Chimpanzee Communication:

Insight Into the Origin of Language

Human speech is commonly recognized as the dividing line between ourselves and the rest of the animal world. The reason why the ability to speak is such a sharply defined boundary goes deeper than the mere existence of a method of communication, it is what we have done with language that counts. Language paved the way for all the special human abilities that we so value- self-awareness, higher emotion and personal memories (McCrone 48). As we search into the origin, variety and composition of human language, it is important to examine our language at its root. As human beings, we share 99% of our genetic make-up with our closest relative, the chimpanzee. Therefore, by studying the communication abilities and development of language in chimps and other great apes, we can learn more about ourselves and our own language capabilities.

To begin to examine the communication of the chimpanzee, one must first gain a general understanding of primate communication in general. For the most part, the great apes are fairly quiet, while monkeys are noisy creatures, chattering and shrieking to one another using different alarm cries to signal different types of danger (McCrone 144). Apes do not depend as much on calls and cries to keep their group acting in harmony. The orangutan lives a fairly solitary life, not requiring such calls, while the slow-paced life of gorillas does not perhaps need cries to coordinate the action of the band. The chimp is the noisiest ape, yet still only uses about a dozen different noises, such as grunts, hoots, screeches and whimpers compared to the hundreds of sounds the human vocal organs can produce.

The simple, instinctive alarm call of monkeys can be seen in sharp contrast to the expressive or emotional cry which is commonly used by the great apes. In this type of communication, an animal is able to vent its inner feelings, not just the need for food or warn about a source of danger. A chimp, for example, might hoot with anger or screech with fear. These responses are genetically programmed like a call, since a chimp does not have to learn to screech or hoot and has quite standard responses to its feelings. The difference is that an emotional cry does not trigger a guaranteed response in the listener who needs a certain intelligence to interpret the reason for the unhappy noises and to react appropriately(McCrone 146). Calls and cries are effective but they are not what we should describe as true forms of communication, where an animal deliberately sends a message to another member of its group rather than just giving voice to an emotion. In true communication, signaling comes under the control of the conscious cortex rather than the subconscious emotional system.

Chimpanzees can indeed communicate in this deliberate fashion (McCrone 146). Chimps employ a rich variety of gestures and facial expressions to keep in touch with each other, and more importantly, there is intelligence behind the exchanges that makes for a level of understanding unseen elsewhere in the animal world. This sort of communication ability is what makes chimps appear far more socially advanced than any other animal. They may have a simple repertoire of noises and body language, but the intelligence with which these signals are used and interpreted makes a big difference.

Only recently has it been realized how well chimpanzees can communicate. Most of the observations have come from a troop of wild chimps at the Gombe Stream Reserve on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and from a captive group in Holland's Arnhem Zoo (McCrone 147). Chimps make use of simple gestures, waving their hand in the direction they want another chimp to look or holding out a begging hand for support then relying on the intelligence of the other animal to sum up the situation and react (McCrone 149). Some chimps even develop their own special signals. These observations indicate that chimps are the most intelligent communicators in the animal world, even compared to other highly social species such as lions, wolves and monkeys. This level of communication comes from chimps' deep understanding of the social world around them, which means that each chimp must be able mentally to model the impact of its own actions on the group as well as being able to guess the intentions of others (McCrone 150).

Highly social animals also need to be able to mentally model the social world of their group, remembering such things as who is dominant, who is bad-tempered, and what actions are likely to follow a particular grunt or screech. Because these sorts of things are less predictable and obvious than the events of the natural world, social animals like chimps and humans need bigger brains to cope with the complexity of their social lives (McCrone 150). A chimpanzee may have a deep understanding of the world and the brain power to model both physical and social relationships, but that knowledge stays locked away in the gray background of the memory banks until roused by events actually happening in the chimp's presence. Either another chimp draws its attention to the event, like the nervous mother nudging mama to tell her about the squabbling kids, or a chimp gives vent to its emotions and the others correctly guess the reason for its display, like the dominant chimp hooting at the young male for getting too friendly with the female (McCrone 156).

Perhaps chimps also invent their own personal noises, maybe using particular grunts to mean certain things. But such personal noises are not as obvious as gestures to human observers. The point is that it is quite possible for chimps- or early man- to make symbolic use of noises, even if these "protowords" have a fixed meaning only for the individuals uttering them. This use of personal noises would at least be the first step toward language. The next would be for the symbolic noise to be picked up and used by all the members of a troop. Learned behaviors can spread through a troop, but they tend to spread most easily from mother to child. youngsters are attentive and playful enough to imitate their mother's actions, whereas other adults rarely take the necessary interest to learn from each other (McCrone 157).

