Language in Chimpanzees and Humans
Hadeel Gamal Moheb
Faculty of Arts, English Department
LANGUAGE IN CHIMPANZEES AND HUMANS 1 Language in Chimpanzees and Humans
Why is it hard for chimps to talk? If both humans and chimpanzees share the same genetic code, a chimp should not only have the ability to talk as fluent as a natural human being, but also have the ability to understand a human language. But it is unquestionable that no animal however well-trained can develop a language with the same scope of expression as a human being. On the other hand, no human however uneducated is incapable of acquiring the barest rudiments of a language. Experiments have been made to teach chimps human language, in attempts to either confirm or falsify Chomsky’s innate theory. It suggests that the acquisition of language requires a “language organ” which is only found in humans (Yule, 1985).
First of all a definition of language is needed to differentiate between the human language and other means of communication. Hillix and Rumbaugh (2004) wrote: Language is an agreed-upon system of signals that represent things, events, feelings, ideas, intentions, and actions on the environment or on other organism. The signals must symbolize something beyond themselves and fulfill a useful (pragmatic) function by coordinating the activities of organisms. The meanings of the signals comprising a language are shared, at least in part, by the individual in the group using the language (p. 21). This definition excludes meaningless imitations of human speech sounds such as those produced by some kinds of parrots. Same is the case “when young chimpanzees produce
LANGUAGE IN CHIMPANZEES AND HUMANS 2 language-like’ signs in interaction with humans, many scientists are very unwilling to classify this as language use” (Yule, 1985, p.36). In his book, The Study of Language, George Yule (1985) mentioned six features of human language that are uniquely human. Those features are displacement, Arbitrariness, productivity, cultural transmission, discreteness and duality. However, there are other features that are shared with animal language as well. Those features are reciprocity, the use of the vocal-auditory channel, specialization, non-directionality and rapid fade. In light of what is stated above, even if a chimp acquires a human language, its use will not be as widely expressive as it will be when a human child acquires it.
Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, believes that” . . . language, and particularly grammar, is supposed to be uniquely human and to require a language organ found only in humans” (Johansson, 2001, p.15). Perhaps neurobiologist Patrick Gannon and his colleagues can prove Chomsky wrong. Examining the brains of dead chimpanzees, they were looking for what is called the Planum Temporale which attaches meaning to sounds it receives. In 17 of 18 chimpanzees, this part was smaller on the right side of the brain than it was on the right. This is likewise in the human brain. Researchers conclude that “chimpanzees possess the anatomic neural substrate for language essentially identical to that of humans” (Begley, 2008, p.1).
LANGUAGE IN CHIMPANZEES AND HUMANS 3 Chomsky also asserts that “acquisition of even the barest rudiments of language is quite beyond the capacities of an otherwise intelligent ape” (1972, p. 58). Several experiments that have been carried out before and after this assumption was made might as well prove otherwise. In 1973 a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, deliberately named after Noam Chomsky, was trained to use sign language with records of...