Linguistics: Whether Monkeys Have Language Skills


Noam Chomsky has expressed that ‘it’s about as likely that an ape will prove to have a language ability as that there is an island somewhere with a species of flightless birds waiting for human beings to teach them to fly’. However, this statement by Chomsky has been disputed by many experts. Before we go on to formulate our own opinions about the subject it is important to define the difference between communication and language as this will help us understand the extent to which apes are capable of language. Communication is ‘the passing on or exchange of information’.

However, language is fundamentally different. As a term which has been given many definitions, I believe the most correct one is this: Henry Sweet, an English phonetician, and language scholar stated: “Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts”. While apes are capable of exhibiting similarities to the properties of human language, especially in their signing behavior, they do not have the capacity humans have for language. In this essay, I will first elaborate further on what it means to truly know a language and present experiments with primates. I will then compare each particular property of human language specifically with what has been found out about apes so far while giving definitions of terms throughout the paper.

Chapter 1: Knowing a Language

When one knows a language they are able to “produce and understand sounds”. ‘But language is much more than speech’. There is also sign language which is equally valid to spoken language. More examples of knowing a language are: When speakers are able to form words into sentences and also be creative and construct new sentences that can be expanded and perhaps have never been spoken before but can be understood by speakers of the same language. It is important to note that native speakers of a language know the rules and structures of their language unconsciously. Moreover, when one recognizes the sounds and meanings of their language and uses them in a suitable context. For instance, being polite or sarcastic when holding a conversation means that you are applying language (the words and structures that you know in your language) to communicate effectively with your peers.

What really knowing a language means is that you are able to communicate with human phonetic sounds and be understood by humans. Otherwise, we are talking about communication which is not human and therefore belongs exclusively to the animal kingdom. The term for that is animal communication and not animal language. Therefore, the structures of communication between humans and between animals are two different things.

Chapter 2: Experiments with Apes-Is There Still Hope?

There have been many experiments with apes in the past and in recent years. While none of them managed to train an ape to acquire the linguistic capability of a human significant discoveries were made. In George Yule’s book The Study of Language, many experiments on apes are mentioned. One of them was the experiment of Viki by Catherine and Keith Hayes in the late 1940s in which she was ‘shaping her mouth as she produced sounds’. However, those words were very few. Viki didn’t manage to put words into sentences or converse with humans. “It has become clear that non-human primates do not actually have a physically structured vocal tract that is suitable for articulating the sounds used in speech.”

Another important experiment that contributed to our understanding of the linguistic aptitude of apes was that of Sarah, by Ann and David Premack, and Lana by Duane Rumbaugh. Sarah “manipulated plastic shapes” to from words. “Those plastic shapes could build sentences if arranged”. It is important to note that although she managed to understand and produce some sentences she was trained with food rewards and was kept in a cage. In the case of Lana, she had to input symbols on ‘a large keyboard’ and created sentences such as “Please machine give water”. This use of language by Sarah and Lana appears to be what we have referred to in our definition of language (at least in part). Unfortunately, things are not always as they seem and there is a lot of skepticism from experts about experiments like these ones.

It has been expressed by many experts that both Lana and Sarah gained reflex responses to prompts given by their trainers and never learned the true connection between the symbols they used and the words they were representing. Sarah was also not allowed to talk spontaneously and perhaps her trainers ‘unwittingly’ supply her with ‘cues’ that she would answer. Before we move on to explain these ‘cues’ let us mention two more of the more successful experiments on apes. The first one, was carried out by Herbert Terrace on chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky (word-play derived from the name of famous linguist Noam Chomsky) in the 1970s. The aim of the experiment was to teach Nim ASL and while Nim learned 125 single-word signs he managed to combine two words only and never created complex structures or displayed creativity. Therefore, Nim never managed to gain the linguistic ability or knowledge of a small child.

In another experiment by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a bonobo named Kanzi used lexigrams on a keyboard ‘to communicate’ (Sankey, 2010). Kanzi was taught language completely by chance

As he observed his adoptive mother try to use lexigrams effectively and fail. ‘He had learned by watching, while Matata failed to acquire competence.’ ‘On the first morning on his own, Kanzi went to the keyboard, struck the apple key and the chase key. He then picked up an apple, looked at Savage-Rumbaugh, and ran off to prompt her to chase him. Project Nim was a disappointment because Nim imitated his trainers rather than displaying competence in sign language. By contrast, Kanzi’s spontaneous use of the keyboard to communicate seems to show that Kanzi used the keyboard with the intention of communicating.’

While it is indisputable that apes do have a complex system of communication What experiments on apes have indicated so far is that while apes may be able to sign their linguistic ability will never exceed that of a 2-year-old baby. Kanzi seems to be one of the very limited successful cases that indicate a hopeful future for comprehensive understanding and production of human language by primates. What is of more substance in the study of apes is the observation of their communication more than their mimicking of human language. An emerging area of interest seems to be acoustics. A variety of behavioral studies seem to indicate both controls over the timing of vocal output and the capacity to “decide” which acoustic signal to emit in a given context.

