Research Colloquium 2013: Discussion of Non-Human Primates and Human Language

The LINGUIST List has been privileged to host several up-and-coming linguists as interns and their diverse backgrounds have allowed for a range of entertaining and insightful presentations. On July 18, 2013, Emily Remirez, student of Rice University, demonstrated that language and linguistics may extend beyond the boundaries of the human experience.

Emily’s presentation, “Non-Human Primates and Human Language” set the stage for an intriguing journey through varying research and hypotheses from the field of cognitive linguistics. For the purposes of Emily’s presentation, she explores three following tenets of cognitive linguistics: the human mind does not have an autonomous linguistic faculty, grammar is conceptual, and that language arises from use and social interaction. Examples of these fundamental principles have been explored through the scientific study of language acquisition in non-human primates.

Specific examples of language in the context of non-human primates is limited due to physical constraints of primate anatomy. Primate vocal tracts are not conducive to the production of consonants, and their vocalizations are limited to a select number of sounds. Furthermore, non-human primates are quadripedal, meaning their capacity for consistent sign language communication is not practical. A breakthrough in determining the cognitive capacity for language in non-human primates has developed from the use of testing via lexigrams. Lexigrams are pictographs that represent abstract concepts or refer to external environmental constituents. Traditionally, lexigrams are represented on a keyboard limited to 256 characters.

The use of lexigrams to determine non-human primate cognition began with a bonobo named Matata. Matata learned several lexigram signs and was successful in communicating with researchers through this system. Matata’s adopted son Kanzi also learned the lexigram system. Kanzi’s case is unique in that he actively decided to learn lexigrams independently of Matata or the researcher’s requests. Kanzi now understands and uses over 3,000 lexigram items.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh with Kanzi in 2003.

The ability to understand human language is not limited to non-human primates. A border collie named Betsy is purported to understand 300 English words. Alex the African Gray Parrot understands 150 English words, and Ake the Bottlenose Dolphin understands at least 50 hand gestures. From the example of Kanzi and other animals that are able to understand human language, there is reason to infer that several linguistic phenomena may be at work in the minds of these creatures. Agent-patient relations and pronoun antecedents have been strongly observed in Kanzi’s use of lexigrams.

In conclusion, the presence of language is assumed to exist on a gradient scale in the animal world. Kanzi presents a strong case that language, broadly defined, exists in non-human primates and other closely related species. Emily hypothesizes that non-human primates’ use of language as interpreted through the canon of cognitive linguistics is perhaps best explained by borrowing the fuzzy boundaries and gradient membership of prototype theory. The results of animal language study are inconclusive and tenuous at best, but with time, resources, and scientific inquiry, much has been gathered regarding the classification of non-human communication systems.

Updated on: 9/3/2013