LINGUIST List 6.382

Sat 18 Mar 1995

Disc: Human and Non-human Languages

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  1. Bruce Nevin, Human and Non-human Languages

Message 1: Human and Non-human Languages

Date: Mon, 13 Mar 1995 10:36:56 Human and Non-human Languages
From: Bruce Nevin <bnevinLightStream.COM>
Subject: Human and Non-human Languages

Bearing on the question of primate language skills is the observation
that they appear not to imitate the *manner* of doing something
 --controverting the "monkey see, monkey do" saw.

A clue as to why people have cultures and languages and primates do not
came up in a National Geographic series on primate research that I saw a
few weeks ago. They had shown some chimps using sticks to poke through
holes in a "beehive" and suck off honey, introducing the topic of tool
use. In the next segment, the researcher had some candy on a table
surrounded by some sort of cage with vertical bars. He had a primitive
kind of rake with three wide-spaced tines resting on the table, the
handle through the bars. The chimp had the same, on an adjacent section
of the table. If the tines were down, they couldn't get the candy
because the wide-spaced tines couldn't retain it. The researcher
demonstrated flipping the rake over. With the back of the rake on the
table top, it was easy to pull the candy to one's hand. No matter how
often he saw it, the chimp didn't get it. The inference from this and
other experiments was that the primate perceives use of the tool to
accomplish the end, but does not attend to the manner of using the tool.

In the next segment, there is a similar setup with a small child. The
child fails with the tines down. Then the adult demonstrates flipping
his rake over. The child immediately, on the next turn, does the same,
even moving the rake through a curving path very much like that executed
by the adult's rake, to capture the object (a block) and pull it back to
the edge.

In support of this hypothesis, I believe there are no observations of
cultural differences between one community of primates and another
comparable to differences of human "body language" style and linguistic
dialect-- differences in the manner of doing the "same" things,
functionally inconsequential differences such that "we" do these things
this way and "they" do the same things that way.

 Bruce Nevin
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