CHRISTMAS LECTURES 1973: Sir David Attenborough - Animal Language, Human Language
About this video
Sir David brings his lectures to an end with a look at how both animals and humans use language to communicate.
Many animal languages are relatively simple. They consist of simple declarations of the animal’s immediate intentions, or straightforward statements of how it is feeling at that very moment.
Usually the language can only convey a limited number of messages. Yet in some cases, the information sent in the message is really quite complicated. For example, some animals can pass on to another, detailed instructions concerning the exact position of food. Some animals have developed means by which to increase the amount of information they can pass through their language, either by using a larger repitoire of messages or by conveying more detail in their existing messages.
- Sir David Attenborough
- London, UK
- Filmed in:
- The Theatre
Royal Institution, BBC
- Collections with this video:
- CHRISTMAS LECTURES 1973: The Language of Animals
Licence: Courtesy of BBC
This is our last talk, and let me begin it by showing you two little animals who appeared on our first talk. Now these are the Celebes macaques who appeared in our first program to show us the crests on their head. But now I'm going to try and exchange a greeting with them. [CLICKS] Hey. [CLICKS] There we are. That's right.
I don't know whether you saw it. See if they do it again. [CLICKS] Well, they both did it, actually. And that is called lip smacking. And that is a piece of monkey communication, which nobody, as it were, has taught them, which they can do right from the very earliest age, and it's a greeting signal.
I think now we'll get rid of those for the moment, because what I want to talk about today, to begin with, at least, is some of the signals rather like that lip smacking of a greeting, which the Celebes ape does- or Celebes macaque does, which we ourselves do.
Are there, do you suppose, gestures which we make, and which we haven't been taught to make by our parents or by the people we grow up with, but which we make which are, as it were, a memory of our prehistoric past? When we did not have language, and when we may have used gestures, as so-called ape men, to communicate within the tribe, within the group, within whatever group it was that ape men, if I may use that term, lived.
Well now, it is extremely difficult for us to discover the answer to that question. Because, you see, we all grow up in cities, we all grow up in villages, we all grow up in communities, we all grow up in groups. We all have had parents. And so it may be that we have communicated these gestures to one another, and we have actually learned them. They have nothing to do with our ancient prehistoric past.
Unless, that is, you could find a group of people who had never met our kind before. Now there are precious few such tribes left in the world. And I count myself very lucky, indeed, that once I was able to go on a journey in New Guinea to try and find a group of people who had never seen a white face before, ever. The only reason that the government of New Guinea knew they were there is that they had flown over an area of high mountains, covered in jungle, which they had thought were uninhabited. And suddenly, on the aerial photographs they took when they were trying to make a map, they saw tiny little white spots, which they knew to be clearings in the forest.
And it must mean there must be just a handful of people who were living there. And people, what is more, who had never seen Europeans. And when they came to the edge of this vast tract of country- several thousand square miles- the local people in the villages and the remote villages up the river said, yes, there are a group of people. We hardly ever see them. They call themselves the Biami.
And so we went off on a journey which was to try and find the Biami. It involved walking every day for about 10 hours through the mountains. And every night, we would call to the Biami because Biami was the only name for sure that we knew they would understand. We knew no other word of their language.
Now what I want to show you now is the film that we took at the moment when we met them and they met us for the very first time. And what I want you to look at is the gestures and signals which they give. Because I know that they cannot have learned it from us. It's extremely unlikely that they could have learned it from the local people on the top most part of the river, because they hardly ever met. So if they have signals in common, then we've got a pretty good idea that maybe they are in fact something which is an echo from the long, long animal past that we share.
So let's have a look. What we did was every night when we made camp, one of us, or one of the carriers, stood outside the camp and called, Biami, Biami, to try and persuade them that we were friends, and ask them to come in, hoping that we would meet them.
And night after night, nothing happened. Then one morning we got up, and there they were. These are the Biami. Now they're looking at us in amazement. Now just watch the gestures. A point. They're pointing. We're using the name of another tribe down by the river, the Bikaru. Pointing.
