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Apes and Language

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Apes and Language:

A Chicago Manual Style Research Paper

English       260
Prof. Adel.I
Nov. 27, 2013


Apes and Language: A Literature Review
Over the past thirty years, researchers have demonstrated that the great apes
(Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) resemble humans in language abilities more than had been thought possible. Just how far that resemblance extends, however, has been a matter of some controversy. Researchers agree that the apes have acquired fairly large vocabularies in American Sign Language and in artificial languages, but they have drawn quite different
conclusions in addressing the following questions:
1.   How spontaneously have apes used language?
2.   How creatively have apes used language?

3.   Can apes create sentences?
4.   What are the implications of the ape language studies?

This review of the literature on apes and language focuses on these four questions.

How Spontaneously Have Apes Used Language?
In an influential article, Terrace, Petitto, Sanders, and Bever argued that the apes in
language experiments were not using language spontaneously but were merely imitating their
trainers, responding to conscious or unconscious cues. Terrace and his colleagues at Columbia
University had trained a chimpanzee, Nim, in American Sign Language, so their skepticism
about the apes‟ abilities received much attention. In fact, funding for ape language research was
sharply reduced following publication of their 1979 article, “Can an Ape Create a Sentence?”1
In retrospect, the conclusions of Terrace and others seem to have been premature.
Although some early ape language studies had not been rigorously controlled to eliminate cuing,

1.   Haley Terrace et al., “Can an Ape Create a Sentence?” Science 206 (1979): 894.
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