Ohio with his wife Janice and is still drawing fantasy and maintaining his own gallery on the Internet. His gallery "Book of Dreams" can be seen at

Last modified: January 4, 2009

Copyright © 1999 David M. Switzer

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