This blog has three parts. It is about Penny Patterson, who as a graduate student at Stanford in 1972, began working with one-year-old Koko, a western lowland gorilla. I met Penny a few years later when she had trained Koko to use American Sign Language and a specialized computer to communicate nearly 400 words. The story is here.
Part of Penny’s project is revealed by the name of one of her chimpanzees. He was Noam Chimpsky.
Penny didn't succeed in over turning Chomsky’s linguistic theories. Koko never formed any meaningful sentence structure, though Koko could string many words together in a meaningful way that was understandable. Academic papers are here.
The first point I want to make is that the languages Koko was taught were human languages related to human needs, desires and functions. Koko might have developed syntax with appropriate conditions: if her language developed around other gorilla’s.
The second point is that that kind of development would have required several gorillas including a male and female parent who had been raised with American sign language. In that case several infant gorillas would be introduced into the experiment. This would have been a fairer test of whether syntax would have been developed if adult gorillas had been teaching human type of language to a juvenile gorillas. The juveniles would then have a chance to develop gorilla syntax.
The third point is that when I look a syntax in English I see an evolutionary pattern.
Let’s start with my son Scott’s view of the human mind. As it forms, it creates categories, evolutionary categories such as the category of ‘dangerous’ with sub categories of ‘dangerous enemies’ and ‘dangerous inedible substances’.
As learning proceeds the world and words are put into the appropriate or relevant categories. That is pre-adult learning which includes ‘thinking’. Thinking means creating new categories, merging categories and re-defining categories. By the time adulthood is reached nearly every human has categories fixed. Subsequent adaptation to the world is done by using the existing stable juvenile-formed categories.
The great syntactic categories that are used to modify an English noun are, in order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun
I think these categories are evolutionary in order to provide reliable emergency warnings. Such as: Watch out a brown and black poisonous snake. Or: Be careful of a large mature brown angry raccoon. Change the order of these words and the warning becomes confusing.
I think we have evolved a standardized syntax to make sure warnings make sense and are effective as warnings.
Gorilla’s would have to develop their own syntax for their warnings to be reasonable. They would have to do it evolutionarily.