Chimps Don't Get Grammar Like Children Do, New Study

Elaine Radford

OK, so the thing about chimps is that their grammar is just terrible. It doesn't seem to matter if they've been signing away in American Sign Language or pounding away on a keyboard for donkey's years. They just don't get it. Heck, you can't even convince 'em to stop typing in all caps.

A statistical analysis from the University of Pennsylvania's Charles Yang kinda, sorta suggests that the chimps aren't ever gonna grok grammar because they learn language in a different way from humans. In particular, he singles out the famous Nim Chimpsky, a pioneer chimpanzee who was taught American Sign Language and was involved in some pretty impressive chimp language research studies back in the day.

Sorry to burst any bubbles, but the good professor revealed that even Chimpsky's grammar was an embarrassment. You might even say that it didn't exist.

The new analysis was published online Monday in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences. Of course, the usual caveats apply to any research published on April Fools' Day, but I'm reasonably sure that this one is for real.

Yang compared two theories about how very young children learn language to see if they simply parrot what adults are saying or if they try to combine words using the grammatical rules they hear right away.

Chimps, as science already knows, pretty much parrot the vocabulary and then put out words in semi-random order, leaving you to figure out what they're getting at. An example from a famous 1995 New York Times article by George Johnson will give you the basic idea.

Panbanisha, a Bonobo chimp, took the special keyboard and pounded out the symbols, "fight," "mad," "Austin." The trainer asked, "Was there a fight at Austin's?" Chimp then said, "Wah, wah, wah," which she took to be a yes.

OK, for sure it's communication. But it's not good grammar.

Well, you can probably see where this is going. According to Yang's analysis, even the youngest child makes some attempt to imitate the grammar as well as the vocabulary. The chimps don't even try. They're just parroting individual words.

Although the new study is right in line with plenty of previous research, it's pretty disappointing. How can the chimps be so clueless about grammar?

I mean, they can team up to steal food. They can use secret handshakes.

They can respond to anti-depressant drugs. And, for the love of Pete, they've been boozing it up for roughly ten million years.

Wait. Come to think of it, we all know some internet trolls just like this. Maybe Yang shouldn't compare the chimps to toddlers, who are apparently at the peak of their ability to learn language.

Here's a different approach: Let's get the chimps a Twitter account and see how long it takes for anyone to notice anything funny about their grammar. The chimps might actually win that one.

[Photo: three chimps at Miami Metrozoo courtesy Matthew Hoelscher and Wikipedia]