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Definitions of Language: The Specific Case of the Apes Essay

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Updated: Dec 27th, 2021

Mastering Human Language (Apes)

Scientists acknowledge the fact that humans may share a common ancestry with apes. Some scientists have however noted that the resemblance between apes and humans ends at language. In this regard, animal trainers have in the past tried to teach apes to master human language. However, these attempts hit a snag in the early 1900s. Apes found it difficult to wrap their lips around common words humans could relate to (Hill, 1978).

In light of these developments, sign language was identified as an alternative to verbal communication. In the 1960s efforts were made to teach chimpanzees nonverbal ways of communication using American sign language. These efforts were successful as compared to previous attempts to teach apes using speech. Despite apes being able to communicate using sign language in a few, basic types of communication (like requesting food), scientists have pondered on whether apes have really mastered the art of language. This study therefore seeks to shed some light on this topic because the true definition of human language is an already contested topic (Hill, 1978).

Mastering Human Language

Since the invention of language, human intellect has always been considered a unique human trait that distinguishes mankind from animals. However, there have been arguments from scholars, academicians and the general population about the specifics of language. In essence, human language can be termed as a series of vocal symbols incorporated by humans to either interact or communicate. From this analysis we can come up with a series of language traits that are not evident in animals, for example, arbitrariness. Not all forms of language we use have a conjoined meaning in the sign, meaning and sound. Research studies have identified that non-human forms of communication are not part of human language in any way (Rumbaugh, 1977).

Complexity of Human Language

Comparison between apes and humans would probably pit humans as the most talkative species. There is however no doubt that apes posses vocal symbols just as humans do, but we should also acknowledge the fact that human language is much more complex than apes could understand. Human language incorporates variations in tones, intellect or even inflection. Humans can make alterations in language depending on how the speaker feels. Human language primarily incorporates the ability to moderate, change pitch, tone or even speed up speech to suit a particular whim in a given time frame.

Claims that Apes Have Mastered Human Language

It is undeniable that some scientists have claimed in the past that apes have successfully mastered human language. From the above analysis of the complexity of human language, it can be concluded that mastering human language is much more complex than the evidence purported by earlier scientists about the mastery of human language by apes. It is also important to note that experiments done on the apes had been on a uniform basis that is “iteration” (Gardner, 1989). This means repeating an action or word a number of times until the ape can get it right. It can also be equated to the ability of parrots to master human words. Needless to say, parrots haven’t mastered human language though they can make certain sounds completely depicting certain human words. This analysis can be equated to conditioning the parrot or the ape, whichever the analysis may be. Further comparison can be done to a dog salivating when it hears a bell. The actual dilemma most people should ask themselves in understanding this phenomenon is whether the animals understand what they are doing. Comparing a chimpanzee to a human child, chimpanzees would not be observed to master human language the same way a human child would. It is quite evident that the human child has the innate ability to master human language but the same cannot be said for the chimpanzee; whether in a controlled environment or not (Malmkjær, 2005).

Mastery of human language for humans in essence implies the ability to effectively communicate and interact in our community of speech-able species. The same cannot be assumed for apes because their ability to acquire or master human language is in the first place not acquired with the same intention human language is. It should also be noted that the true mastery of human language is hinged on the mastery of grammatical rule or the understanding of the changes in the meaning of different human words (Malmkjær, 2005).

A mastery of human language is pegged on the unique imagination of the human mind and is evidently absent in animals; let alone the chimpanzees or the ape family. Moreover, humans can continually change language; for example, to slang or even develop hypothetical concepts equivalent to the coining of words such as Santa Clause or Superman (Gardner, 1989). It also goes to show that a mastery of human language involves a more conscious control of the human language. In the same way, it is unlikely for a species to master the language of another; for example, we are yet to hear a chicken mastering the language of “mutton”.

Why Apes Cannot Master Human Language

It is evident that apes don’t posses the human intelligence needed for the mastery of human language. Research studies done on a number of apes have also resonated that fact that apes lack the auditory stimuli which would enable them master the human art of language. In other words, this is the inability to correctly imitate human sounds. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, scientists also cited evidences concluding that apes lacked the vocal cords in their anatomy to enable them correctly master the human language (Malmkjær, 2005).

Recent analyses have suggested that the vocal habits of apes prevent them from speaking. Further analysis suggests that apes only use their vocal cords in times of high excitement. This then inhibits them from engaging in normal conversations as the mastery of human language would mean. This is part of the reason why sign language has been a common mode of communication between apes and humans (Rumbaugh, 1977).

Case study (Nim)

An experimental research study to explain the inability of apes to master human language was done by Herbert Terrace after previous studies done on other apes by the names Washoe, Sarah, and Lana failed to correctly explain this relationship. Herbert then undertook a research on Nim, a chimpanzee, by raising him up just like a normal human child would. Though Herbert acknowledged that apes had achieved a commendable level of language understanding, he compared it to the ability of pigeons to peck on colors in a certain order (Terrace, 1979).

He also pointed out that apes only understood sign language as opposed to understanding all forms of communication. For example, he noted that apes mostly understood language when receiving awards from their masters. This is close to the analysis that the apes understood language only for specific, basic reasons like survival or receiving awards in this case (Terrace, 1979).

In Herbert’s experiment with Nim, he awarded the chimpanzee through his approval and allowed him to sign on things that were important to him. Nim was very sharp as observed by his trainer. When expressing his feelings, he used the signs “bite” and “angry” (written down on a cardboard, not spoken). This was a substitution of an arbitrary word in place of an action which is contrary to a mastery of human language which would mean the speaker shouldn’t act out messages but speak (Terrace, 1979).

Herbert concluded that Nim mastered a number of human words but identified that he could not use or combine the words to convey a certain meaning. Another interesting observation made by Herbert was that Nim was not as attentive to his trainer as normal children would be. He kept interrupting his trainer more frequently than a normal human child would. His analysis disputes the fact that apes can create a sentence. It should however be noted that Herbert’s experiments were not done in an ideal set up (Terrace, 1979).


The understanding of a mastery of human language should be pegged on the understanding of what human language means. This draws the comparison between human language and other forms of animal communication. From this analysis, it is obvious that scientists who voice out the claims that apes and more specifically the chimpanzees, have mastered the art of human language are biased and arguing from a point of misunderstanding of the human language (Wallman, 1992).

It is quite evident that apes don’t posses the same intelligence as humans do, to enable them master human language. This can be attested through the inability of chimpanzees to collectively use sentences to make meaning of something. Their understanding of human language can therefore be limited to uttering certain human words (even this requires repetitive utterances from the trainer). Their vocal cords are also not effectively developed to master human language. It can therefore be concluded that human language is a complex art that is beyond the ability of apes to comprehend. However, debate on this topic is far from over.


  1. Gardner, R. 1989, Teaching Sign Language to Chimpanzees, Albany, State University of New York Press.
  2. Hill, J. 1978, ‘Apes and Language’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 89-112.
  3. Malmkjær, K. 2005, Linguistics and the Language of Translation, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
  4. Rumbaugh, D. 1977, Language Learning by a Chimpanzee: The Lana Project, New York, Academic Press.
  5. Terrace, H. 1979, Nim, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
  6. Wallman, J. 1992, Aping Language, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
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