Now we understand no word of their language, except these proper names which have to do with people, their name, and other tribes. Pointing. Nod- did you see, he nodded. More pointing. Now look at him with his jaw dropped, his mouth- and him. A nod. I have no idea what he's saying, but he nodded again. This is the government officer who was with us. See, a gesture with the hand there. Now watch him, watch- you see, put his hand up there, did you see?
The district officer is touching them to try and give messages to ask them to do something, but that man put his hand up. Now see that. Nods, more nods, more points. Now watch this chap. See, nod, nod, nod. And that, a sort of impassive look. Now he's the ringleader. He's the chief man. You see, look at him opening his eyes wide and smiling. And he actually opened his eyes wide there.
Now we wanted to assure them that we wanted to be friendly. And we wanted to give them presents. There was another nod then. And what do you give such people? In most cases, one of the things that you can give which is very well received are bits of newspaper, because the people in this part of New Guinea all smoke, and the best stuff to smoke with is newspaper.
But you see, he doesn't know how to deal with it. He doesn't know how to fold it properly. They do indeed smoke, but what they do is to use the dried part of the base of leaves, of husks of leaves to smoke with, to put their tobacco in. But they are handling this, and I doubt very much whether they had seen it before-- newspaper. And then we gave them some salt, and that indeed they did recognize. Now watch him, he puts his eyes down. He did a nod.
Well, we've seen enough of that encounter for the moment. And let me just list a few of the things that we've got out of that. Now, of course, one meeting is a very dangerous thing to generalize on. And you would be a very rash biologist, behaviorologist, anthropologist, whatever, to make great big statements simply on the evidence of that one piece of film, though the circumstances in which it happened are just as I described.
But you see, they did a number of things which even though we didn't speak a single word of their language-- except the proper names of their tribe-- we nonetheless felt we had met one another, that we were two human beings, two homo sapiens, and we had actually managed to communicate. Because when we actually bared our teeth and moved our mouth up like that, we knew we were being friendly. We were smiling.
Very interesting, too, when the district officer went to put his arm on that man's shoulder as I indicated, the other man, the Biami man, lifted up his hand as a gesture of greeting. Now that actually is a chimpanzee gesture. If you watch strange chimpanzees meeting one another, or chimpanzees who haven't met in some time, they extend the hand with a limp wrist like that. And we do, that Biami man did, that same sort of thing.
The open mouth look of sort of surprise, which means the same thing in both our cultures, and the nod. That chap with the beard was nodding all the time like that. Now actually, the nod meaning yes isn't universal in the world. There are some cultures, some groups of people, that do not nod when they mean yes. But a high proportion of people do. And it maybe the exceptions are due to something that they have learned subsequently. It may well be that the nod actually is fairly deep in our ancestral memories.
And what else? Well, there was the pointing, which is fairly obvious. So you see, there are gestures which you and I share, and which other cultures share, and other people share, which we haven't taught one another but which come from our past, so it would seem.
Now let's look at a few more. You remember I said on one occasion that if you're a naturalist and you look at animals, one of the things you ought to do is to look at the patterns of them, and try and work out why the animals have these patterns in these particular positions. Why they have an eye stripe, for example, why do they have a crest? Surely, they use them in signaling.
Now if we actually take that lesson and do it ourselves, the fact is that we, particularly on our head - and this is where most of our communication goes on - we've got curious bits and pieces. And none more curious than these. What are our eyebrows for? Keep the rain out, hmm? Keep the sweat out? Maybe.
But you see, they actually go up and down. I can't do them as well as Philip did, I think, on the first lecture when he showed us how he could move his scalp. But eyebrows go up and down. And it seems pretty likely that they are a signaling mechanism. Because lots of animals have eye stripes which call attention to their eyes as signaling devices. And we have these things which emphasize our eyes, and actually, we do use our eyes, very powerfully.
Two of you showed me a couple of lectures ago what it was like if you actually became angry with one another. What did you do? You stared in one another's eyes. And actually staring at somebody, if I actually stare unblinkingly at you, you really find it rather tricky, don't you? Do you find it rather, it's rather an aggressive thing to do, isn't it? Yes, it is. You want to break away.
