Language or protolanguage? A review of the ape language literature

Kathleen R. Gibson

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Language or protolanguage? A review of the ape language literature

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This article debates the issues surrounding language or protolanguage and reviews the age-old idea of ape language. Collectively, the studies of the language capacities of the great apes exceed in numbers those of other animals. No matter how sophisticated the cognitive and communicative capacities of other animals may ultimately prove to be, comparative studies of closest phylogenetic kin will continue to provide the strongest evidence of the probable behavioral capacities of the last common ape ancestor, and, hence, of the probable capacities of the earliest hominins. From their inception, ape-language studies have been embroiled in controversies. To some extent, these controversies reflect the differing perspectives of those who hold Darwinian views of continuity between ape and animal minds versus those who adhere to Cartesian traditions of sharp qualitative mental differences between humans and other animals. This review simply describes actual ape behaviors without prejudging their linguistic nature. It does conclude, however, that a number of apes mastered essential components of protolanguage, but none constructed hierarchically structured sentences containing embedded phrases or clauses. This article articulately describes some real-life incidents. Many apes have lived in human homes and/or are trained for various aspects of the entertainment industry. Often, human owners have been convinced these apes understood modern languages. Rarely have these reports been confirmed or negated. A detailed analysis and records of the development of protolanguages concludes this article.

Keywords: language capacities; Darwinian views; linguistic nature; protolanguage; speech therapy

Article.  4990 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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