Kanzi's Primal Language: The Cultural Initiation of Primates by Pär Segerdahl, William Fields, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

By Pär Segerdahl, William Fields, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's paintings at the language services of the bonobo Kanzi has intrigued the realm as a result of its far-reaching implications for knowing the evolution of the human language. This booklet takes the reader backstage of the filmed language assessments. It argues that whereas the exams end up that Kanzi has language, the much more striking demeanour during which he initially received it - spontaneously, in a tradition shared with people - demands a re-thinking of language, emphasizing its primal cultural dimensions.

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Considering the similarity between how human children and young apes use gestures, glances, touches, bites and displays, and given their similar curiosity, ability to learn, their desire to develop identity-forming bonds with others, it seems less surprising that apes have a propensity for acquiring forms of our human language. We are genetically, physiologically, socially and emotionally as closely related to the chimpanzees as dogs are to wolves. We belong to the primates as dogs belong to the canines.

Language can be cultural and yet be an aspect of our ‘nature’ that we control almost as little as we control our metabolism (although the sense in which we do not control language is different from the sense in which we do not control our metabolism: neuroscience cannot decide what our utterances mean). The most immediate and prosaic aspects of human life – how we move, gesture, act and talk – children develop before school. These self-evident and therefore often unnoticed aspects of culture resemble an ocean on which more conspicuous innovations such as mathematics, music and poetry sail as ships that are to 38 Kanzi’s Primal Language some extent under our human control.

If language is recognized in its cultural dimensions, it is not surprising that first-language acquisition is spontaneous. It is difficult to imagine how Kanzi could acquire the lexigram LOOKOUT POINT as the name of a location in the forest except in the context of a life that engaged him, and in which reaching this location during continuous social interaction played vital roles for him. Going to Lookout Point with Kanzi developed into saying we were going there while doing it, which resulted in discussing going to Lookout Point or Hill Top, which developed into asking Kanzi where to go and his response of pointing to the lexigram for the location he wanted to go to.

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