But you don't want to break away altogether, actually, because if you want two people having a conversation, they don't stare like that all the time, because that's actually a bit aggressive. But what they do is they look away, and every now and again they actually renew the contact with the eyes. So eyes and eyebrows are part of our signaling devices.
Let me do an experiment. Now what I want to do is to find two people up there who are friends. Who's sitting next to one another who are friends? Those two there, yes, at the back there, there's a girl in the white, and a girl in- yes, you two. You're friends, are you? Now you, the girl in white, sit there, and you in the coat come down and sit here.
Now I want you to sit here and what I want you to do is I want you to, as it were, recognize, seek out your friend. Give a sort of nod. No, I want you to seek your friend. And I don't want you to call out. I don't want you to say, hey you, or anything. See if you can see where she is and give her - how would you do it? Do you recognize her? Can you catch her eye? Call her attention.
How would you call attention with your eyes? Not at all? No. OK, let me try two more. You, you two, one of you come. Yes, you. You come, sit down. Now see if you can do the same thing.
You'd open your eyes wide.
You'd open your eyes wide. Would you do anything else?
Well, you'd move your hands.
Yes, yes. Well just try once more. You did it, you did it. Do you know what you did?
You did, yes, you did. You went like that. Do it again. Now you know what I want, it's cheating a bit. But do what I think you should have been doing. Yes, that's right. Thank you very much.
Now I'll do it. What I think she did, I think she went something like that. And actually, that raising of the eyebrows and the showing of the eyelids is actually a gesture for distant recognition which we find all over the world. That sort of look, like that. And all sorts of cultures do it. People in South America do it. People in Siam do it. People in North America do it. All over Europe they do it. And that is probably one of our distant recognition signals.
Of course, there are other things apart from recognition signals. What about if I start yawning. Do you feel at all sleepy? Do you? Yes, you do, don't you? I mean, if somebody starts yawning, you're inclined to yawn, yourself.
And actually, there are signals which animal groups have which, as it were, communicate the feeling that the animals in the troop have at that particular time. If you see a herd of impala in Africa, you can tell from the way they're wagging their tails and from the way they're holding their heads just whether they're nervous or whether they're contented.
Let me do something else.
Now you see, you laughed. You did. Now he didn't tell a joke, why did the chicken cross the road, or anything. I mean, it wasn't a funny story. All he did was laugh. And the fact is that laughing is infectious. And if he laughs, you laugh. And it could well be that laughing, too, is a bit of one of these ancient signals which we have, which communicates to one another as to how the group is feeling.
Well those are a few of the gestures and the signals which we appear to have inherited from our long distant past, from the time when we didn't have a proper language. But now, let me take you back to the Biami. Let me take you back to the second day. I showed you almost everything that happened on that first day. They only stayed with us about 10 minutes. And then they went away.
And they came back the next day with some food. And this time we asked them- because we wanted to make a map of the area, which people haven't been into before from outside. We asked them the names of some of the rivers, which we knew from lower down. Now look what happened. Now we ask them the name, and they pointed. [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]. He's the leader, that chap with the beard.
And then they thought, he thought that we wanted to count them, so watch what he did. There are two of them, he said, three, four. Now watch when he makes a five. Five is the hands together, you see. And six, touching the wrist. Seven, halfway along the forearm. Eight, elbow. Nine, halfway on the upper arm. Ten is the arm, is the shoulder. Now watch the next one. He's looking puzzled. And eleven is the neck.
Now you see, he smiled, which is a bit of a signaling we know about. And he actually laughed, because he thought, what asses these people are, they can't pronounce the name of the river properly. But what he was actually doing was these gestures for numbers. Now there is no possible reason why you or I should know that that means 11. None.
In other words, it is quite arbitrary. It is a gesture which that group have devised among themselves to mean eleven, or alternatively, seven. No reason why we should know that at all. And there's no reason why I shouldn't use that for eleven, or that for eleven. It is something that the group had agreed amongst themselves, as it were.
