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Can an Ape Create a Sentence?

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More than 19,000 multisign utterances of an infant chimpanzee (Nim) were analyzed for syntactic and semantic regularities. Lexical regularities were observed in the case of two-sign combinations: particular signs (for example, more) tended to occur in a particular position. These regularities could not be attributed to memorization or to position habits, suggesting that they were structurally constrained. That conclusion, however, was invalidated by videotape analyses, which showed that most of Nim's utterances were prompted by his teacher's prior utterance, and that Nim interrupted his teachers to a much larger extent than a child interrupts an adult's speech. Signed utterances of other apes (as shown on films) revealed similar non-human patterns of discourse.
... In a more systematic study, Project Nim, an infant chimpanzee was taught a similar number of gestural signs. Although Nim routinely produced sequences of signs, there was no evidence for any sort of grammar or sentence formation in the output (Terrace et al., 1979). In a typical situation, a caretaker would for instance sign "Do you want to eat an apple?" to which Nim responded with "Eat apple" or "Apple eat eat apple eat apple hurry apple hurry hurry" (Tomasello, 1994). ...
... In a typical situation, a caretaker would for instance sign "Do you want to eat an apple?" to which Nim responded with "Eat apple" or "Apple eat eat apple eat apple hurry apple hurry hurry" (Tomasello, 1994). Thus the general conclusion was that the ape did not understand what he was signing, other than that some signs led to rewards, similar to pigeons or rats in operant conditioning paradigms (Terrace et al., 1979). What seemed like dialogues was the ape imitating a caretaker and producing signs that were somewhat relevant to the situation (Tomasello, 1994). ...
... Another important observation in Nim and other language-trained animals was that signal production was mainly of an imperative nature. The apes communicated mainly to request food or activities, but rarely ever to describe their own reality in declarative ways (Terrace et al., 1979). As a result, it was difficult to decide whether there was much understanding of categorial properties or thematic roles the signs were part of. ...
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How did grammar evolve? Perhaps a better way to ask the question is what kind of cognition is needed to enable grammar. The present analysis departs from the observation that linguistic communication is structured in terms of agents and patients, a reflection of how humans see the world. One way to explore the origins of cognitive skills in humans is to compare them with primates. A first approach has been to teach great apes linguistic systems to study their production in subsequent conversations. This literature has revealed considerable semantic competences in great apes, but no evidence for a corresponding grammatical ability, at least in production. No ape has ever created a sentence with an underlying causal structure of agency and patienthood. A second approach has been to study natural communication in primates and other animals. Here, there is intermittent evidence of compositionality, for example, a capacity to perform operations on semantic units, but again no evidence for an ability to refer to the causal structure of events. Future research will have to decide whether primates and other animals are simply unable to see the world as casually structured the way humans do, or whether they are just unable to communicate causal structures to others. This article is categorized under: Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition Computer Science and Robotics > Artificial Intelligence Linguistics > Evolution of Language.
... Studies of production often fail to distinguish between declarative and imperative functions of communication. Regarding chimpanzees, Berwick and Chomsky (2016, p. 148) cited the ability of Nim, a chimpanzee trained by Terrace et al. (1979) to produce words. It is true that apes can be trained to use sign language or arbitrary visual symbols to communicate (Gardner and Gardner, 1969;Premack, 1971;Rumbaugh, 1977;Terrace et al., 1979;Savage-Rumbaugh, 1994). ...
... Regarding chimpanzees, Berwick and Chomsky (2016, p. 148) cited the ability of Nim, a chimpanzee trained by Terrace et al. (1979) to produce words. It is true that apes can be trained to use sign language or arbitrary visual symbols to communicate (Gardner and Gardner, 1969;Premack, 1971;Rumbaugh, 1977;Terrace et al., 1979;Savage-Rumbaugh, 1994). In criticizing claims that those studies provide evidence that apes use words, however, Terrace (2019) argued that the responses in question only served an imperative function of obtaining specific rewards. ...
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Intersubjectivity refers to two non-verbal intersubjective relations infants experience during their first year that are precursors to the emergence of words. Trevarthen, a pioneer in the study of intersubjectivity, referred to those relations as primary and secondary intersubjectivity. The former, a dyadic coordination between the infant and her caregiver, begins at birth. The latter, a triadic coordination that develops around 9 months, allows the infant and a caregiver to share attention to particular features of the environment. Secondary intersubjectivity is crucial for an infant’s ability to begin to produce words, at around 12 months. Much research on the social and cognitive origins of language has focused on secondary intersubjectivity. That is unfortunate because it neglects the fact that secondary intersubjectivity and the emergence of words are built on a foundation of primary intersubjectivity. It also ignores the evolutionary origins of intersubjectivity and its uniquely human status. That unique status explains why only humans learn words. This article seeks to address these issues by relating the literature on primary intersubjectivity, particularly research on bi-directional and contingent communication between infants and mothers, to joint attention and ultimately to words. In that context, we also discuss Hrdy’s hypothesis about the influence of alloparents on the evolution of intersubjectivity.
