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50 Years of Language Experiments with Great Apes

Igor Hanzel

The book approaches the language experiments with great apes performed in the last 50 years from the point of view of logical semantics, speech act theory, and philosophy of the social sciences based on the linguistic turn in philosophy. The author reconstructs the experiments with the great apes Washoe, Chantek, Lana, Sherman, Austin, Kanzi, Sarah and Sheba who were taught various kinds of languages, including the language of mathematics. From the point of view of the philosophy of science these experiments are interpreted as being part of the social sciences. The book proposes new mathematical experiments that are based on modern semantical reconstruction of the language of mathematics. The author shows that modern scientific research into great apes has shifted from natural science to social science.

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3. The Yerkish Signs: Lana, Sherman, Austin, and Kanzi


3. The Yerkish Signs: Lana, Sherman, Austin, and Kanzi

3.1 Lana

The YL project was initiated by D. M. Rumbaugh and the first great ape participating in it was the female chimpanzee Lana. In this project, the media of communication were visuographic symbols, so-called lexigrams, designed from nine basic elements that could be combined into symbols that should stand for words. These lexigrams were embossed on the keys of a computer keyboard composed of several 5-by-5 key-matrices.7 Table 2 lists these nine basic elements and some of their possible combinations into words.

Table 2 Nine basic symbols of the Yerkish language and some of their possible combinations into words

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By selecting and depressing particular keys on which lexigrams were embossed, Lana could actuate a vending device, controlled by the computer, to provide her with a particular food (e.g., M&M, a piece of banana, a sweet potato).

Lana was initiated into language not by teaching her from the outset particular lexigrams words but by teaching her whole “stock sentences”. Initially, the lexigrams of a stock sentence, say, “PLEASE MACHINE GIVE M&M.”, were interconnected in such a way that the depression of just one lexigram lighted all the keys and arranged them into the right order, which led to a dispensing of the respective food. The whole stock sentence was then gradually split up. First, the lexigrams for the requested entity were separated and...

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