Linguistic Superabundance

One beautiful moment early on during Project Washoe illustrated the common need of chimps and children to use their signs. The Gardners were in their kitchen entertaining some friends whose toddler happened to be deaf. Washoe was playing outside. Suddenly, the child and Washoe saw one another through the kitchen window. As if on cue, the child signed MONKEY at the same moment Washoe signed BABY.


How cute! It's almost like they understand!

Baby Talk

Leslie (fifteen months): We went to the zoo and just everything was 'ock' (dog). I kept saying 'monkey', 'elephant' etc. and she responded triumphantly 'ock'! She was very excited.

Nicky (sixteen months): All birds are ducks to Nicky.

Sorsha (seventeen months): We got a pumpkin today for Hallowe'en - Sorsha called it a 'ball' at first, and then we told her what it was and she said 'punky'.

Rowan (21 months): The apple' for all fruit is wearing off as she knows they're not all the same and apple' is wrong but she doesn't know the right word.

Danielle (eighteen months): We were locked out of the house the other day so we sat in the car and I was naming different parts of the car, like the wheel, handbrake, gear, etc. I named about ten objects only once and I asked her where they were and she pointed to practically all of them and tried to say some of them.

Sorsha (eighteen months): Sorsha is just parroting every word she hears. Bren said 'That's crap' and she said 'crap'. We will have to watch our language now!

Kaspar (25 months): Kaspar never stops talking and is steadily increasing his vocabulary. He repeats everything he hears, for example the expression 'I know' even though he doesn't normally speak English and kept saying it. He evidently thought it meant he was saying No' to something. He repeats swearwords we came out with at an unguarded moment, and he keeps on saying Sheffield Wednesday (obviously without knowing what it means).

Tanya (seventeen months): She is starting to make up basic sentences, e.g. (Q) Is Tanya a baby?' (A) No, Tanya big girl'.

Rowan (20 months): Commands: 'shoe me!', 'sock me!', 'juice me!', 'apple me!'.

Stacey (22 months): Today she started a new way of saying things - one word in front of everything: 'where Daddy/where bath/where baby'.

Jimmy (23 months): He certainly knows his own mind! He runs the words not go in' into one sort of word of his own: 'nogoin', and says that before everything he doesn't want, like 'nogoin juice', 'nogoin bath', 'nogoin nitenite' (to bed)!

Theo (eleven months): Theo has started talking in a very funny language of his own. It is very hard to transcribe but I'll try - 'Agalalaglaga' or 'Glaglagla', over and over again, very fast. It makes everyone laugh and he seems to enjoy it a lot.
(Same week): Theo now makes a whole range of conversation- like babblings, most of which sound like Arabic.

Oscar (twelve months): His nonsense' chattering has got more sophisticated and expressive. He's started having conversations' with other babies.
(Same week): Lots of talking in own gobbledygook, but with intonation and emphasis which are more like adult speech. Quite sophisticated copying of adult behaviour like pressing speaker phone button on telephone and talking' into speaker.

Gillian (35 months): Gilly keeps correcting everything. She hates it if we imitate her way of pronouncing words. If I read her a story and I even slightly change the words, she screams, No! I have to get the words just right.

Janet (37 months): Janet corrects her baby brother now - if he says 'bockle', she shouts, 'No, boTTle!'


Lyn White Miles (left) and Chantek (right)


Chantek was extremely curious and inventive. When he wanted to know the name of something he offered his hands to be moulded into the shape of the proper sign. But language is a creative process, so we were pleased to see that Chantek began to invent his own signs. He invented: NO-TEETH (to show us that he would not use his teeth during rough play); EYE-DRINK (for contact lens solution used by his caregivers); DAVE-MISSING-FINGER (a name for a favourite university employee who had a hand injury); VIEWMASTER (a toy that displays small pictures); and BALLOON. Like our ancestors, Chantek had become a creator of language, the criterion that two hundred years earlier Lord Monboddo had said would define orang-utans as persons.

The goal of Project Chantek was to investigate the mind of an orangutan through a developmental study of his cognitive and linguistic skills. It was a great ethical and emotional responsibility to engage an orangutan in what anthropologists call enculturation', since I would not only be teaching a form of communication, I would be teaching aspects of the culture upon which that language was based. If my developmental project was successful, I would create a symbol-using creature which would be somewhere between an ape living under natural conditions and an adult human, which threatened to raise as many questions as I sought to answer.

