The Newest Animal Linguist on the Block

Alex, the gray parrot, and Washoe, the chimpanzee, (both recently deceased) are back in the news in this month’s National Geographic Magazine, in an article about understanding the animal’s mind. In it, the newest kid on the “smarts” block is featured. Are you ready? Yep, a Border Collie named Betsy, who knows more than 300 words. Look to being hearing lots more about her.

In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy this New York Times tribute to Alex and Washoe by Charles Seibert. Certainly gives pause for thought.

The Communicators

THERE IS, IN THE END, no telling what tales they had to tell, the two greatest nonhuman linguists of our day: Washoe, the sign-language-wielding chimpanzee with an intense footwear fetish; and Alex, the wildly outspoken parrot, an African gray known to regularly order about his human researchers and to purposely give them the wrong answers to their questions just to alleviate his boredom. After all, we only ever gave them our own words to work with.

Often dismissed as mere mimics, they were remarkable even by that standard. Washoe, originally taken as an infant from the wilds of West Africa in 1965 and sold to the Air Force for research, was the first to break the so-called language barrier between ourselves and the creaturely non-us. Under the tutelage of Allen and Beatrix Gardner a husband-and-wife team of cognitive researchers who adopted the young chimp at the age of 10 months and raised her as if she were their own child.

Washoe would learn 135 distinct American Sign Language signs within five years. By the time of her death from natural causes in October 2007 at age 42, she managed to pass along much of what she had learned to her adoptive chimp son, Loulis. It was the first recorded instance of an animal-to-animal transference of a human language.

Alex, for his part, was picked up in a Chicago pet store in 1977 by a newly minted Harvard chemistry Ph.D. named Irene Pepperberg. She had become fascinated with the stories of Washoe, along with other studies being done at that time on highly communicative species like dolphins, humpback whales and songbirds. Alex (an acronym for Avian Learning EXperiment) would learn more than 100 words in the course of his 30-year partnership with Pepperberg. He also learned to identify 50 different objects; to recognize their different colors, shapes and makeup; and to distinguish and pronounce phonemes (the root sounds of words). By the time of his sudden death from a heart condition in September 2007 at the age of 31, he had also mastered many compound words.

Still, it wasn’t the size of their respective vocabularies so much as the frequent winsomeness of their word usage that captivated us: the way that even the simplest impromptu phrasings from them could give us sudden glimpses into the minds of other beings, into the motive and mindfulness behind language in creatures that don’t happen to speak our own. The moment with Washoe that still resonates most is one that occurred outside the laboratory, when she happened to notice a swan adrift on a nearby lake. She turned to her caretakers and signed water,then bird: perhaps the first documented incident of another creature freely assigning our words to an observed phenomenon. It was, the Harvard psychologist Roger Brown noted at the time, like getting an S O S from outer space.

Skeptics insisted that Washoe and subsequent primate research subjects were not using language in the thoughtful, abstract, spontaneous way humans do, that their utterances were all merely rote, reward-based responses. The evidence, however, repeatedly suggested otherwise. When Washoe’s caretakers arrived in the morning, she’d sign crude sentences like Come hug, feed me, gimme clothes, please out, open door. Once, upon seeing a small doll inside a cup, she signed, Baby in my drink, as near to an original, unscripted sentence as any language-learning child might utter. And then there was that shoe fixation of hers. She was always checking people’s feet to see what shoes they were wearing. Whenever anyone came in with a new pair, she’d immediately request to see them and then sign her assessment.

Of course, with chimps it’s not so big a leap to imagine them having cognitive and linguistic powers at least kindred to our own. It would, somehow, take a parrot long the very icon of mindless mimicry, with a brain no bigger than a walnut to give full voice to Washoe’s silent signaling and force us to rethink our narrow, anthropocentric conceptions of language and thought. Alex’s cognitive abilities tested as high as those of a 4-to-5-year-old child. He understood concepts like presence and absence, making him very adept at the shell game. He frequently cajoled and coached the other parrots in Pepperberg’s lab. And he never hesitated to express his frustrations and affections. When Pepperberg returned to the lab after a three-week absence, Alex turned his back on her and commanded, Come here! As she put Alex back in his cage the night he died, he signed off with: You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.

They were not unusually gifted members of their respective species, Washoe and Alex. But armed with our words, they opened our minds, making us aware of the pervasive and protean nature of the linguistic impulse across species. Of the many tales they told us, the most universal tells of an early ancestor of our own, standing hundreds of thousands of years ago on a lake shore somewhere, seeing a large winged creature drift by and signing or saying outright, in whatever language it might have been: water,then bird.

7 thoughts on “The Newest Animal Linguist on the Block”

  1. Fascinating. Can you imagine what other animals might say to us if they could? I don’t think all of it would be complimentary.

  2. This is so cool and interesting.

    I buy it.

    My dog told me to take him to the vet, told me something was wrong. He was right. It was cancer. And he had no symptoms yet.

    Because he spoke and I listened we caught it early and may have saved his life.

  3. I had a professor whose African Gray changed his own name. He also had a disconcerting habit of saying “What are you doing?” When she was upstairs alone. If these are mimics, they are still remarkable. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  4. Thank you for bringing Alex and Washoe’s stories to light. This is the first I have heard of their amazing lives and abilities.

  5. I’ve often wondered if Washoe was thinking “How primitive these people are. I have to wave my hands to make them understand me. If only they were smarter.”

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