An important part of the definition of language is it’s inherent symbolic nature. Humans rely on common meanings related to words; that is, our ability to communicate is contingent on the assumption that others believe words hold the same value as ourselves. If two people were attempting to communicate about a shared threat, it would be vital that they agree on the threat’s label.
Words change between languages, dialects, and regions. Understanding the language of the land is a skill that is probably often taken for granted, but imagine what life would be like without this vital ability: someone could be shouting a warning in the most efficient and eloquent manner imaginable, yet ...view middle of the document...
The first bipeds to walk out of their home continent were also the first capable of talking about the journey.
Today, humans are the only creatures on Earth with an identifiable language. This is not to say that humans are the only creatures who communicate; there is evidence that many other species do as well. For example, humpback whales all ‘sing’ the same song. Year to year, the song changes in small ways, but those changes are universal, meaning each individual whale makes the same changes to the year’s song. Some scientists believe this song represents something of a journal, that is updated with new information gained during the previous year’s migration. The question I would like to pose is this: while language is (so far) unique to humanity, can other creatures use human language to communicate?
First, let’s examine language adaptability among human groups. Most people have the ability to speak and hear what others have to say, but there are always some people who for one reason or another are born without these abilities, or lose them due to trauma. Cultures from all over the planet include individuals who have these handicaps. Fortunately, the human drive to communicate is stronger than the obstacles life puts in the path of some. Wherever there is oral language, sign language is developed in one form or another to accommodate the handicapped. The variety and complexity of common oral languages can be recreated through the use of hand and body movements.
Under the umbrella of hominidae (great apes) are four genera: orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees (including bonobos) and humans. While only humans can speak, all the great apes share dexterous hands featuring fine muscles and opposable thumbs, allowing for complicated gestures. This means that chimpanzees, for example, (who share 98.7% of their DNA with humans), have the physical ability to sign, just as humans do.
There are several high profile examples of apes who have learned some sign language, and have shown an impressive level of usage to interact with others. Let’s take a look at a few of these remarkable animals, and see what can be learned about their communication capabilities when using a human language.
I. Washoe the Chimpanzee
Washoe was the first ape to learn elements of a human language without herself being human. She was captured in Africa by the United States Air Force, where she had been born. She was adopted by Allen and Beatrix Gardner in 1966, and taken to Reno, Nevada. She was named for the county where she was raised, and her new caregivers taught her to use words from American Sign Language as part of a project through the University of Nevada. She learned about 130 signs, and the scientists working on the project hoped she would eventually be able to speak on her own using her new vocabulary.
A breakthrough moment occurred one day while Washoe was taking a boat ride with caregivers on a small lake. Washoe had been successful in...