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Review of  Kanzi's Primal Language

Reviewer: Anne Reboul
Book Title: Kanzi's Primal Language
Book Author: Pär Segerdahl William Fields Sue Savage-Rumbaugh
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.67

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Date: Mon, 2 Jan 2006 17:14:08 +0100
From: Anne Reboul
Subject: Kanzi's Primal Language: The Cultural Initiation of Primates
into Language

AUTHORS: Segerdahl, Pär; Fields, William; Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue
TITLE: Kanzi's Primal Language
SUBTITLE: The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2005

Anne Reboul, Research Team ''Linguistics, Pragmatics and
Cognition'', Institute for Cognitive Sciences, CNRS, France


The book is made of four chapters, a summary of the design features
(of language) and appendixes.

The first chapter bears a narrative title: 'How Kanzi acquires language
in a forest in Georgia' and opens with an introduction on 'Culture in
animals'. Japanese primatologists were the first to endow animals,
notably great apes and more specifically chimpanzees with culture,
making it ''one of our 'natural' possession -- one that humans share
with many other animal species'' (2). The main ideas of the authors
center around a major difference between first- and second-language
acquisition as well as around the notion of a shared culture between
bonobos and their human caretakers, the so-called 'Pan/Homo
culture', with an emphasis on the 'spontaneity' of both the culture and
the language. A specificity of the LRC (Language Research Center,
Atlanta) lies in not trying to teach language to apes based on a
specific view of language. Rather ''Kanzi acquired language similarly
as human children do: spontaneously and without training'' (3),
understanding English far in excess of what he could express on the
keyboard of lexigrams. This led Savage-Rumbaugh and her
colleagues to three features of language acquisition: spontaneity,
precedence of comprehension over production and importance of
early exposition. A new view now developed in LRC is that ''first-
language acquisition occurs as an aspect of (...) 'enculturation''' (7). It
leads to a primal language, a ''cultural matrix'', which in turn may allow
the acquisition of a second language. Thus, ''what is acquired in
childhood (...) is fundamentally different from a specific language'' (7).
On this view, culture can be defined both as non-genetically
transmitted information and as a content leading to a shared way of
living. A major hypothesis is that ''by describing the cultural dimension
of language, it becomes possible to hypothesize a gene-culture
evolution of human language'' (9) though language acquisition by
bonobos suggests that it is a cultural arrangement of traits selected
for other functions. On this view, language is an undetachable part of
culture (conceived as a way of life) and cannot be studied apart from
a shared culture.

The authors then turn to the previously published experimental study
of Kanzi's understanding of English (see Savage-Rumbaugh et al.,
1993).These were carefully planned to show that Kanzi
understood ''human language in the formal sense demanded by many
linguists'' (15).They then turn to a comparison of the way Kanzi
acquired language and the way Nim (Terrace's chimpanzee) was
taught it, Kanzi through living in a rich shared cultural environment,
Nim in a bare classroom. In other words, Kanzi acquired language as
human children acquire their first language, while Nim was taught
language as children are taught a second language. The dimensions
of first language acquisition are cultural in the above sense, which is
not the case for second language acquisition. In other words, ''*our
primal language is an intrinsic aspect of culture. First-language
acquisition is enculturation*'' (22, authors' emphasis). And, ''*our primal
language is the cultural matrix of specific languages*'' (25, idem).

The second chapter is devoted to the ''Design features of language''. It
begins with the quest for precursors of language in ape interaction, for
which the authors enumerate: cooperative hunting, cultural
transmission of tool use, empathy and reconciliation, manipulating the
behavior of conspecifics. They then turn to the well-known catalogue
of design features of language proposed by Charles Hockett in 1963).
It is criticized as being too grammar-based and the authors propose to
replace it with a culture-based catalogue, insisting that their aim is
conceptual clarification: based on how Kanzi acquired language, we
can more realistically assess what language is and its significance in
biology than through context-independent research. This leads to the
following list of design features: spontaneity (as evidenced in how
Kanzi acquired language); boundlessness (no demarcation between
language and life: life changes with language acquisition through
enculturation, conceived as a biologically grounded process);
immanence (life is permeated with language and language acquisition
changed Kanzi's body and his mind); cultural creativity and generality
(''linguistic creativity is a variant of the creativity of the primate way of
life'' (45) and the distinction between language and language use -- or
semantics and pragmatics -- should be abandoned); placement
(replacing Hockett's feature of displacement: ''*linguistic
communications, even about things remote in space and time, are
placed in, or belong to, cultural activities acquired with the primal
language*'' (55, authors' emphasis)); gestures and tools (gestures are
central to language as they manifest what the speaker (e.g. Kanzi)
means: ''language is to a great extent a visible phenomenon: an
aspect of our enculturated body'' (62)); culture-sustained vocal
speech and other media (Kanzi vocalize in an English-like way and his
human carers understand his vocalizations through their common
Pan/Homo culture); cultural unity (language is grounded in an
interpersonally shared culture); non-arbitrariness (though signs may
be arbitrary, their uses are not and hence neither is primal language);
reflexivity (the only feature common with Hockett's catalogue:
manifested in bonobos through checking that communication went
through); flexible interface of primate interactions (allows for apes'
acquiring language through commonalities of primate interaction,
including human interaction); moral and personal dimensions (''there is
no such thing as a neutral observer of the apes' language'' (90)).