And that, in a way, is like language. Because we use words, apart from words like smash, and crash, and splash, and those sort of words which actually echo real sounds, the words we use are quite arbitrary. I mean, they bear no relation to the nature of the thing that we're talking about. If I wanted to describe the biggest living animal, I say whale. Tiny, short word. If I want to describe a tiny, tiny creature I may say, a microscopic organism.
There is no relationship between size and length of word at all. In fact, they are quite arbitrary. But with these languages which we have developed among ourselves, these arbitrary languages to some extent, we can do marvellous things. And there are plenty of people who will say that the thing that distinguishes us from all the rest of creation is, in fact, the marvelous, miraculous complexity of our language and what we can do with it.
Now let's just have a look at what characters our language has which makes it so useful. A lot of these signals - which I've been calling languages in a rather arbitrary way in itself - a lot of the signals which animals use are what you might call separate and on or off. For example, if I turn that on, that's red. And if I turn it somewhere else, if I turn it there, it's green. Red, green.
And we use those sort of signals ourselves, don't we? Of traffic lights, red and green, we have an amber in the middle. And that is the sort of signal, on or off, it's either there or it isn't, which a great number of animals use. That moth we saw about in the second talk sends out the smell to its mate, and it says, here I am. It's a sexual attraction. It doesn't say, if you'd like to turn up a week on Thursday, this is where I'll be. Or it doesn't say, I've got the loveliest wings you ever saw in your life. Or it doesn't say I'm lonely, or it doesn't say I'm a little lonely, or it doesn't say, I'm terrifically lonely. It just says I'm here, I'm not here. You're either red or green. Red or green.
Of course, you can use these signals. I mean, if we arranged things so that it wasn't like a traffic light, which simply said, if you cross now, you're OK, if you cross now, you'll get killed, if you cross now, you'll stand nine chances out of ten of being killed, or perhaps, a 40% chance of being killed, or if you come down here, well, it's touch and go. That sort of signalling is no good. And it's so that the animals require to have this sort of special on off signal that I'm talking about, because, particularly in emergencies, they need to know immediately, yes or no.
But of course, with language, we can do much better than that in the right circumstances. We can do all the finer shades of meaning between stop and go. One of the valuable things about language is that, that we can use it in such a refined way. But we could not say that we are alone in using that in that particular subtle way. Professor Lawrence, who we spoke of before working with dogs, was able to draw charts which showed the various expressions of his dog, which is like an Alsatian.
Now that's his dog at rest, as it were, ears up, mouth just set. But if it got crosser, if it got more aggressive, than in fact, what he did was to pull back the bottom of his jaw, of his lip, there. And if he got very cross, what he did was to expose his teeth and furrow his muzzle. Now on the other hand, of course, dogs not only get cross, dogs actually get frightened. And this is the dog getting frightened. His hair on his neck goes down compared with that, gets sleeker. His ears are still up, but if he's extremely frightened, his ears go back, and his hair is sleeked down.
Now actually, of course, you see, dogs, like us, very rarely feel pure emotion. And often, when you're extremely angry, you're also extremely frightened. It's not at all unusual. And so Dr. Lawrence was able to show that there were all sorts of intermediate positions which combine these two extremes.
So down here, for example, he's not only extremely aggressive, but he's extremely frightened. And so he's got features of them both. He's got exposing the teeth, he's got the furrowing of the muzzle, both of which are angry, and ferocious, and aggressive. But his ears are laid down, which shows that he is also extremely frightened. And there are intermediate positions in between those.
So that dogs, and indeed, cats, if you keep cats, you know the posture of cats and it would be quite useful and interesting to work out what the different attitudes that your cat takes when it's mixing anger and fear. And that produces this sort of gradient chart which I'm talking about. So that just grading in emotions isn't a characteristic only of human language.
All right. Let's think what else language might be able to do. Well, of course, one of the very curious things we can do is that we can take two words which mean quite different things, join them together, and make a third. For example, if I take the word moon, and I take the word honey, and I put them together, I make a word which is honeymoon, which has got nothing much to do with the moon, and precious little to do with honey, and we know what it means nonetheless.
