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
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.
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'.
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).
(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
(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
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!'
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
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.
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
(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 1984Teacher: What's an insult?
Koko: THINK DEVIL
T: What's a stove?
K: COOK WITH
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?
K: TROUBLE SURPRISE.
8 February 1985
I: When do people say darn?
K: WORK OBNOXIOUS.
21 April 1983
T: What can you think of that's hard?
K: ROCK... WORK.
9 February 1984
T: What's a smart gorilla?
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
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
B: Is that really you?
K: KOKO GOOD
B: I thought you were a gorilla.
K: KOKO BIRD.
B: Can you fly?
[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
K: GORILLA KOKO.
MS: What's the difference between you and me?
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?
K: STOMACH GOOD THAT.
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
MS: Now can you name something the same?
MS: Yes, that's right, we both have eyes.
Michael was once asked a related question: What makes
you different from your cat?' He responded, 'GORILLA ME
Koko's responses to self-identity questions
'Who are you?'
1a. ME GORILLA NIPPLES TICKLE
2a. POLITE-KOKO KoKo NUT NUT POLITE DEVIL HAIR
2b. HEAD KoKo POLITE SWEET BAD
3a. KOKO POLITE ME
3b. THIRSTY GORILLA ME
4a. POLITE ME
THIRSTY FEEL KOKO- POLITE
KoKo FEEL LOVE THIRSTY SORRY
KOKO POLITE SORRY GOOD KOKO;
PLEASE GIMME BROW-WIPER
Who is that?' (to mirror)
GOOD TEETH GOOD
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
WHAT THEY? I signed to her, pointing at the crowd of
, 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