Linguistics 105 * Words and Sounds
Lecture Number Eighteen
Chimps Language Acquisition Among Pongids


  1. Recall Hockett's "Design Features"

    1. Common features: medium/mode, semanticity (X = Y), function
    2. Higher features: reciprocity, parental/cultural transmission, arbitrariness (not iconic), discreteness of elements, locational displacement
    3. Highest features: temporal displacement, categorical abstractions, generative grammar, recombinacy

  2. Non-Pongids in the Wild

    1. Prosimians -- symptomatic vocalization
    2. Vervets (monkeys (anthropoids))
      1. three calls
        1. eagle call (look up, run to bushes)
        2. snake call (look down, hold up arms)
        3. large mammal (climb (higher) in trees)
      2. innate + learned -- babies make all three instinctively
        1. some initial confusion
        2. eagle call for all birds
        3. large mammal call for all mammals

  3. Pongids

    1. Pongids in the Wild
      1. chimps have about 16 graded calls plus gestures & postures
      2. individuals have to interpret call + gesture + posture combinations
      3. little indication of arbitrariness, recombination, or innateness
    2. Trained Pongids
      1. Lana (Duane Rumbaugh) & Sarah (David & A. Premack Yerkes PC)
        1. Experiment. 9 or more arbitrary plastic chips, magnetized or built into board connected to computer. Latter light up when pressed and delivers S-R reward (see p. 402). Chips must be aligned in correct sequence.
        2. Results.
          1. signs are arbitrary by design, but do they have meaning?
          2. order: syntax (?) or puzzle-solving (?)

            Compare termite-hunting:
            (a) break twig,
            (b) strip off leaves,
            (c) insert twig in termite mound,
            (d) wait a few seconds,
            (e) pull twig out of termite mound,
            (f) lick twig.
          3. No creative recombination.
          4. S-R acquisition
      2. Washoe (Alan & Beatrice Gardner + Roger Fouts); Koko (Penny Patterson)
        1. Experiment. Taught chimpanzee & western lowlands gorilla to sign in order to get food, tickling, grooming, toys, etc.
          I can't express the jubilation your acquaintance brings me.
        2. Results
          1. chimps learnerd up to 160 different signs plus correct order
          2. chimps & gorilla initiated conversation when they wanted anything.
          3. recombinancy
            (a) Washoe: sugar + water (= watermelon), water + bird (duck)
            (b) Koko's compounds, Table 14.2, p. 405
          4. acquisition: all by S-R
        3. Kanzi (Sue Savage-Rumbaugh)
          1. Experiment? Accidentally taught Bonobo chimpazee to communicate with an electronic symbol board like Lana's (only portable)
          2. Results. Kanzi (and Panbinisha) learned how to both "read" and "write" on the symbol board as well as recognized the usual 120-160 symbols when spoken. But other results indicated similar problems to the previous experiments, e.g. 'fight' 'mad' 'Austin' episode.

    3. Problems in research

      1. Methodological

        1. Early Washoe photographs cropped out trainers signing (coaching);
          also with Nim Chimpsky, who has only 12% spontaneous, new communication
        2. Koko creates her own syntax, places As after Ns
        3. Koko "jokes," says "up" sometimes when she means "down"
        4. Koko uses "metaphor," referring to cat (?) as "excrement"
        5. Sign expert says that only about 60% of Washoe's signs are legible

      2. Philosophical

        1. What would it mean for us, humans, if we prove that chimps can learn "language"?
        2. How are we to survive in the world without better understanding our neighbors and our origins?

    4. Conclusion

      1. Chimps can
        1. like all animals with calls, acquire forms of behavior by observation.
        2. learn and use symbols as well as a human before the age of two
        3. acquire ordered behavior patterns
      2. Chimps can't
        1. recombine symbols to create new espressions (???)
        2. use grammatical morphemes with multiple functions or multiple expressions
        3. master syntactic structure, which is not linear but tree-like (parsing)
        4. acquire a symbolic system from another chimpanzee (???)

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