Beginning at nine months of age, Chantek was raised at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga by a small group of care-givers who communicated with him by using gestural signs based on the American Sign Language for the deaf. Chantek produced his first signs after one

month and eventually learned to use approximately 150 different signs, forming a vocabulary similar to that of a very young child. Chantek learned names for people (LYN, JOHN), places (YARD, BROCK-HALL), things to eat (YOGURT, CHOCOLATE), actions (WORK, HUG), objects (SCREWDRIVER, MONEY), animals (DOG, APE), colours (RED, BLACK), pronouns (YOU, ME), location (UP, POINT), attributes (GOOD, HURT), and emphasis (MORE, TIME-TO-DO). We found that Chantek's signing was spontaneous and nonrepetitious. He did not merely imitate his care-givers as had been claimed for the sign language trained chimpanzee Nim; rather, Chantek actively used his signs to initiate communications and meet his needs.

Almost immediately, Chantek began to use his signs in combinations and modulated their meanings with slight changes in how he articulated and arranged his signs. He commented 'COKE DRINK' after drinking his coke, 'PULL BEARD' while pulling a care-giver's hair through a fence, 'TIME HUG' while locked in his cage as his care-giver looked at her watch, and 'RED BLACK POINT' for a group of coloured paint jars. At first he used signs to manipulate people and objects to meet his needs, rather than to refer to them. He knew the meaning of his signs the way a pet might associate a can of food or a word with feeding time. But, could he use these signs as symbols, that is, more abstractly to represent a person, thing, action or idea, even apart from its context or when it was not present?

One indication of the capacity to use symbolic language in both deaf and hearing human children is the ability to point, which some researchers argued that apes could not do spontaneously. Chantek began to point to objects when he was two years old, somewhat later than human children, as we might expect. First, he showed and gave us objects, and then he began pointing to where he wanted to be tickled and to where he wanted to be carried. Finally, he could answer questions like WHERE HAT?, WHICH DIFFERENT?, and WHAT WANT? by pointing to the correct object.

As Chantek's vocabulary increased, the ideas that he was expressing became more complex, such as when he signed 'BAD BIRD' at noisy birds giving alarm calls, and 'WHITE CHEESE FOOD-EAT' for cottage cheese. He understood that things had characteristics or attributes that could be described. He also created combinations of signs that we had never used before. In the way that a child learns language, Chantek began to overor under-extend the meaning of his signs, which gave us insight into his emotions and how he was beginning to classify his world. For example, he used the sign 'DOG' for dogs, a picture of a dog in his viewmaster, orang-utans on television, barking noises on the radio, birds, horses, a tiger at the circus, a herd of cows, a picture of a cheetah, and a noisy helicopter that presumably sounded like it was barking. For Chantek, the sign 'BUG' included crickets, cockroaches, a picture of a cockroach, beetles, slugs, small moths, spiders, worms, flies, a picture of a graph shaped like a butterfly, tiny brown pieces of cat food, and small bits of faeces. He signed 'BREAK' before he broke and shared pieces of crackers, and after he broke his toilet. He signed 'BAD' to himself before he grabbed a cat, when he bit into a radish, and for a dead bird.


Koko signs GORILLA


Some of what they tell us can be anticipated: What do gorillas like to do most 'GORILLA LOVE EAT GOOD'. Or, What makes you happy? 'GORILLA TREE'. What makes you angry? 'WORK'. What do gorillas do when it's dark? 'GORILLA LISTEN [pause], SLEEP'. Some responses, on the other hand, are quite unexpected: How did you sleep last night?' (expecting 'FINE' 'BAD' or some related response). 'FLOOR BLANKET' (Koko sleeps on the floor with blankets). How do you like your blankets to feel?' 'HOT KOKO-LOVE'. 'What happened?' (after an earthquake). 'DARN DARN FLOOR BAD BITE. TROUBLE TROUBLE'.

12 February 1984

Teacher: What's an insult?
T: What's a stove?

12 July 1984
T: What's an injury? [Voiced only.]
K: THERE BITE [to a cut on her hand].
13 July 1984
I: What is crazy?

8 February 1985
I: When do people say darn?

21 April 1983
T: What can you think of that's hard?

9 February 1984
T: What's a smart gorilla?
K: ME.

These invented signs indicate that the gorillas, like human children, take initiative with language by making up new words and by giving new meanings to old words. On the next level, there is evidence that Koko and Michael can generate novel names by combining two or more familiar words. For instance, Koko signed 'BOTTLE MATCH' to refer to a cigarette lighter, 'WHITE TIGER' for a zebra, and 'EYE HAT' for a mask. Michael has generated similar combinations, such as 'ORANGE FLOWER SAUCE' for nectarine yogurt and 'BEAN BALL' for peas. Other examples in the samples of the gorillas' signing are 'ELEPHANT BABY' for a Pinocchio doll and 'BOTTLE NECKLACE' for a six-pack soda can holder.

Critics have commented that such phrases are merely the pairing of two separate aspects of what is present. Many of the above examples, however, cannot be explained in this way - when Koko signed 'BOTTLE MATCH', neither a bottle nor a match was present.

