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foxtok on 2011-09-22Humans have often asserted a fundamental difference between themselves and other animals. One of these assertions which has had many proponents into the twentieth century is that humans differ from animals in their use of language. In the past thirty years this assertion has been the subject of much debate as scientists have researched language use by apes. (I use the term "ape" to refer to "great ape" in this essay, as many of my sources do. There have apparently been no language experiments with gibbons or siamangs.) Extraordinary claims have been made by some researchers about the linguistic capabilities of their subjects, mostly chimpanzees. These claims have been refuted and counter-refuted many times, and the literature on the subject is extensive. In this essay I will examine the question of how much, if at all, primates are able to communicate using language. I will then examine the ethical issues surrounding the teaching of language to apes.
What is language?
First, what is language, and how does it differ from other forms of communication? There does not exist a universally accepted definition of language, or criteria for its use; this is one of the reasons for the disagreement among scientists about whether apes can use language. Language consists of various aspects which people believe are more or less important, for example, grammar, symbol usage, the ability to represent real-world situations, and the ability to articulate something new (Wallman 1992: 6). Duane Rumbaugh describes language as "an infinitely open system of communication" (Rumbaugh 1977b: xx). Some people say that anything an ape can do is not language; of course, if these are the same people who say that language defines us as humans, and an ape can learn sign language, then they are saying that deaf people who use sign language are not human (Patterson & Linden 1981: 119-120). One famous view of language is Charles Hockett's seven key properties: duality, productivity, arbitrariness,