When I was first tipped to a coming paper about orangutans and the evolution of language, I thought I should ignore it, but I see the New York Times has given it a plug under the headline, “An Orangutan’s Mimicry Offers Clues to Language’s Origins.” So I want to take a moment to say the report offers no clues. The basic news has been around for some time: an orangutan has, without training, developed an ability to make some human sounds (see e.g. this paper from 2009). The latest development, according to the Times: “To show the extent of Rocky’s vocal abilities, the researchers had Dr. Madeleine Hardus, an independent researcher who works with the zoo, hold a conversation with the orangutan entirely in “wookies.” She would say “Ah” at a certain tone and Rocky would mimic that sound for a treat.”
Does that sound to you like a conversation? Is it a conversation with your dog when you say, “Speak, Fido, speak.” Fido barks and you give him a biscuit?
Pretty much from the beginning of this blog, I have been reporting that there is plenty of evidence that apes are smart enough use at least a simple language with one another, if only they would. They do not. Long ago I reported on the work of Tomasello who concludes that the problem is one of motivation. Sure orangs or dogs will make sounds with us in order to get a treat. But how about sharing information because both listener and speaker find it interesting? When you see one chimp tell another, “Now that’s a beautiful flower,” be sure and let me know. But don’t bother me with news that you’ve taught your pet to roll over and bark upon command.