Monday, March 26, 2012

Ape languages evolving

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, chimpanzees, languages

Primatologist Andrew R. Halloran makes no secret of his stance; in a note early in The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees, he states, "There are few things more depressing than watching Koko: A Talking Gorilla. I encourage everyone to watch the film and draw their own conclusions." (p 78, note) Later in the book he describes the occasion of first observing the AOL "chat" between Koko and her fans, and how it completely turned him toward discovering how apes communicate among themselves when their experience is not distorted by laboratory methods and researchers' preconceptions. He saw no evidence during the "chat" session that Koko understood either the questions or her "answers".

I have been variously enamored of Koko, Whashoe and other apes that have been taught to use ASL (American Sign Language) signs. I was quite touched at the testimony of one young deaf woman who said, "I was conversing with a gorilla in my mother tongue!" Yet the transcripts of such conversations always left quite a lot to be desired. It requires a fertile imagination to attribute meaning to many of the ape's hand signs, that seem random in retrospect. Dr. Halloran is of the opinion that such signing is of no more significance than a circus trick, and nearly all the "meaning" residing in the mind of the researcher.

Starting with the "chat" in 1998, he spent about ten years as a zookeeper in a Florida animal park, a chimpanzee caretaker, working his way through graduate school. Rather than spend his time in libraries, as grad students are typically expected to do, he carried on his own "laboratory" work among the chimps, getting to know them, learning their habits and particularly their sounds, and finally recording and classifying the vocalization patterns of two groups of related chimps that had been moved to live far from one another.

The result of his work is unequivocal. The two groups, in just a few years, began to develop dialects that differed from one another. After the two groups lost contact (they began as a single large group that was split up when a younger male challenged the alpha chimp), some calls stayed the same but others changed. In particular, just a few years later, the repertory of calls being taught to infant and juvenile chimps in each group constituted a language that belonged to that group. The author expects that in a few more generations, the two groups will become mutually unintelligible. These are the hallmarks of genuine language, with a grammar all its own, but unlike any human language.

During most of the past seven million years, proto-humans (and later, humans) and proto-chimps (and later, chimps), developed their communication systems in isolation from one another. On rare occasions that hominids and apes met, they hunted each other for food. Communication was the last thing on anyone's mind. In central Africa today, chimpanzees are still hunted for "bush meat". It is only in a few Westernized societies that people have developed an interest in communicating with them. Dr. Halloran outlines the work of Yerkes and others who tried teaching chimps to speak, or to use "keyboard" languages such as Yerkish, and finally seemed to have a measure of success with ASL.

Many claim that ape utterances are not language; that they lack grammar or some other feature of human language and are thus not "up to the level" of genuine language. I see only a little merit in such a contention. Near the end of the book, there is a list of a dozen or more utterances that seem unambiguous among a particular group of chimps, with meanings such as "Stop it!", "I am happy with you", or "I found food!". I get the impressions that all the utterances that have been so deciphered are phrases, not words as we understand them. For example, there is a sound meaning "Come here!" that may be a neologism by one of the chimps. It is the only sound listed that has a single "phoneme", a raspberry blurt. There is no utterance yet deciphered that means, "I am coming," so it isn't known whether the phrases are composed of sounds we might call words. However, there are dozens of sounds that were recorded that have yet to be deciphered, and among them there may be some words.

This points up the fact that cross-species communication is hard. Dr. Halloran has not tried to "talk" to the chimps using their sounds, or at least, he does not report doing so. I suspect if he were to do so, it would be similar to my first visit to Japan. I knew a few words and phrases, and in a train station I asked a porter "Benjo wa doko desuka" (Where is the toilet?). He replied "Kore wa rōka ni arimasu, which I didn't understand, but fortunately he also waved down the hallway (rōka, I learned later), where I found the restroom. When asking a question in another language, it is best not to sound too fluent! Better to sound clumsy, and they'll answer more simply. Who knows whether chimps would be so polite to a human?

So far, the author has produced a phrase book that helps him understand certain utterances by two groups of chimps. It is of no help generally, because each group will have its own dialect. There is no more a single chimp language than there is a single human language. I suspect we will find it is equally so for dolphins (and perhaps certain other whales) and perhaps some birds (I am thinking of Alex and other African gray parrots that seem to understand at least some English grammar. I wonder what parrot grammar is like, and how we would find out. Alex has died; will others of his species act as interpreters? Would they have the patience to answer our questions? A parrot's attention span is shorter than any two-year-old's).

Dr. Halloran is not alone. He cites the work of a number of researchers, primarily "on site" primatologists, that have worked to determine the rules of chimpanzee behavior and how the sounds they make relate to their actions. I for one am convinced: An ape's language may be simpler than a human language, but is a language nonetheless. It is a necessary part of the social structure of ape families and groups. Knowing this is so takes the shine off all attempts to teach them any human language. We will do best to learn how they communicate among themselves, and take the onus upon ourselves to communicate with them in ways they find most natural.

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