Yakety yak, can apes talk back?

posted by Molly MacLagan, Literary Management and Dramaturgy Intern

Precious Little, a new play by Madeleine George, opened last week at City Theatre.  When the pregnant Brodie, also a talented linguist, learns that there may be a problem with the child she carries, she looks for solace in an unlikely place: a “talking” ape at the local zoo.  The zoo enclosure has been outfitted with an interface that uses light-up lexigrams intended to communicate with the ape, which was part of a language acquisition project.  But how much of George’s play is based in reality?  More than you might think.  Although there are no apes from defunded ape-language experiments hanging out at the zoo these days, ape-language, language acquisition projects, and even the system of communication used in the play are based on very real experiments by legitimate scientists and researchers.

Lexigrams are symbols that can be used to represent objects or concepts, but that don’t resemble the things they stand for.  For instance, a vertical line might stand for “raisin,” or an hour-glass shape for “orange.”  They were originally part of an ape-language experiment conducted by real-life scientist Duane Rumbaugh to develop a system of communication for people with developmental disabilities who cannot speak.  The chimpanzees and bonobos he worked with used special keyboards, called LANA or Language ANAlogue keyboards, with a different lexigram on each key.

(To see an ape using a LANA keyboard, click this link:

Of course, the more famous ape-language experiments involved teaching chimpanzees and gorillas to use American Sign Language, but Rumbaugh was interested in a means of communication that any person could utilize, regardless of mobility.  Apes’ hands are not as dexterous as human hands, making them a good litmus test for the LANA keyboard.   The results of his study?  Rumbaugh and his partners were not attempting to determine whether or not apes have the capacity for language, so their research doesn’t say one way or another, but concludes that the LANA keyboard could and should be used with people who have disabilities that limit their communication.  Rumbaugh’s wife, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, has conducted her own studies, and although she seems to personally believe that some apes can acquire the components of language, she shies away from saying so in her research, simply stating that based on the number of apparent similarities between human and ape cognition, we should reevaluate our relationship to the animal kingdom.

(See an interview with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and the ape in her care on the Oprah show by clicking on this link:

These relatively middle-of-the-road opinions are not the norm.  Ape-language has long been one of the most polarizing issues in the scientific communities, and most scientists are all-or-nothing.  Brodie’s initial response to hearing about a talking ape is “No such thing.”  Her sentiment echoes the conclusion of real-life behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace, who insisted after conducting an ape-language experiment that a signing ape is simply “running on with his hands until it gets what it wants.”  According to Terrace, animals, apes included, simply don’t have the capacity for language.  On the other end of the spectrum, developmental psychologist Penny Patterson has said that the gorilla in her care, Koko, not only has the capacity for language, but is fluent in American Sign Language, even to the point of joking, swearing, and lying.

How can two scientists of ivy-league pedigree have such radically differing points of view on a subject?  The disagreement is due partly to outside perceptions of the researchers performing ape-language experiments.  Patterson has entirely given her life over to caring for Koko, to a point that might seem a little nutty to those on the outside, making her claims all the more dubious.  Her close relationship to the gorilla has been likened to that of a mother and daughter by author Eugene Linden, who also points out that sometimes, a close relationship with apes is necessary in order to earn their cooperation in a study.  In contrast, Linden characterizes Terrace’s relationship to the chimp in his care, Nim, as “Victorian and remote,” a strictly student/teacher relationship.  The closer the relationship between scientist and subject, the more data that comes to light – and the less credible the scientist conducting the experiment seems to be.  The closeness of the relationship necessarily throws the wealth of data under particularly harsh scrutiny.  To some in the scientific communities, claims by Patterson and others like her are exaggerations at best and blatant fabrications at worst.

(To see footage of Penny Patterson and Koko, click this link:

The reasons for such disagreements aren’t limited to perceptions of the relationships between researchers and animals.  It’s also because the scientific community can’t agree on what “language” is.  Is it the size of the vocabulary?  Is it production of words?  Comprehension of words?  Variety of utterances?  Rules of grammar?  Can any one of these separate “language” from whatever other form of communication might be found in apes’ use of sign language and lexigrams?  Of course with no agreed-upon definition of language, there isn’t much to base scientific opinion on, and so the debate continues.  As for the ape in Precious Little, its linguistic abilities (or lack thereof) are only one part of a much larger story; the question isn’t whether or not the ape can talk, but what it means to communicate.



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