Now, surely, animals can't do that. Well, actually, with very, very few exceptions they can't. And I'm stretching the point a little. But nonetheless, they can almost approach it. For example, here are Herring Gulls. Herring Gulls have many different ways of threatening, of aggressive threatening. That one we looked at. Actually, these are Black-headed gulls, I'm sorry, but we looked at in Herring gulls, of leaning forward and putting the beak forward, do you remember?
And this one is an upright position, which is also an aggressive one, the beak is often lower down than that. And this is what's called the oblique position, which is associated with a particular call, which is a distant threat. And then there's one where in fact they flag their head while they stand up, and they do that with their head. Now, all those are messages, variations of keep out, I'm aggressive. I don't want to know you.
But if in fact the Herring Gull does them in this order, one, two, three, four, and invariably does them in that order, then that actually conveys something quite new, and quite different. Because that is a courtship display. Like the Great Crested Grebe courtship display that we saw a couple of lectures ago.
So that actually animals too can take-- if you allow a gesture to be a word, as it were - they can take words and put them together and make a new word. They can take gestures together and make a new meaning out of them - the meaning of courtship.
Right. Now then those are two characteristics of language. There's one more which I think would have occurred to you all. And that is the ability that we have with words to remove ourselves from the here and the now. We can talk about something that happened last week, or is going to happen next week. We can talk about something that isn't here in the Royal Institution, but is up in Yorkshire or is away in Africa.
Animals surely can't do that. I can say, well if you go into the dining room, and you open the drawer, the second drawer down, you will find knife and fork. And that is about something which is far away from here. And we can all understand that. It's one of the functions of languages. But a dog can't, he may know that he buried a bone in a particular place, but he can't say to another dog, if you go to the kitchen door and walk three and a half paces to the north-northeast, and dig a hole, you'll find a particularly nice bone. He cannot say that.
But of course, some animals actually can give instructions, and it's worthwhile seeing how they do those. Ants in South America - there's a species of ant called a leafcutting ant, which lives by cutting sections of leaves, hoisting them above its head, and carrying them back to its nest. These ants are actually not in the wild, these are in a laboratory. And they are carrying segments of leaves back to store them in a wooden box.
Now of course, in the wild what happens is once the ants discover a tree, like these, discover a tree which is just putting out fresh leaves, suddenly, within an hour or so, tens of thousands of ants are there absolutely stripping the tree. They take the leaves back in order, believe it or not, to chew it up inside the nest in order to make it into a sort of compost in which - it sounds incredible - they plant mushrooms on which they live.
But now we're going to experiment with them. Now we've drawn this sort of figure eight figure, but along this side of the figure eight, we are putting a particular solution, a particular substance, which carries within it a sort of smell which the ants actually recognize, and which they themselves use. We put this other line as a sort of check to make sure it isn't the pencil line that's going to have a reaction. And at the end of the line we put leaves.
Now along come a couple of ants. Now he's getting hooked onto the smell. Once he's got it clear, away he goes. Number two following hard behind. Now watch this one. Watch him. He's lost the smell. He's come over, and by accident, he's almost within sight of these leaves if he could see properly. He's come quite close but no, that's got nothing to do with it, it's the smell he wants. So he goes back, and this time number two has beaten him to it and gotten there first.
In short, the only sense that he's following is not an instruction which says, if you go to the other end you will find leaves, but he's following in a slavish manner, that particular smell. So that doesn't qualify as the sort of language which you and I are trying to describe. But there is one extraordinary example of precisely this ability to send a message which is about the future and a different place. And it was discovered by Professor von Frisch, who was the third of the three great scientists who got the Nobel Prize this year. And it's to do with bees.
Now he discovered that if a bee found a tree in blossom within 25 yards of the hive, that when it came back - and I'm not very good at doing this, but we'll try - when it came back, it did this on the cone. Well, it did better than that, but it did a sort of circular dance like this. You get the message I think. I'm crippling myself at the back here. But anyway, it did a circular dance. And it kept on doing it. And what's more, more came and followed behind it. And that was a message which says, there is a plant in blossom full of honey, quite close by.
