What Do Smart Animals Tell Us About Language?

Chaser, Puck, Koko, Alex, Nim Chimsky. These are the names of animals (a dog, a parakeet, a gorilla, and a chimpanzee) who have gained renown as paragons of animal intelligence. It is often claimed that in having been able to learn language, they prove that language is not a unique attribute of human beings.
Their achievements are indeed remarkable. Chaser knows the names of over 1,000 objects. Puck is said to have learned nearly 2,000 words. Koko and Nim learned rudimentary sign language (though there are skeptics, including the original trainer of Nim), and Alex could identify colors and keys. But what do these achievements really mean?

After all, it took hours, indeed years, of focused training for these animals to achieve what a human child achieves in months, and while they acquired the ability to recognize words, the more important aspect of language, grammar, seemed to elude them. None of these animals could spontaneously generate anything resembling a sentence. As important is the fact that it was only through contact with human beings, and also isolation from their own kind, that these animals were able to achieve as much as they did.

Chaser, for example, learned the words for manmade objects—specifically, a large variety of toys, which she could retrieve precisely. She also was able to distinguish new objects by a process of elimination; if her trainer asked her to find an object whose name she had not heard before, she knew that it had to be the one object in the pile that had not been there previously. That’s very impressive. But it is also true that in her “natural” environment, she would never have acquired nor generated such a vocabulary (though she certainly would know her environment, as does any wild animal). The same general idea applies to all the other “talking” animals who achieve these amazing feats.

The acquisition of language is a process of socialization, and these animals were in the (for them) unusual position of being socialized among humans rather than among their own species and thus achieved a level of “language” they could not otherwise have. Conversely, those rare individual human beings who have been isolated from others during their infancy and early childhood fail to acquire language and, if isolated for too long, never master language in later years. Genie, a girl isolated in a back room of her parents’ house for the first thirteen years of her life, is an example of a child who was denied the normal socialization process, and it isn’t only that she was deprived of language; she was deprived of objects, clothing, interactions with a range of other people, of exposure to the world, both natural and cultural, beyond the drawn shades of that one small room. She was deprived not only of words but of the rich layers of meanings that words carry in a typical human society. Words, as any poet or politician can attest, carry more meaning than a dictionary can define—take for example “fairy princess,” two words that when put together mean almost nothing outside of their cultural context, yet which resonate and amplify for small children within their cultural context. Think also of a simple key, the one you use to unlock the door to your house or apartment, something which Alex the parrot could recognize and name; but think also of its layers of meaning, as in “The key to cosmic understanding is gnosis.” What could Koko or Alex or Chaser make of such a sentence?

While having a certain kind of brain is a prerequisite to language, it is not sufficient to that ability. There is no language of one. Language is culturally generated, culturally acquired, and culturally deployed. As languages are elaborated over millennia, they do something else as well, something completely novel that goes beyond mere communication: they generate ideas. The very first words may have been simple names for objects or warnings of nearby predators, but over time they would have acquired more abstract meanings, so that eventually the world human beings inhabited was not solely the world of concrete objects and events but a created one of interwoven ideas, of art, philosophy, religion, social organization, myth, poetry, and science. This created world, this world of language, is one which no animal has ever been shown to have, not even the most extensively trained chimpanzee, parrot, or dog.

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