Beyond Humanity: Language Communication Among Primates

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An important part of the definition of language is it’s inherent symbolic nature. Humans rely on common meanings related to words; that is, our ability to communicate is contingent on the assumption that others believe words hold the same value as ourselves. If two people were attempting to communicate about a shared threat, it would be vital that they agree on the threat’s label. Words change between languages, dialects, and regions. Understanding the language of the land is a skill that is probably often taken for granted, but imagine what life would be like without this vital ability: someone could be shouting a warning in the most efficient and eloquent manner imaginable, yet without the knowledge to translate the message, one would have little choice but to guess at it's meaning. The ability to comprehend others means little without a common language. Even the smartest people would have to slow any collaboration to a crawl as they laboriously worked out each other’s meaning. Perhaps it is not surprising that historically, wherever humanity spread, language came soon after. Humanity rose from a long line of hominids, reaching back several million years, in an evolutionary tree that includes apes, and some other interesting relatives that are now extinct, including australopithecines, Homo habilis, and neanderthals. All of these are also examples of social creatures, much as humans are today: they live (or lived) in groups, form relationships, and rely on one another for any number of needs, large and small. What separates modern humans from the rest of the social primates is the physical ability to produce a wide range of controlled vocal noises, and the mental ability to build and understand complex language. As h... ... middle of paper ... ...“uses the keyboard to say where he wants to go, what he wants to eat and what games he wants to play.” (Eckholm, 1985) In the morning, Kanzi sometimes is played tapes that show objects next to their lexigram symbol. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh, who leads the project and even sleeps with Kanzi most nights, believes this medium has taught Kanzi more new words. She has been dedicated to Kanzi’s development for decades, and believes that her work with Kanzi is pushing the boundaries of previous definitions of what separates humans from other apes. It is becoming increasingly clear that those scientists who wish to develop theoretical perspectives regarding the limits of ape cognition - while remaining outside the circle of insights that arise upon authentic cultural engagement - must now justify the means by which they may assert such intellectual privilege. (Savage-Rumbaugh)

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