And what is more, on his abdomen here, he has hairs, and they pick up the smell of that particular plant, so that together with that and the message made by this round dance, other bees in the hive know that there is honey to be had, and are off to find it. And providing it's within 25 yards, there's not much difficulty.
But supposing it's 1,000 yards away, that sort of communication is no good. And this is where the bees really behave in a most extraordinary way. Are you going to drive this, Mr. Coates, or am I? Off we go. If a bee comes back after having found some flowers quite a long way away, it starts a different sort of dance which is called a waggle dance.
I'll tell you what, Mr. Coates, I think we're going to have to turn this around. There we are. A waggle dance. What he does is to go up and waggle, and then it goes round that side, this side of the figure of eight, as it were. He comes back up here, he does another waggle, and then he goes, should go, doesn't go! Mr. Coates, there we are.
I'll try again, see if I can get him to go to the other side, because that's what he should do. There we are. He keeps doing this. Now the interesting thing is that if he was doing this on the flat in front of the hive there, and the flower he had come from was over there, this line would point directly towards the flower.
Now if he wanted to, he not only can point directly towards the flower to give the direction, but he also, actually, is able to indicate how far away it is. This gets now very complicated, and I've got to go over here. No I haven't. I've got to go over here. It does that. If it's close by, it goes much faster round the figure of eight. So that he is able to show you not only where it is, the direction, but also how far away it is by the speed with which he goes round.
Now that in itself is extraordinary enough, providing the bee is operating on the flat and providing the flower is over there. But you see, most bees don't operate that way. Most bees in this country, most domestic bees, live in hives, which in the first place are in the darkness, and in the second place aren't on the flat at all, but are hanging vertically.
And what Dr. von Frisch discovered was that in this instance, what the bee is actually doing is giving an indication of the angle to the sun that that particular flower is. Then when you tilt this up into a vertical position inside the hive, the angle to the sun is no longer visible, but it uses instead the pull of gravity. So that if you were, say, 25 degrees to the left of the sun's rays when you're down here, when it comes back, it does a dance in which this line is 25 degrees to the left of the vertical, because of gravity.
And so you have an example of the most complicated piece of instruction passing, of information passing, in the insect kingdom. But it is very exceptional and very extraordinary, and you can see that it has got many characteristics which we claim for languages, but at the same time, the fact remains that we still have discovered nothing which even approaches the complexity and the subtlety and the variability of our language.
In fact, there is no other animal but ourself which can speak in the way in which I'm talking. And immediately you say, oh yes, there are, and in some ways, you are right. Now then, of course there are animals that talk. Knowing my luck, these two champion Indian Hill Mynahs will now, from this moment on, be as silent as the grave, but there we are. Polly put the kettle on.
Polly put the kettle on.
I'm not going to improve on that. I don't think I have a chance, I beg your pardon?
There are, as you know, a number of birds, clearly, that can talk. I beg your pardon? What? But actually, you see, she doesn't actually know Polly, and she doesn't even care whether the kettle is put on or not. She is not actually speaking. What she, he is doing is simply imitating a call in the same way as we might imitate a blackbird's call. She is simply singing our call with no knowledge of what the meaning is.
And of course, it's true to say there are talking birds, but they aren't using language, obviously, in the way in which we are using language. And what one can say, clearly, is that they actually have the apparatus, they have the equipment in their throats to speak most of the sounds that we make, and a lot more besides, but they don't presumably have in the brain the sort of mechanisms that are required to speak.
Now let's just have a look at these mechanisms of talking. A long time ago, 1930 I think, Sir Richard Paget, who was a great speech therapist, devised some equipment which he left to the Royal Institution, which shows, which demonstrates, the sort of equipment you need to speak.
This is a pair of bellows. They just blow air. A tube and here, I mean, that's the equivalent of our lungs, this is the equivalent of our windpipe. And this, if I haven't broken it, is the equivalent of our voice box, our larynx. It's just got a reed in it, and it goes [NOISE].