The third chapter bears the intriguing title of ''Ambiguous human
culture''. It deals with the revolution that the Kanzi experiment (his
spontaneously acquiring language) wreaks on his human entourage
conceptualization of language and should, according to the authors,
change the general view about language which language research
blindly assumes, replacing it by the catalogue of design features given
in the previous chapter. They defend Pan/Homo culture against such
strictures as de Waal's when he defends the notion of culture in
nature, by claiming that ''what apes acquire by being raised in human
culture is not alien to what they are as primates'' (104). In other words,
the specific Pan/Homo culture which developed around Kanzi could do
so because both bonobos and humans are apes, i.e. sensitive to
culture. They turn to another criticism, i.e. that ape language research
is anthropocentric. This, though true to some extent, is not true of
what happened at LRC because language acquisition proceeded
spontaneously there. Thus the LRC results can only be criticized as
anthropocentric if one clings to a view of language which ignores its
cultural aspects. Hence scepticism regarding Kanzi's language (as
happens for instance with some of his caregivers) is an illustration of
that myopic attitude towards language; linguists, by developing a
professional culture, get insensitive and clumsy toward natural
manifestations of language. This is not only true of linguists but of
scientists in general who end up putting more emphasis on formal
aspects of experimental design than on the content of the test. This,
according to the authors, hints at what Wittgenstein
called ''experimental methods and *conceptual confusion*'' (quoted by
the authors, 123, authors' emphasis). This was, for instance, true,
regarding Tomasello's insistence on a scientific test of imitation in
bonobos, when he had just seen a natural instance of it.

Though Tomasello acknowledged imitation of bonobos after their
success at such a test, he still insists on ''a uniquely human motivation
to share intentions'' (127), thus giving rise to a ratchet effect in cultural
innovation. If Tomasello were right, then ''Kanzi as we know him is
impossible or at least he cannot imitate'' (127). Tomasello's account of
Kanzi's abilities is through human teaching, making Kanzi a parasite
on human culture. In other words, Tomasello errs by ignoring the
shared Pan/Homo culture. Thus, ''tests and statistics are important,
but they cannot replace coming to know Kanzi and experiencing what
it means to talk with him'' (138). This specific interpersonal experience
is irreplaceable. The ambiguity of human culture is thus the ambiguity
of the human culture as lived on an everyday basis and of the human
culture as a specific instance of a scientific culture, in this specific
instance, linguists' culture. There, we should take the Socratic stance:
not bow to the superior knowledge embodied by scientific cultures, but
just acknowledge that the only thing we can know with any certainty is
our universal ignorance, apart from our lives as we live them. His
scientific culture was what blinded Herbert Terrace to whatever
language he had been able to teach Nim despite the obvious
shortcomings in his pedagogic approach.

Chapter 4 is devoted to 'What does it mean to study language?', a
question approached via an agonist comparison with Chomsky's view
of language. The first reproach the authors address to Chomsky is his
neglect and indeed immediate rejection of common-sense usage as a
way of addressing language-related questions. Indeed the
Chomskyan choice of I-language (the inner, biologically based system)
as an object of scientific inquiry suggests to the authors the restriction
of language to an intellectually introvert mechanism, detached from its
social and cultural aspects. Thus Chomsky reduces language studies
to a technical perspective, claiming that ''*language as we already
experience it is caused by language in the technical sense, through
the mediating activity of certain performance systems*'' (164, authors'
emphasis). In fact, where empirical scientists, such as the authors,
allow themselves a certain amount of experiential friction and thus
conceptual questioning, scientists such as Chomsky aim at avoiding
empirical friction and at postponing conceptual questioning. Thus
Chomskyan linguistics is concerned with an idealization, competence,
which cannot be empirically investigated, and thinks that ''idealization
takes us straight up to reality in the highest degree'' (167).
Hence, ''language as a common human phenomenon is, from the
perspective of the postulated invisible ideal, hardly language at all''
(167). This can only rests on the introduction by Chomsky ''of a
mind/body dualism to downplay the importance of experience'' (167).
Indeed, ''Chomsky is so certain of what the evidence *must* be
evidence for, that he puts aside the question of what the evidence, if
studied more closely, actually *might* be evidence for'' (171).

