Apes do not hold intellectual conversations similar to television cartoon characters but they are communicating using sign language based on vocal human language. There are many identifying components that are required to formally label communicative skills as language. The intent to communicate must be exhibited along with an attached meaning, in other words, an exchange of ideas is necessary. Vocalizing language is not a requirement because the deaf and mute use sign language to communicate and their ability to use language is not in question (Fromkin, 1997). Whatever medium is utilized, meaning must be attached to the communication for it to be considered language. The ability to teach language to others is another component when deciding if the language is actually understood. To a large extent, the apes and chimpanzees that have been taught human language have passed all these tests. There is, however, the issue of syntax usage. Science has not yet conclusively proven that apes have mastered the grammatical complexities of human language. “There has yet to be an ape that can create the complex and novel sentences that seem effortless even to a three or 4-year-old human child” (Fromkin, 1997: 405).Kanzi the chimpanzee is but one example of primates that have been taught to use language. Whether or not one believes that animals can effectively communicate by language, all must agree that language is taught, whether or not it is an innate biological ability. Kanzi, by age six, had developed a 200-word vocabulary, had the ability to combine words and could construct complex, logical sentences using sign language. “Kanzi’s language was initially dependent upon contextual cues, but that once he mastered a substantial vocabulary, he could respond accurately to 70 percent of novel commands from a concealed speaker” (Kosseff, 2005). Critics counter this saying that these accomplishments, though impressive, do nothing to prove that primates have the ability to use human language because the essential element of language capability is creating it on one’s own without prompt, not simply comprehending it.
Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R. (1997). An Introduction to Language. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada.
Hawes, Alex. (September / October 1995). “Machiavellian Monkeys & Shakespearean Apes: The Question of Primate Language.” Zoogoer Magazine. Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
Knezek, Malia. (Fall, 1997). “Nature vs. Nurture: The Miracle of Language.” Psychology. North Carolina: Duke University.
Kosseff, Lauren. (November 9, 2005). Primate Use of Language. Available March 14, 2007 from <http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/language.htm>
Premack, D., Premack, A.J. (1983). The Mind of an Ape. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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