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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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4. The Plastic Token Signs: Sarah


4. The Plastic Token Signs: Sarah

The PT project was initiated by D. Premack and its first experimental subject was the female chimpanzee Sarah. In the project’s early phase Premack viewed as its goal the search for an answer to the questions: “Can apes be taught language? Although this question is of biological import, it may ultimately be more important to the fundamental question, What is language?” (Premack 1971a, 808).

In order to answer these two questions, Premack set up two lists, one stating the functions (exemplars) an animal should be able to do in order to provide evidence of language, and another stating the training procedures (recipes) that would enable the production of the respective functions in the animal. The first list’s items concern certain aspects of what Premack spelled out in (1971a): (i) words; (ii) sentences; (iii) questions; (iv) metalinguistics (using language to teach language); (v) class concepts (for example, color, shape, and size); vi) copulas; (vii) quantifiers (all, none, several); and (viii) the logical connective if-then. All elements (i) through (viii) were mastered by Sarah.16

The physical objects used in Sarah’s instruction were plastic tokens of different colors, sizes, textures, and shapes, with a metallic back that could be stuck to a magnetic board. Tokens had the status of words; a sequence of tokens combined to form a sentence was placed on the board vertically. Figure 2 shows this arrangement (Premack 1971a, 809).←37 | 38→

Fig. 2 Individual plastic...

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