The gorillas have applied such new descriptive terms to themselves as well as to novel objects. When angered, Koko has labelled herself a 'RED MAD GORILLA'. Once, when she had been drinking water through a thick rubber straw from a pan on the floor after repeatedly asking her companion for drinks of juice which were not forthcoming, she referred to herself as a 'SAD ELEPHANT'.

Koko has also made verbal jokes'. On 30 October 1982, Barbara Hiller showed Koko a picture of a bird feeding her young.

    K: THAT ME [to the adult bird].
    B: Is that really you?
    B: I thought you were a gorilla.
    B: Can you fly?
    K: GOOD. [GOOD can mean yes.]
    B: Show me.
    K: FAKE BIRD, CLOWN. [Koko laughs.]
    B: You're teasing me. [Koko laughs.]
    B: What are you really?
    Koko laughs again, and after a minute signs

    MS: What's the difference between you and me?
    K: HEAD.
    MS: And how are our heads different?
    Koko beats on her head with her open hands quite hard, harder
    than a human would ever do.
    MS: What else is different between us?
    Koko moves her hand up to her stomach, a gesture resembling
    MS: Do you mean something about your stomach?
    MS: Oh, but what were you saying about blanket, different?
    Koko moves her hands up and down her torso, then pulls the hair
    on her belly. Maureen interprets these new gestures as meaning
    'body hair'.
    MS: Now can you name something the same?
    K: EYE.
    MS: Yes, that's right, we both have eyes.
    K: LOVE.

    Michael was once asked a related question: What makes you different from your cat?' He responded, 'GORILLA ME MIKE'
    Koko's responses to self-identity questions
    'Who are you?'

    Who is that?' (to mirror)


Washoe made many more errors with replicas than with photographs. This poor performance stumped us for a while until we noticed a pattern:

the errors all involved the sign BABY. When looking at photos, Washoe would identify a dog as DOG, and a cow as COW. But when she saw the replicas she identified the cow as BABY, the dog as BABY and the car as BABY. Any miniature replica was BABY Washoe seemed less concerned with an object's name than with the fact that it was little, a baby' this or a baby' that. There was an obvious logic to this, especially from her baby point of view, but we had to count her answers as incorrect - again, to guard against over-interpreting

Washoe also began combining signs into phrases that went beyond the ones she learned from us. She may have seen us sign YOU EAT and WASHOE HUG, but we could never show her every possible combination of subject and action. Still, like a human child, she manipulated her categories by pairing, for example, any given person with any given action: ROGER TICKLE, SUSAN QUIET, YOU GO OUT.

Her sign combinations were clearly not random because they always made sense in whatever context she used them. To test her we created situations where she needed help from one of us. For example, in the doll test', Susan would accidentally' step on Washoe's doll. Here were all of Washoe's reactions: UP SUSAN, SUSAN UP, MINE PLEASE UP, GIMME BABY, PLEASE SHOE, MORE MINE, UP PLEASE, PLEASE UP, MORE UP, BABY DOWN, SHOE UP, BABY UP, PLEASE MORE UP and YOU UP. Washoe only used signs in her vocabulary that were relevant to the situation, and she did not pair signs in nonsensical ways, like: BABY SUSAN, SHOE BABY, YOU SHOE, and so on.

This capacity for combining symbols in an order that conveys meaning, not nonsense, is exactly what linguists defined as syntax, the. hallmark of human communication. According to Chomsky, it was the language organ that enabled a child to apply syntax automatically and unconsciously to generate sentences like UP SUSAN, instead of the nonsensical YOU SHOE. If Washoe's signing didn't have rules, then she would have combined signs randomly, but 90   percent of the time, her subject preceded her verbs, as in YOU ME OUT, YOU ME GO. She also understood how to use the subject and object. When I signed ME TICKLE YOU, she would get ready to be tickled. But when I signed YOU TICKLE ME, she would tickle back. In addition, when Washoe used YOU and ME in sentence, 90   percent of the time she signed YOU before ME, as in PLEASE YOU ME GO.

Even Washoe's longer combinations seemed to follow rules of syntax. She once pestered me to let her try a cigarette I was smoking:GIVE ME SMOKE, SMOKE WASHOE, HURRY GIVE SMOKE. Finally, I signed: ASK POLITELY. She responded:PLEASE GIVE ME THAT HOT SMOKE. It was a beautiful sentence but, as with my own children, I sometimes had to say no' to Washoe, and this was one of those times.

Lucy was also spontaneously combining words to create new meanings, just as Washoe had recently done when she called a brazil nut ROCK BERRY and a swan WATER BIRD. Lucy also took to swearing at a local tomcat she disliked, calling it DIRTY CAT. Previously she had used DIRTY only for her activities on the toilet.DIRTY soon became Lucy's all-purpose derogatory sign; when we prepared to go for a walk she referred to her lead as the DIRTY LEASH.

