Letters


Doctor Dolittle's Dilemma

Stephen R. Anderson's thesis ("A Telling Difference," 11/04) that syntax is unique to human communication is undermined by his lack of knowledge of critical distinctions between the grammars of spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL).

Koko uses several aspects of ASL syntax in the utterance, "You sip?" (see the photograph of Koko and me at a tea party, below). She indicates a question by maintaining eye contact, holding the sign for an extended period of time, and raising her eyebrows. She adjusts the subject of the phrase from "I sip" to "you sip" by moving the sign away from her lips and turning it toward me, thereby altering the direction of the sign. Her pursed lips and forward-leaning posture are additional grammatical inflections.

The sign "sip" is Koko's invention, a combination of the signs "eat" (fingers to mouth) and "drink" (thumb to mouth). "Sip" can be a noun or a verb; the distinction is marked in ASL by repetition of the contact motion if the sign acts as a noun, and by a single contact if it acts as a verb. Koko regularly uses this syntactic feature of sign.

Interested readers can see Koko's sign language in action in the 1999 PBS Nature documentary, "A Conversation with Koko."

Francine Penny Patterson

The Gorilla Foundation

Woodside, California

Given the premise that the "power and . . . centrality" of language exists in the production of novel sentences and in our use of recursive syntax, it conies as little surprise when Stephen R. Anderson concludes that language is uniquely human.

My own perspective suggests a different response, one that moves beyond asking whether apes "have" language or not. Indeed, humans don't "have" language. We create language when we interact; as linguists have shown, we dynamically transform each other's utterances as we talk and gesture in conversation. Seven years of research on the spontaneous communication patterns of captive bonobos and gorillas has taught me that these apes, too, create meaning with each other in nuanced ways, using vocalizations, facial expressions, gestures, and body postures.

A focus on whether apes can do what humans can do misses the real significance of ape communication-how beautifully it shows us the deep primate roots of the social, emotionally-based creativity inherent in human communication.

Barbara J. King

College of William and Mary

Williamsburg, Virginia

Stephen R. Anderson correctly concludes that animals do not have, and cannot learn, human language. But this negative conclusion overlooks the other half of Dr. Dolittle's dream: to understand animal communication systems on their own terms. Today, in experiments with a laptop and a microphone, bioacousticians can record, modify, and play back animals' vocalizations. They can then interactively explore how animals perceive and interpret the signals. Although such work is only beginning, it has already revealed surprising similarities between human and animal communication.

Complex animal vocalizations appear more akin to music, with its vaguely defined, affectively rich "meaning." For some people, this conclusion may be cause for relief-for others, disappointment. But for a latter-day Dr. Dolittle, it needn't be cause for despair. Animal communication systems are things of great interest and beauty, in and of themselves.

W. Tecumseh Fitch

University of St. Andrews

St. Andrews, Scotland

STEPHEN R. ANDERSON

REPLIES: Francine Penny Patterson's comments unfortunately follow her standard practice of presenting only an isolated anecdote, heavily filtered by her own interpretation. The picture she supplies is certainly cute, but it is not worth a thousand words (or a thousand frames of video). …

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