Lexical creation by signing apes

Ronald Kephart rkephart at unf.edu
Wed May 16 15:31:59 UTC 2001

At 2:19 PM -0400 5/15/01, David Samuels wrote:

>But researchers in non-human primate language capabilities are
>always chalking things up to their subjects' creativity (just like
>anthropologists, I guess)....

I share your skepticism, but mine is flavored with more than a little
wonder. I saw Koko interviewed on Good Morning America on her
birthday some years ago, when they were still trying to get her to
accept Michael and she was having nothing to do with him. They asked
her what she thought of Michael, and she replied "Toilet." At least
that's what they said happened... I have at times threatened myself
to learn American Sign Language so I could hunt down some of these,
er, folks, and strike up a conversation. I know a cultural
anthropologist who is fluent in Sign who once met Washoe. She
reported that conversing with Washoe was sort of like talking with
someone with an unfamiliar accent.

Syntax, metaphor? I too doubt it. But...

>I'm more impressed with Washoe's creation of compound nouns for
>"watermelon" (sugar + water) and "duck" (water + bird) than with
>Koko's use of a sign meaning "brows" to mean "browse."

I dunno. I'm thinking of my dog, now long gone, and wondering whether
she could have learned that "sit" sometimes meant to sit, and other
times meant to roll over. And, isn't this one of Pinker's arguments
for mentalese: the fact that words can have more than one meaning?
Just wondering...

Ronald Kephart
Program in Foreign Languages
Dept. of English & Foreign Languages
University of North Florida

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