By a strange coincidence, around this same time, Washoe also began referring to her adversaries in scatological terms. (I guess this is not uniquely human.) Her cursing started when Lemmon brought in some new, rather territorial, residents to the pig barn: monkeys. One monkey, a rhesus, always greeted Washoe and me by baring his teeth and threat-barking in defense of his space, causing Washoe to swagger back at him. To ease the strained relations I decided to teach Washoe the sign for MONKEY. I pointed at the rhesus and signed MONKEY. Washoe promptly stormed over to the angry rhesus and started signing DIRTY MONKEY. After this, Washoe took to using DIRTY as an adjective to describe any bad person who didn't give her what she wanted. For instance, if she signed, ROGER OUT ME, wanting to leave the island, and I replied SORRY, YOU MUST STAY THERE, she would respond with DIRTY ROGER over and over again as she walked away.

I got plenty of laughs from Lucy's and Washoe's creative use of the DIRTY sign. But all this cursing was also significant, linguistically speaking. When Lucy called her lead a DIRTY LEASH or a radish CRY HURT FOOD , she was demonstrating a feature of language called productivity - the ability to produce an infinite number of new meanings by recombining a finite number of words or signs.

One beautiful moment eady on during Project Washoe illustrated the common need of chimps and children to use their signs. The Gardners were in their kitchen entertaining some friends whose toddler happened to be deaf. Washoe was playing outside. Suddenly, the child and Washoe saw one another through the kitchen window. As if on cue, the child signed MONKEY at the same moment Washoe signed BABY.

Every day I was reminded that Washoe was developing a human-like capacity for language. By early 1969 my three-year-old chimpanzee sister was not just acting like my two-year-old son, she was talking like him as well. At 7 a.m. Washoe would greet me with a flurry of signs - ROGER HURRY, COME HUG, FEED ME, GIMME CLOTHES, PLEASE OUT, OPEN DOOR -that were a gestural version of what I heard from two-year-old Joshua every morning. And the way Washoe would play-fight, scratch me and then watch my bleeding cut, all the while signing HURT HURT and SORRY SORRY , was almost an exact replay of what I got at home. And Washoe's ability to use language to manipulate me or threaten me soon became quite routine with my son as well.

This worked fine until Washoe looked out the window and saw Susan on her way to the Gardners' with the laundry. Then the garage became a prison and I was the big, bad brother. First she asked to GO OUT. When I refused, she signed OPEN KEY,just in case I had forgotten how to get out. She even resorted to her most polite, PLEASE OPEN. When I signed my refusal, she first began tickling, then pinching and scratching, and finally tearing my shirt off. I was bigger than Washoe but nowhere near as strong. I had to do something fast or these games would turn into major brother-sister brawls.

It was during one of these brawls that I remembered a trick my older brothers played on me when they wanted to keep me from going into a forbidden room. They would tell me that the Bogey Man' was in that room, and he would get' me if I went inside. There's no question that Washoe's Bogey Man was big black dogs. So I pointed to the locked garage door and signed, BIG BLACK DOG OUT THERE. EAT LITTLE CHIMPANZEES. Right away, Washoe's eyes got big and her hair stood on end. She stood up on two legs and began swaggering like one angry ape. She hammered on the wall with the back of her hand. Then, suddenly, she charged across the garage, leaping into the air at the last moment, and slammed into the locked door with both feet. Then she came back over to me.

This was working better than I had ever imagined. Washoe had ripped so many of my shirts on laundry day that I decided it was time to even the score a little. I asked her, YOU WANT GO OUT AND PLAY WITH DOG? She signed NO, NO DOG. Then she edged away from me, putting distance between herself and the door. Now I knew I had her. I actually went over to the door, unlocked it and opened it. Then I signed, COME WE GO OUT AND PLAY WITH BLACK DOG. She retreated to the farthest corner of the garage.

Meanwhile, Washoe watched all of this through a drugged haze, and it must have been truly nightmarish for her. Imagine never meeting a member of your own species until you were five years old. Washoe's day as America's most famous chimpanzee had started like any other, with a civilized breakfast served by her foster-family in her personal trailer. The next thing she knows she wakes up in a dimly lit jail cell surrounded by a band of very hairy, violent animals.

WHAT THEY? I signed to her, pointing at the crowd of onlookers.

BLACK BUGS , she responded. Washoe loved to squish black bugs. They were the lowest form of life, as far beneath humans - and therefore herself - as anything she could think of. Along with everything else she had learned from her foster-family, Washoe had apparently absorbed the lesson of human superiority.


Here's what can be achieved with a little practice..

Thursday, 31st August 2000