October 20, 2019

Our Shared Language with Apes

“There are few one-offs in life on Earth—rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create words and sentences, which when combined with grammatical rules, convey complex ideas.

There were attempts in the 1950s to teach chimpanzees to “speak” some words, but these failed. And with no other living relatives able to communicate as we do, it has made understanding the origins of language a knotty problem.

But Adrien Meguerditchian, a primatologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Aix-Marseille University, believes that gestures could be a key landmark in the evolution of language—and these are something we do have in common with other primates.

Gestures are more important to language than linguists used to believe.

Many primate species use gestures to communicate with others in their groups. Wild chimpanzees have been seen to use at least 66 different hand signals and movements to communicate with each other. Lifting a foot toward another chimp means “climb on me,” while stroking their mouth can mean “give me the object.” In the past, researchers have also successfully taught apes more than 100 words in sign language. “The idea is to look at language, not just as speech, but seeing it as a constellation of many cognitive properties,” says Meguerditchian.”

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