Monkeys Without Flamethrowers

Sign Language Primates


Ever since the 60s members of the human species have been trying to communicate with different types of primates. The first of which was a chimpanzee names Washoe who different research teams attempted to teach ASL (American Sign Language). Over the years Washoe learned approximately 350 words in ASL and also taught other chimpanzees ASL without the assistance of our species. The question of are the primates actually communicating really depends on your definition of “communication”. What I wonder is if the primates are holding back or are they really trying with there full cognitive ability?


The next major attempt by humanity was with a chimpanzee ironically name Nim Chimpsky. Wall there is speculation that Nim only had 25 signs in his vocabulary it was claimed that he used and understood as many as 125. Regardless of attempts to teach Nim to communicate with our species, it only led to very serious aggressive incidents. The first was when he jumped 25 feet from above to attack his favorite handler. Bashing her head into the concrete.

After the attack another person began working with Nim. She was eventually bitten on her face. Later visiting Nim only to have the primate try and rip her face off again. Begging the questions if attempts to communicate with other species could ever work and are chimpanzees just violent by nature.


A kitten and a gorilla. Who would ever think that in trying to communicate with another species, that they would ask for a kitten. Koko the gorilla was taught using a modified version of ASL called GSL (Gorilla Sign Language). She was reported to understand more than 1,000 signs in GSL. With this ability to communicate in 1983 she asked for a kitten for Christmas. She received a stuffed animal and was not pleased. Koko would not play with the toy and kept signing “sad”.

On her birthday in 1984, she was allowed to pick out her very own kitten and named him All Ball. Koko loved her kitten and treated it like her child. Until 5 mouths later when the kitten got out and was struck by a car. Once Koko was informed of her pets death she signed “bad sad bad” and “frown cry frown sad”.

In 1985 Koko was allowed to pick out 2 more kittens, she named them Lipstick and Smokey. More recently in 2015 she picked out another 2 kittens that were named Miss Black and Miss Gray.

Koko was able to communicate in some form with our species and she asked for kittens. But was she able to truly communicate with us? What does it mean to actually communicate?


It has been said that monkeys with typewriters could have written Shapespear, but with the use of lexigrams Kanzi learned to communicate with humanity better than any non-human creature had ever done before. Kanzi a male bonobo¬† was born in 1980 and tough to communicated using a lexigram keyboard. He also picked up some GSL by watching videos of Koko and signed to one of his handlers “you gorilla question”.

Tests showed that Kanzi was able to correctly identify symbols up to 95% of the time. When posed complex question he was able to answer them correctly with a success rate over 74%. Kanzi also learned to craft stone tools and made very sharp knives by elaborating on the techniques he was taught. He also understood how the classic video game pack man works and how to beat it. Kanzi often enjoys omelettes and learned to cooked them for himself. Imaging having a omelette cooked by a bonobo, I would pay for that kind of service.

But despite being able to identify items/people and correctly answer questions the were posed. None of these primates ever asked a simple question. There favorite human could have been away and they never ask where did they go. These primates would show that they were upset at there humans absence but the concept of where were they never came up. It was only a basic understanding that they were not there.


To the best of my knowledge there has only been one animal that ever asked a question. It was a parrot named Alex who once asked what color he was. He was told “gray” a subsequently learned what the color gray is. That is the best other species have ever accomplished, to ask what color they are. This leaves me wondering how far ahead is humanity? What makes us different?

The main thing I have taken away from this is that language and communication is more complex then I thought. Being able to ask simple question is apparently a significant sign of cognitive capability. And that now I need to figure out how I can go see a gorilla who has kittens.

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