The modern chimp may be making the first steps toward language. Countless generations of chimpanzees have probably made similar first steps toward speech without their leading to anything, for young chimps do not repeat the close relationship they have with their mothers when they grow up and mix with other adult chimps. They do not pair off with a partner and thus have a chance to develop a more mature two-way form of conversation. Any private language that emerged would almost inevitably be lost with each generation, getting trampled underfoot in the rough-and-tumble world of the adult (McCrone 158).

Evidence of this progression toward more fluid communication skills is demonstrated in recent primate research. In the 1960's and 1970's, the discovery that apes could use hand gestures and symbols to communicate resulted in many primate language research facilities. For example, Koko, a gorilla, was trained to use American Sign Language to express her feelings and desires. Since that time, many great apes have been taught to sign or use symbol communication such as using colored plastic shapes or computer keyboard lexigrams to represent lexical concepts.

Also in the early 1970's, a chimpanzee named Washoe was taught to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) by Beatrix and Allen Gardner at the University of Nevada in Reno. She was immersed in an environment where she learned to use ASL in daily interactions with her human companions. Washoe learned 132 different words in her time with the Gardners. In time since, four other chimps have also been taught to sign and they, along with Washoe, are the subject of study by Roger and Deborah Fouts. These five chimps, who consider themselves a family, now use many more signs than they were ever expected to learn (Washoe herself can use up to 240 reliable signs) ,and sign not only to the humans, but also to each other to communicate. Washoe even taught her own adopted son to sign without human intervention (Fouts).

Many linguists still believe that apes have no real grasp of human language, but are merely imitating their human companions. They insist that while apes may understand individual symbols or words, they do not understand the concepts of syntax, or how words are put together to form a complete idea. However, evidence is continually proving that the nonhuman primate mind is capable of advanced thought (Rayl 89).

Chimpanzees have shown the ability to communicate using ASL to human observers and other chimpanzees about the normal course of surrounding events. They use signs to create natural language categories; for example, they will sign "dog" when shown many different species of dogs and "shoe" whether it be a slipper or a cowboy boot. They can invent new signs and combine signs to metaphorically express something different, for example: calling a radish "cry hurt food" or referring to a watermelon as a "drink fruit" (Fouts). They can comprehend and produce novel prepositional phrases, understand vocal English, translate words into ASL and even transmit their signing skills to the next generation without human intervention.

Studying how chimps acquire and use sign and other symbolic language gives us a better understanding of how humans acquire language skills and provides another model with which we can study the role of language in communication. It also helps us to better understand the roots of our human language. In addition, chimp language research has been used to help non-communicating children to sign, and has aided autistic, cerebal palsied, and developmentally disabled children (Fouts).

If we view the chimpanzee not as if he were our contemporary, but as if he were some ancestor of ours, the value of studying chimpanzee communication and use of language may be more fully seen. As has been demonstrated, chimps have a rich social life and good communication skills. Many researchers feel that chimpanzees show through their communication that they are developing toward the threshold of speech. The desire and potential for communication of specific ideas is there The conclusion may be drawn that early man about two million years ago must have been at least as socially advanced as the modern chimp, and has since evolved to the language-speaking species we are today.

In the words of Dr. Roger S. Fouts, "While our human awareness and compassion is rapidly expanding to include a greater concern for our biosphere and its inhabitants, our ignorance still remains a critical problem. Fundamental to removing ignorance and replacing it with understanding is communication. We feel that communication is the one behavior most critical for future survival. Washoe has helped replace some of our ignorance about communication with an understanding of ourselves, as well as other beings. This is one reason why we have committed our lives to a research project that focuses on the understanding of communication and chimpanzees."

Author: Amy Stafford


Fouts, Dr. Roger S. and Deborah H. Project Washoe FAQ. WWW, Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute: Central Washington University, 1996.

Lock, Andrew, and Charles R. Peters. Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

McCrone, John. The Ape That Spoke; Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind. New York: Avon Books, 1991.

Miller, George A. Communication, Language, and Meaning; Psychological Perspectives. New York: Basic Books Inc, 1973.

Rayl, A.J.S. "Apes at the End of an Age: Primate Language and Behavior in the 90's" Minnesota Monthly, September 1996: 89.

Romanine, Suzanne. Language In Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.


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