Lexical creation by signing apes

Celso Álvarez Cáccamo lxalvarz at udc.es
Mon May 14 15:09:33 UTC 2001

(Please excuse the cross-posting)


I've just watched a documentary on Koko, the signing gorilla. In it, it is
reported that Koko once transferred the sign for "eyebrow" for a type of
lettuce called "browse" (spelling?) for which researchers didn't have yet a
specific sign. Koko would move her thumb(s) across her eyebrow(s) to
request browse -- not any lettuce. So, Koko seemed to be able to dettach
the iconic component of the ASL sign and thus to create a pure symbol.

If this is so (that is, if this was an innotative creation by Koko, not
prompted by the researchers' own use of the sign, my questions are,

(1) How would we better characterize this procedure? Lexical creation based
on partial homophony? But, since the sign is not vocal-aural, what is the
term commonly used for homophony for visual signs?

(2) Has this phenomenon been observed in other signing apes? I am not
referring, obviously, to lexical creation by composition (e.g. Koko's 'hole
+ hat' for 'mask', or 'ring + wrist' for 'bracelet'), or to the use of
preestablished symbols by apes, but to a type of creative symbolization
similar (I would say) to the transfer of ideographs for indicating phonetic
component of other signs, or to the use of originally ideographic symbols
in Japanese kanji.

(3) What can be said about the implications of this procedure in signing
apes with regards to their linguistic capabilities? Does this imply
linguistic analysis and reflexivity beyond what is commonly assumed?

Thank you,

Celso Álvarez Cáccamo              Tel. +34 981 167000 ext. 1888
Linguística Geral, Faculdade de Filologia     FAX +34 981 167151
Universidade da Corunha                          lxalvarz at udc.es
15071 A Corunha, Galiza (Espanha)  http://www.udc.es/dep/lx/cac/

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