Thus, the best that Chomskyan linguistics can do is
investigate ''traditional grammar as it is integrated into our educational
system and learned by most citizens'' (172), in other words,
investigate our primal language as if it were a second language. The
authors then turn to the vexed question of innate or learned to dismiss
the distinction as too categorical. The developmental process of
language acquisition is enculturation. Kanzi's spontaneous
development of language ''indicates that the human environment that
had this effect on him was not an artefact, but shaped by the fact that
we too are primates'' (179), just as does human children's linguistic
acquisition. The authors then turn to Tomasello's cultural account of
language acquisition, based on specifically human and biologically
based mindreading and imitation: this means that whereas human
children would acquire language based on their mindreading and
imitative abilities ('stealing adult language'), apes could only acquire it
through ostension ('being given language by adults').
However, ''acquiring language is to a great extent a frighteningly and
excitingly *creative and transforming process*'' (191, Authors'
emphasis). We can only imitate what we already know how to do.
Imitation chiefly works because we imitate conspecifics, apes like
ourselves. Language is not transferred from adult to child anymore
than it was transferred to Kanzi from his human entourage:
it ''emerges (...) as an aspect of this dynamic life with others'' (194), as
long as others are apes. Thus ''our biology is plastic and updateable:
culture is our updated biology'' (195). Over-interpreting young apes is
the way of leading them to verify these very interpretations: ''the fact
that Kanzi has language means that he would speak and listen to you.
The simplicity of the fact is its significance'' (199).

Then come the summary, i.e. ''The catalogue of design features'' (a list
of the design features of language, as identified by the authors, with
short commentaries) and two appendixes, the first a presentation of
the apes in the LRC project with four bonobos on the human side and
four bonobos on the bonobo side of the Pan/Homo culture, the
second a description of the keyboard used as a communicative


'Kanzi's primal language' is a profoundly annoying book in that it both
is very likeable and at the same time very disappointing. It presents
some quite valuable insights, but these, even when explicitly
presented as such, are buried beneath exaggerated and ill-argued
claims. Maybe the most irritating feature of the book lies the reiterated
and never argued assertion of Kanzi's language: it may be that Kanzi
has language in a full-human sense, though this can mainly be
assessed in the 1993 monograph in which experimental data
comparing Kanzi's understanding of spoken English with that of a 18-
24 months old child was presented. Clearly his production is far from
anything like a human language and even his understanding, as
described in 1993, does not justify that assertion (for a discussion,
see Anderson 2004 and my review, Reboul 2005). Thus, it strongly
seems that the 'fact' of Kanzi's language resorts more to begging the
question than to a proven scientific fact. Indeed, the whole book
seems to be a circular attempt to change the scientific approach of
language, based on the 'fact' of Kanzi's language, with the further
goal of justifying that Kanzi indeed has language in a human sense
through that change of scientific paradigm regarding language
research. There may be examples of innocuous circularity, but it is
hard not to see this specific attempt as viciously circular.

Yet, there is much that is worth reading in this book, in addition to the
extraordinary human-animal story involved in the relations between
Kanzi and his human entourage, especially his relation with Savage-
Rumbaugh: for instance, for a pragmatist, much of what is said about
language acquisition as a social process makes sense, though I would
tend to insist that this is mainly the case for lexical acquisition. Again,
up to a point, it may well be that such a social process of lexical
acquisition could legitimately be described as an enculturation
process, given the role of words in concept creation and acquisition in
childhood (see, e.g. Waxman and Markow 1995), independently of
any debatable linguistic relativity hypothesis. However, does it mean
that Kanzi has language or that grammar is a mere theoretical
construct with no or very little relation to language? This seems to be
what the authors think, especially in view of their harsh criticism of
Chomsky's research program in the last chapter of the book.
However, there is no clear argument in the whole book which could
reasonably lead to that conclusion. The most that could be claimed is
that though Kanzi does not have language in the Chomskyan sense,
Kanzi has language in the Savage-Rumbaughian sense. But this,
presumably legitimate, claim reduces the whole project behind the
book to a merely terminological quibble, whereas clearly the authors'
aim was substantive: changing a scientific paradigm is not, after all,
merely changing terminology and the question of whether Kanzi has
anything like a human language, as opposed to a sophisticated
human-induced communication system, remains. Does he?

