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Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Jun 28 10:40:56 EDT 2018

 Koko Is Dead, but the Myth of Her Linguistic Skills Lives On
[image: Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 12.23.31 PM]

Ron Cohn/Courtesy of the Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org

One area outshines all others in provoking crazy talk about language in the
and that is the idea of language acquisition in nonhuman species

On June 19 came the sad news of the death of Koko
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koko_(gorilla)>, the western lowland gorilla
cared for by Francine “Penny” Patterson at a sanctuary in the Santa Cruz
Mountains. Many obituaries appeared, and the press indulged as never before
in sentimental nonsense about talking with the animals. Credulous
repetition of Koko’s mythical prowess in sign language was everywhere.

Jeffrey Kluger’s essay in *Time*
<http://time.com/5318710/koko-gorilla-life/> was unusually extreme in its
blend of emotion, illogicality, wishful thinking, and outright falsehood.

Koko, he tells us, once made a sequence of hand signs that Patterson
interpreted as “*you key there me cookie*“; and Kluger calls it
“impressive … for the clarity of its meaning.” Would you call it clear and
meaningful if it were uttered by an adult human?

As always with the most salient cases of purported ape signing, Koko was
flailing around producing signs at random in a purely situation-bound bid
to obtain food from her trainer, who was in control of a locked treat
cabinet. The fragmentary and anecdotal evidence about Koko’s much-prompted
and much-rewarded sign usage was never sufficient to show that the gorilla
even understood the meanings of individual signs — that *key* denotes a
device intended to open locks, that the word *cookie* is not appropriately
applied to muffins, and so on.

Above all, Koko never uttered *sentences*. Patterson saw the *you key there
me cookie* sign sequence as intended to convey “Please use your key to open
that cabinet and get out a cookie for me to eat”; but she would have been
just as ready to accept “*there cookie you me key*” or “*cookie there me
key you*” or any other random display of context-associated signs.

In English, none of the 120 orders in which we could arrange the words
*cookie*, *key*, *me*, *there*, and *you* makes a grammatical sentence.
(For one thing, we need a verb.) For Patterson, or for Kluger, any order
Koko might have chosen provides evidence of linguistic command.

Much has been made of the story of Koko’s first pet kitten, which strayed
onto a road and was killed by a passing car. Kluger reports that when told
of the accident, Koko “expressed her grief in more or less the same way we

Koko is said to have produced a sign sequence including “*cat cry have
sorry Koko love*.” That’s not how I would express my feelings about my dead
pet. (Your mileage may differ.) But doubtless any of the 720 possible
orders of those six signs would have sufficed for Patterson (or Kluger) to
interpret them as a eulogy.

If Koko had verifiably responded to the death report with an actual
sign-language sentence meaning “Did the driver stop?” I might not be so
dubious. But “*cat cry have sorry Koko love*” doesn’t appear to reflect
even the vaguest understanding of what had happened.

You’ve seen expert users of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting at
theaters or on TV. Just watch video of a sign interpreter for a minute, and
then view some of the available footage of Koko’s alleged signing. There is
no resemblance at all.

But then Patterson does not claim that Koko learned ASL (though many
newspapers wrongly assert that). She claims it was a different language,
“Gorilla Sign Language.” The distinction is useful in rebutting any human
signer who might claim to see no ASL in Koko’s gestural behavior.

Plenty of linguists have expertise in the analysis of sign languages, and
none of them have ever independently confirmed Koko’s incipient linguistic
competence. Koko never *said* anything: never made a definite truth claim,
or expressed a specific opinion, or asked a clearly identifiable question.
Producing occasional context-related signs, almost always in response to
Patterson’s cues, after years of intensive reward-based training, is not
language use. Not even if it involves gestures that a genuine signer could
employ in language use.

Neither journalists nor laypeople will ever be convinced of that. Such is
their yearning to believe that Koko had mastered language, and had things
to say, and shared those things with Penny Patterson. They want to believe
these things, and they will not be denied.

Moreover, they will accuse me (probably in the comments below) of being an
arrogant, hyperskeptical, human-biased speciesist, contemptuous of ape
abilities. But I would love to learn about the experiences and opinions of
nonhuman primates through direct conversation with them. Unfortunately, all
that was established by Penny Patterson’s years of devotion to training
Koko was that we are not going to have that opportunity

Forwarded from the Chronicle of Higher Education


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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