Chapter 3: Dressage or the Clever Hans Phenomenon

In the phenomenon of dressage, the animal gives correct answers to its trainer by watching for and reading their unconscious gestures or facial expressions. This was the case with Clever Hans, a horse presented about 100 years ago to an audience in Berlin by teacher Wilhelm von Osten who was its trainer. In their paper Samhita and Gross expose the apparent cleverness of Hans who appeared to be able to count by tapping its hoof and recognize numbers everywhere around it. However, while Clever Hans was able to cooperate even with people he didn’t know his answers were only simple observations. When confronted with a person who did not know the answer Hans was unable to find the correct answer on his own. Therefore, the true cause of his intelligence was revealed: Clever Hans was reading the faces of his enquirers. Some examples of such readings could have been a slight smile or a small nod on the trainer’s part. It must be noted that without human presence Hans could achieve no results.

But how is this connected to apes? Logically, if the interpretation of subtle ‘cues’ has been recorded to exist in animals such as horses then it must exist in apes as well. In particular, it has been expressed that in the experiments with Nim and Lana the primates did not, as mentioned above, properly understand the meaning of words and symbols. They were seemingly performing in front of their trainers to get a reward. Of course, this is something very harmful to the credibility of many years of experiments with primates and consists has been the reason that many believe little, if at all in the ape’s ability to produce and generate language.

Chapter 4: The Properties Unique to Human Language

The linguistic community has agreed on some properties that solely exist in human language. Chomsky firstly describes the characteristic of discrete infinity, otherwise referred to as creativity. That would be our ability to construct new phrases and sentences constantly something which has in part been discovered in experiments with apes. Chomsky also argues that the ‘language of a small child is largely dependent on the environment’.I believe that Chomsky here refers to a second property unique to human language, cultural transmission where our language is not inherited but instead passed on to us through interaction with the environment around and native speakers of a language. For example, if one were to grow up in Greece they would learn Greek regardless of where they came from. It must be highlighted that all animals inherit the calls of their species and do not have to be exposed to them.

In another passage, Chomsky refers to “… expressions generated by...language” which possess “semantic representations” “The association of sound and meaning, is essentially arbitrary’’ according to him. This is clearly the property of arbitrariness. Good examples of arbitrariness in the human language would be the onomatopoeic words “boom” or “bang”. But animals have clear connections between meaning and sound which are always specific, they indicate danger, etc. The fourth property that Chomsky refers to is the “displacement property where similar items sometimes do appear and are interpreted in terms of natural local relations’’. Displacement also allows talking about time (events in the past and future) and abstract entities. For instance, one of those abstract entities could be the soul of man. Apes have not been able to talk about such things in experiments so far.

However, there are more properties to human language. Yule also describes Duality or “double articulation” as the different levels of sounds and meanings specifically, we can produce individual sounds and then at another level where we can combine to create meaningful utterances. In the animal kingdom, these “signals” cannot be divided into smaller parts. A cat cannot separate “meow” into m, e, o, and w. The case must be the same with apes. Therefore, humans can manipulate sounds in a way that humans can’t. Finally, Yule refers to “communicative signals” and “informative signals” with the first being the words we use to communicate a message such as… and the latter being the signals we emit as people observe us and interact with us.


In conclusion, Apes do not have the true linguistic ability that matches that of a human being as was shown in the comparison with the properties of human language. While they are able to mimic them to a certain extent it seems that they are so close and yet so far. Although perhaps we shouldn’t condemn the years of hard work that have been done. The search for a more inclusive linguistic ability that resembles that of humans continues on.


  1. Ackermann, H., Hage, S. R., & Ziegler, W. (2014). Brain mechanisms of acoustic communication in humans and nonhuman primates: An evolutionary perspective. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 37(6), 529–546.
  2. Chomsky, N. (2000). New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. p. 1-12
  3. Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., Hyams, N. (2010) An Introduction to Language.9th ed. Wadsworth Publishing, p.285-291
  4. O’Grady, W. D., Dobrovolsky, M., & Katamba, F. (1997). Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction.3rd ed. Longman. p.
  5. Robins, R, H., Crystal, D. (2019). “Language”. January 10,2019 [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 29 March 2019]
  6. Samhita, L. Gross, H. J. (2013.). The “Clever Hans Phenomenon” revisited. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 6(6), e27122. doi:10.4161/cib.27122.
  7. Sankey, H. (2010). Descartes’s Language Test and Ape Language Research. Teorema, 29(2), 118–120.
  8. Yule, G. (2017). The Study of Language. 6th ed. Cambridge University Press. p. 14-20
07 July 2022
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now