Now if you take that noise, you can make it into different noises, as we do, by changing the shape of your mouth, and by opening it wide or-- I mean, if you go, ooh, what do you do with your mouth? You do a bit of that, don't you? And I wonder if I can find the, that's the E, I think. I beg your pardon?
Try this. You see? This one is E, I think. Not a very good E. This one is Ah. Now if I want to actually put lips on this, I can make it say, I hope, mama. Mama, yes? What about if I make it even sharper, it goes papa, papa, papa. Papa, yes? No? You're going to be here for a long time. I'm going to get it right. Mama, stick with that. And of course this one also is baby. Baby? Quite so.
Well so that you see you can actually make a few of the words that we use with quite simple apparatus. So the question arises, if you can make quite a lot of noises with fairly simple apparatus, though, indeed, the apparatus we use is actually very complex, why don't more animals speak? You've had your lot, sorry. Why don't more animals speak?
Well, of course, the obvious candidates for speech, and the things we would most like to speak to, I suspect, because we might discover the most interesting things maybe, would be our closest relatives, the great apes. Let me introduce you to one. Have we got, there we are. Thank you very much.
Now this is a baby orangutan, which comes from Borneo in Sumatra. And actually, she was born in this country in the Twycross Zoo, which is why she's still got nappies on, and she's actually very young. Now we might have used, we might think the orangutan would be a very good subject to try and teach to talk. Actually, not so, and for quite interesting reasons. The orangutan is in the wild a very solitary animal.
This little [UNINTELLIGIBLE] who has a very mobile face, don't you? And that is actually the most expressive part of him - his name is Kaya - is nonetheless actually extremely unexpressive, because they are not group animals. They don't even live in families. When he grows up, he will become one of these very large males that sit all by themselves in the tops of jungle trees in Borneo, grumbling, and chewing fruit, and looking rather angrily around. They're very frightening to meet, actually.
Do you want to get down? Do you? No. All right. So that the amount of muscles that they've got in their faces actually are surprisingly few. He doesn't have a very expressive face, the orang, and he doesn't have a wide vocabulary of sounds to use in communication. Not actually a very good animal for teaching languages to, though in point of fact, an absolutely marvelous creature to watch in the wild.
Something much better is - thank you very much - this one, which Ms. Badam, from Twycross Zoo, is going to bring in. Now this is Choppers. This is Choppers. Now Choppers is a chimpanzee. And the point about Choppers is that he has already learned quite a lot of things. Can you talk?
Choppers, talk to David. Talk to David. Talk to David.
Not a bit. What a disgusting sweet. He's beginning to learn tricks. Not tricks, mark you, of speech. The tricks he is learning are tricks of gestures. Aren't they Choppers? Hey, hey, good. Good, yes. Now that's interesting, actually, the showing the back of the hand, he did just that greeting gesture. Hey, hey, are you ticklish? Are you? Are you ticklish?
Talk to the children, Choppers. Talk to the children.
But although they - I beg your pardon. Although they've themselves in the wild got large vocabularies - haven't you - got large vocabularies of squeaks, they hardly ever imitate our voices, they hardly ever imitate our languages. So that quite unlike the mynahs - they're much more intelligent than the mynahs obviously - but they hardly ever imitate our calls, as the mynahs do. So that one might have guessed, really, that they would not be good creatures to learn spoken language.
Now many attempts have been made to learn spoken language. There was a family in America who took a tiny chimp from a very, very early age, and brought it up with their own child. And in, I think it was, six years, all that chimp had learned to say were four words, four words, and them, not very well. They were, actually, those words, which I already told you, they were up - I beg your pardon - mama, papa, up, and cup. Just two of those words which I was doing on the machine.
So that really, teaching them to speak has never worked. Thank you very much, you go back to Molly. But faced with that problem, a group of workers, well, two particular workers in America - the Premacks - decided that they would not actually ask the chimp to try and make words, but they would try and teach it to speak with symbols, with little images.
Now this is what they did. They had a chimp, a young chimp called Sarah. And they started to teach Sarah the meaning of certain symbols. For example, they put a banana down just by Sarah's cage, and Sarah took it, and ate it, and enjoyed it. And then after a bit, they actually left the banana out of reach of Sarah, but instead, they put that.