As discussed by Anderson (2004), though Kanzi has some sort of
grammar, as shown in the 1993 experiments, this does not seem to be
a grammar on a par with human grammars as described by
generativists. Of course, one can deny that such descriptions have
any validity in describing languages and take them identical with the
normative prescriptions used to teach grammar in school. However,
contrary to the authors' claim in the last chapter, there are empirical
investigations of such grammars, not only based on what the authors
clearly take to be dubious empirical facts (i.e., non-attested examples,
condemned as based on 'idealization'), but based on experimental
data collected in psycho-linguistic experiments. What is more, some of
this data is collected in young children, during language acquisition,
and strongly justifies the Chomskyan view of grammar (for a host of
highly interesting data of such kind, see Julien Musolino's website with
downloadable papers: Of course, it
is still open to the authors to claim that grammar is epiphenomenal in
language, and even in human language, but this comes very close to
claiming that language is merely communication and in this case, the
authors should go one step further and claim language not only for
Kanzi and apes raised in human surroundings, but for all domestic
animals (especially pets) and ultimately all animal species in which
some form of communication exists. Given the fact that communication
is widespread among animal species, this is clearly a slippery slope
and one, what is more, that the authors cannot follow, given their
ultimate goal, which seems to be a vindication of the claim that Kanzi
has language in the human sense, this being explained through a
common ape heritage.

Let me finish with a few words about the basis of this claim in the
book. The book clearly sets aside the 1993 experiments, claiming that
assessment of Kanzi's language can only be made through shared
living with him. As clearly not everyone interested in whether Kanzi
has language can share his everyday life, the book gives a host of
anecdotal evidence for language in Kanzi and the other three
bonobos 'on the human side of the Pan/Homo culture'. This is not the
place to revive the controversy over the use of anecdotal evidence in
animal studies: such evidence is probably valuable as long as it is
taken cautiously and eventually leads to experimental evidence. What
is interesting however is the content of the anecdotes given: in quite a
few of them the evidence for language consists in what is called gaze
alternation, i.e. in a communicative episode, the communicator looks
at his addressee to evaluate the success of her communicative act
and repeats it if it has failed (this is also the data proposed as
evidence for reflexivity in Kanzi's language). This is taken as evidence
for the fact that the communicator means something, in a Gricean
sense, inside the shared Pan/Homo culture.

However, and this is where the slippery slope raises its ugly head
again, this kind of behaviour is evidenced in some domestic pets: cats
and dogs do it routinely if their human owners do not satisfy their
requests. In the same way, the authors devote part of the first chapter
in discussing the fact that language is not made of sentences, given
that isolated words can do proxy for sentences (e.g., ''Who
came?''; ''John''). But recent work (see Kaminsky et al. 2004) shows
that domestic dogs not only understand words but show fast mapping.
On that count, the authors might reply that domestic animals, notably
dogs, have developed a Canis/Homo culture (this, interestingly, is
almost certainly a justified claim for most domestic animals: humans
have a very long history of symbiotic living with other species and of
modifying the very biology of these species. The recent acceleration
of this process should not blind us to the fact that this is a process
which has been going on for several thousands of years). But then
what price the claim of the Pan/Homo culture as a natural extension of
our shared primate nature, allowing for spontaneous acquisition of
human language by non-human apes? We have a common culture
with species with whom we do not share a primate culture and with
whom we have developed communication, though we do not want to
claim language for them...

Thus, 'Kanzi's primal language' is a highly annoying book, full of
valuable insights in the nature of communication and culture as well as
of more debatable claims about human language. The circular nature
of the argumentation, resting on the petitio principii that Kanzi has
language in the human sense, certainly does nothing to validate the
authors' attempt to change scientific paradigms of language
investigation or indeed their more general attempt to discredit
idealization in scientific inquiry.


Anderson, S. R. (2004), Dr. Dolittle's delusion. Animals and the
uniqueness of human language, Harvard, Yale University Press.

Hockett, C. F. (1963), ''The problems of universals in language'', in
Greenberg, J.H. (ed.), Universals of language, Cambridge, MA, The
MIT Press.

Kaminsky, J., Call, J. and Fischer, J. (2004), ''Word learning in a
domestic dog: Evidence for ''fast mapping'''', Science 304, 1682-1683.

Reboul, A. (2005), Review of Anderson (2004),

Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Murphy, J., Sevcic, R. A., Brakke, K. E.,
Williams, S. L. and Rumbaugh, D. M. (1993), Language
comprehension in ape and child, Monographs of the Society for
Research in Child Development, 233/58, 3-4.

Waxman, S. R. and Markow, D. B. (1998), ''Object properties and
object kind: twenty-one-month-old infants' extension of novel
adjectives'', Child Development 69, 1313-29.

Anne Reboul is a First Class Research Fellow at the French Center
for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. She has a Ph.D. in
Linguistics (EHESS, Paris) and a Ph.D. in philosophy (University of
Geneva, Switzerland). She has written some books, among which an
Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Pragmatics and quite a few papers in
French and English, on pragmatics and/or philosophic subjects. She
has developed an interest in recent years in both language evolution
and animal cognition and communication.

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ISBN: 1403996040
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Pages: 248
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