... Kanzi's performance with these reversible sentences-building on prior work at the Yerkes with Lana, Sherman, Austin, and others , as well as Sarah (Premack, 1971;Premack and Premack, 1972) and Washoe, Moja, Tatu, and Dar (Gardner and Gardner, 1994)-suggests apes can learn to understand an arbitrary symbolic system to code argument structure. The fact that Nim Chimsky (Terrace et al., 1979) apparently did not show these abilities is of course not relevant to whether these other ape research programs using different methods were successful (there are many reasons why a research methodology may fail to show some cognitive ability in an animal besides that the animal actually lacks that ability, e.g., inadequate motivation, inadequate learning protocol, etc. (Essock-Vitale and Seyfarth, 1986)). The claim that since human language abilities are much richer than those found among non-human animals, this fact by itself rules out any meaningful continuity (Berwick et al., 2013) is similarly misguided. ...
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Ape language acquisition studies have demonstrated that apes can learn arbitrary mappings between different auditory or visual patterns and concepts, satisfying the definition of symbol use. The extent to which apes understand aspects of grammar is less well accepted. On the production side, several studies have shown that apes sometimes combine two or more symbols together, in non-random patterns. However, this is quite limited compared to human language production. On the comprehension side, much greater abilities have been reported in apes. One of the most famous examples is Kanzi, a bonobo who reportedly responded correctly to a large number of novel commands. However, based on his performance on a small subset of reversible sentences—where the understanding of English syntax was critical—the extent to which he demonstrated grammatical knowledge has been questioned. Using a randomization study it is shown here that his performance actually vastly exceeds random chance, supporting the contention that he does in fact understand word order grammatical rules in English. This of course represents only one aspect of English grammar, and does not suggest he has completely human grammatical abilities. However, it does show that he understands one of the arbitrary grammatical devices used in many languages: The use of word order to code argument relations. It also removes from serious consideration the view that apes lack any kind of grammatical ability. From an evolutionary perspective, Kanzi’s ability is most likely to result from homologous brain circuitry, although this is ultimately an empirical question.
... l a n a p r o j e c t For much of the 1960s and '70s language acquisition was a primary focus of chimpanzee research. Ape-language studies typically involved face-to-face interactions with humans and utilized American Sign Language (Gardner and Gardner 1969;Terrace et al. 1979) as well as plastic lexigram tokens (Premack 1971). The first attempt at removing the face-to-face element was made by Duane Rumbaugh in the 1970s with the LANA Project (Rumbaugh and Washburn 2003), which sought to train a chimpanzee named Lana to use a computerized lexigram board that consisted of 100 distinct buttons, each of which could be independently programmed to illuminate. ...
... Enigmatically, these notions fundamentally contradict the role of shared ancestry in biological evolution and lead to notions of language emergence as a non-continuous process 23,24,26,27 . These traditional notions derive in part from historical great ape language projects [28][29][30][31] , which reportedly failed to teach great apes to speak. Paradoxically, however, their study subjects lived in home labs with impoverished (if any) social contact with conspecifics 32,33 . ...
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In humans, individuals’ social setting determines which and how language is acquired. Social seclusion experiments show that sociality also guides vocal development in songbirds and marmoset monkeys, but absence of similar great ape data has been interpreted as support to saltational notions for language origin, even if such laboratorial protocols are unethical with great apes. Here we characterize the repertoire entropy of orangutan individuals and show that in the wild, different degrees of sociality across populations are associated with different ‘vocal personalities’ in the form of distinct regimes of alarm call variants. In high-density populations, individuals are vocally more original and acoustically unpredictable but new call variants are short lived, whereas individuals in low-density populations are more conformative and acoustically consistent but also exhibit more complex call repertoires. Findings provide non-invasive evidence that sociality predicts vocal phenotype in a wild great ape. They prove false hypotheses that discredit great apes as having hardwired vocal development programmes and non-plastic vocal behaviour. Social settings mould vocal output in hominids besides humans.
... Provided that macaques can match arbitrary stimulus-stimulus associations 14,15 , there is a possibility that in the SBC task, each object might be newly associated with two elements through a complicated form of fixed conditional learning 24,33,34 , independent of the already acquired knowledge about bigrams. However, there are two reasons why the monkeys' performance cannot be ascribed to rigid conditionality alone. ...
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