And when Sarah eventually came to know that that meant banana, that was a symbol for banana. Now it's very important you see to recognize that a banana is, as we all know, long, curved, and yellow. And that is not any of those things. In other words, that is not a picture of a banana. That is a symbol, in the same way as whale is a symbol for the biggest animal in the world.
Once they'd learned that, they then learned the name of the experimenters. There was one experimenter called Mary. And Mary had that symbol, which she actually wore around her neck. And actually Sarah had that symbol, which she wore around her neck. So that Sarah soon began to know that she was Sarah, that was Mary, and that was a banana.
Now she could then say, learnt to say, Mary give banana. And she could use that expression. She would say Mary give banana. Sometimes she even said, Mary give banana Sarah. Let me show you just the sort of circumstances in which that takes place.
This is Sarah, the chimp, and this is where she lives. This is the laboratory. And here is the board on which she puts those symbols. This is one of the experimenters. And there is a tray of different symbols that Sarah has learnt to use. So she can indicate things, and she can convey things on the board, and so the experimenter can convey things on the board.
One of the great advantages of this, of course, is that the experimenter can put up a couple of messages which Sarah can then look at, and contemplate, and, in theory, think about. And then, if she wants to make her reply, she can select her own images, her own symbols.
Well that's enough of that. Now within a few years, Sarah had learnt 130 different symbols. But of course, you will be asking questions and saying, well, are those anything like language? Are they anything like the words we use? Well let me give you a very interesting example. She learnt to say that that was chocolate. Now again, you see, it's not brown, it's not chocolate shaped, it's a purely arbitrary symbol. It's green, in fact.
And she also learnt another symbol which was color of. A very extraordinary concept when you come to think of it, color of. But she learnt that this message meant chocolate color of brown. Mark you, that is a green color. That is not brown. And that's very important. She learned to say chocolate color of brown.
But did she really, really use that word brown in the way that you and I can use the word brown? Well one experiment was done in which they took four discs, one, two, three, four, blue, red, yellow, brown. They then went to Sarah, and they said, take, which is that symbol, brown. And she didn't take something that was green, she didn't take something that was shaped odd like the bat, she went straight to these disks, and she took that disk, which is brown, which is very extraordinary.
Now not only is there Sarah in the States, but there is one other extraordinary chimpanzee called Washoe that is handled and trained by experimenters called the Gardners. And the Gardners don't use symbols, the Gardners use what's called American Sign Language, which is a series of gestures. And Washoe has also learnt a great number of symbols with which she can converse.
And to give you one further example, Washoe had a particular favorite doll, a little rubber doll. And after she had been trained for a number of years, they did an experiment in which the experimenter came up and actually stood, put his foot, on the doll. And Washoe then said the following things, which I'm going to read to you, because I want to get them absolutely right.
It said - the name of the experimenter was Susan - and Washoe, by gesture, said, up Susan. Susan up. Mine, please up. Give me baby. Please shoo. More, mine. Up, please. Please, up. More up. Baby down, shoe up. Baby up. You up. Please move up.
Now there is a great deal of work to be done on those experiments yet. Both the Gardners and the Premacks would say that. There is a great deal more to be learned, a great deal more to be investigated. But if indeed it is true, as it seems to be true, that they can converse in that sort of way, that they have the brains to converse in that sort of way, then the question would occur to you, do they converse in that way, amongst themselves?
And if they don't, why have they got the ability? And if they do, how do they do it? How do chimpanzees converse among themselves like that? There must be something about animal communication, many things about animal communication that we don't know, more than we know even after so many years of work. And if there's one sentence I've spoken in these talks that is true, it's that one.
Well may I now just thank all the scientists and the laboratories and the museums who've lent us their specimens. Mr. Coates, Mr. Morris, and Mrs. Conabee, and Ms. Steerwood, all of whom have made the models. And most of all, thank you very much for being such a kind audience.
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Exploring the varied and wonderful world of animal language.