[monkeywire] University chimp amazes scientists with own 'words'

Josh Greenman joshg1973 at yahoo.com
Thu Jan 2 00:22:52 EST 2003


University chimp amazes scientists with own 'words'

By David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent

(Filed: 02/01/2003)

A chimpanzee has challenged the widely held view that animals do not  
have language by making up its own words from scratch.

Kanzi, an adult bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee kept at Georgia State  
University, Atlanta, has come up with four distinct sounds for the  
things closest to his heart - banana, juice, grapes and yes.

Although the choice of words may be a little predictable, it is the  
first report of an ape making sounds that seem to have the same meaning  
across different situations.

The findings have astonished ape experts, who believe Kanzi has come  
the closest yet to mastering a simple form of speech.

Kanzi has grown up among people and is skilled at communicating with  
symbols. It understands some spoken English and can respond to simple  
phrases such as "do you want a banana?", New Scientist reports today.

But its language trainers, Jared Taglialatela and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh,  
discovered that he also made distinct noises during their  
"conversations". The team studied 100 hours of video tapes of Kanzi.  
They were most interested in situations where the chimp's meaning was  
obvious, such as when it was pointing to the symbol for grapes or  
eating a banana. The researchers found four noises used by Kanzi in  
different contexts.

Dr Taglialatela said: "We haven't taught him this. He's doing it all on  
his own."

Kanzi's "word" for yes stayed the same across a whole range of  
emotions, suggesting that the noises were not simply the result of  
differences in the chimp's emotional state.

Kanzi is the latest in a line of primates to challenge the conventional  
view that animals have no language. Language used to be defined as  
symbolic communication until another chimpanzee, Washoe, learned to  
communicate in American Sign Language. Since then, the definition has  
been refined to put more emphasis on syntax and less on symbols.

The researchers are now trying to discover whether Kanzi is imitating  
human speech. But they will not consider the chimp to be communicating  
using the sounds until other chimps respond to the noises.

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