Washoe dies at 42 without signing good-bye

Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Fri Nov 2 18:44:43 UTC 2007

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Washoe dies at 42 without signing good-bye

Washoe, the chimpanzee who learned American Sign Language in the  
1960s, died after a short illness on Oct. 30, 2007, at the age of 42,  
at her home on the campus of Central Washington University....

Humans have been fascinated with the idea of talking animals at least  
since the days of Aesop....

There was a brief flurry of excitement in the 1970s over the  
possibility, now discredited, that plants would also respond to kind  
words by growing, which was their version of communicating.....

observers were skeptical about the chimp’s abilities, arguing that  
Washoe never used signs either creatively or spontaneously, but  
merely mimicked her trainers’ cues, much like the early 20th-century  
carnival horse known as Clever Hans, who entertained crowds by  
working simple arithmetic problems until a psychologist proved that  
he was really watching his trainer’s unconscious body language to  
signal the right answer....

After Washoe’s early success, researchers tried signing with other  
primates.  Penny Patterson began teaching Koko the gorilla to sign in  
1972, and Koko reportedly mastered anywhere from 350 to 1,000 words.   
The San Francisco Zoo’s most famous great ape was the subject of a  
1978 movie by Barbet Schroeder and a more recent PBS documentary, “A  
Conversation with Koko.” ...

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Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


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