Next week: an experiment in primate communication?

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There's been surprisingly little discussion in the popular press of a recent paper about cohesion in human/ape conversation. So far, all that Google News turns up is a couple of republications of the press release, though a taste of the expected response can be seen in the headline for the press release at TopNews: "Apes can follow conversations the same way humans do".

Even the blogosphere is relatively silent so far — all that I've found is "Inter-Species Diplomacy" and "Let's talk dirty to the animals".

The paper was Janni Pedersen and William Fields, "Aspects of Repetition in Bonobo–Human Conversation: Creating Cohesion in a Conversation Between Species", Journal of Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, published online 8/1/2008.  Here's her abstract:

Ape language research has primarily focused on specific isolated language features. In contrast, in research into human language, traditions such as conversational analysis and discourse analysis propose to study language as actual discourse. Consequently, repetitions are seen as accomplishing various discursive and pragmatic functions in human conversations, while in apes, repetitions are seen as rote imitations and as proof that apes do not exhibit language. Tools from discourse analysis are applied in this study to a conversation between a language-competent bonobo, Pan paniscus and a human. The hypothesis is that the bonobo may exhibit even larger linguistic competency in ordinary conversation than in controlled experimental settings. Despite her limited productive means, the bonobo Panbanisha competently engages in co-constructing the conversational turns. She uses shared knowledge and repetitions to achieve compliance with a request. This reveals a knowledge about socio-linguistic interactions which goes beyond the pure informational content of words.

This should be red meat to the press corps, especially during what is normally the late-summer news lull. But this year we have the Obama/Clinton drama at the DNC in Denver, John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as VP candidate, hurricane Gustav steaming towards New Orleans, and developments in Georgia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and more.

And the press release, from the Great Ape Trust, only came out on Wednesday ("Graduate student working at Great Ape Trust publishes paper in scientific journal: Janni Pedersen's paper applies linguistic tools nomally used to analyze human language to conversation between a human and bonobo", 8/27/2008), and was picked up by Science Daily on Thursday ("Linguistic Tools Used To Analyze Human Language Applied To Conversation Between Scientist And Bonobo").  So we'll probably be seeing more uptake next week.

I'm not going to discuss the paper in this post, except to note approvingly that Ms. Pedersen published the entire conversational transcript that she analyzes as an appendix to her paper, and also made the video available for download. I believe that the paper is open access, but I'm not sure, so in case it isn't, I've reproduced the conversational transcript here.

I'm sympathetic to the view that some aspects of human conversational interaction can be found in interactions with (or among) other animals — though it's a long way from that to the view attributed to Pedersen in the press release, that Panbanisha (the bonobo involved) "is fully capable of following the conversation the same way a human does".

You can extrapolate some of my reactions to this by reading the transcript in the light of past LL posts like these:

"Koko in the chat room", 3/2/2004
"Signs or symbols? Words or tools?", 6/15/2004
"Groundbreaking research with credulous primates", 5/31/2007

I look forward to the press reaction next week, viewing it as a continuation of this body of research.


  1. Stephen Jones said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    The article is $32.

  2. Dan H said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 3:28 am

    I'm a little surprised you didn't point out what looks like an incorrection in the abstract. In "…a language-competent bonobo, Pan paniscus and a human," I think that "Pan paniscus" was originally attached to "bonobo" with parenthetic commas, thus: "…a language-competent bonobo, Pan paniscus, and a human." An editor seems to have mistaken the second comma for the Oxford variety (comma before last list item) and removed it, presumably to conform to the journal's house style.

  3. Herb Stahlke said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

    That conversation would take a good bit of interpretation. I haven't paid the $32 to read the article. I suspect a better case for cross-species discourse pragmatics could be made on the basis of Timothy Gill's research with Lana in an earlier phase of the Atlanta primate language research.

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