Washoe "the signing chimp" dies

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

A common chimpanzee at the Leipzig Zoological Garden
Image: Thomas Lersch.

Washoe, a chimpanzee that became famous for being taught to use American Sign Language (ASL), has died at the age of 42. Washoe was the first chimpanzee to learn sign language, although whether or not Washoe's and many other great apes' communication is actually language is still a subject of controversy.

In the early 1960s, attempts to teach apes to speak had consistently failed. Allen Gardner and Beatrix Gardner hypothesized that this was due to physical constraints on the vocal apparati of the apes rather than a lack of brain power. To test their hypothesis, in 1966 they took the baby Washoe and began to teach her sign language which turned out to be successful; Washoe learned over 250 symbols from American sign language, and other researchers quickly began to make similar experiments with other chimpanzees and great apes.

However, later work by Herbert Terrace suggested that the behaviour of Washoe and others was, to a large extent, imitating the researchers rather than spontaneous. Furthermore, Washoe and other chimpanzees never learned how to use grammar or how to construct recursions, two things which many linguists point to as unique aspects of language. Later attempts to have chimpanzees learn by observation as human infants do have also been successful, but there are still no signs that they have learned grammar. Some linguists such as Noam Chomsky have suggested that humans have specialized areas of the brain devoted to processing language and that we are hardwired to do so. Such hypotheses explain why apparently intelligent apes are unable to form language.

This is the second death this year of an animal famous for possibly learning language. In September 2007 Alex the Grey Parrot, who had learned to speak a variety of words and distinguish colors and shapes, died after a protracted illness.

When Washoe and other apes who had learned ASL interacted with each other, they used ASL to communicate.

Washoe spent the last few years of her life at Central Washington University at the Ellensburg campus.

A memorial service is planned for Washoe for November 12, 2007. Details will be made available from "Friends of Washoe," a non-profit organization.


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