Apes seem like hairier versions of ourselves—playful, inquisitive and quick to throw feces when angered. For decades, we've been dressing them as bellhops, teaching them to ride tricycles and making them hang out with Michael Jackson. Now, bonobos have been given iPads that control a water cannon, equipping them for their eventual takeover of Earth.
But while we've been teaching them our language, it seems these crafty apes have been speaking a secret language behind our backs the whole time. Now, we're learning their language. Andrew Halloran, a Florida-based primatologist, explains what apes are discussing among themselves in his new book, The Song of the Ape.
WW: So everyone who has claimed to teach an ape English or sign language is lying?
Andrew Halloran: Well, I would put most of the language-trained-ape projects into the self-deception category. We create these lab-reared, talking super-apes and, no matter how intelligent they are, or how well they are trained, they are never going to be as good at being humans as humans are. Chimpanzees are good at being chimpanzees.
So how do apes communicate with each other?
Vocally, chimpanzees learn calls from their groups. If you were to encounter one group of chimps in the forest, they would be utilizing a different lexicon of calls than the next group you were to encounter. If you were to record these calls and create a picture of the sounds, you would see incredibly complex structures and patterns with each of these phrases carrying specific meanings, which you could discern from the situations and contexts of the calls.
So what the hell are they saying?
Well, each group is different, but I imagine most of it would be profane.
Bottom line: How do I get a chimp to be my friend? Will he bring me beers?
To be the best friend of an ape or monkey, you would have to let them lead a natural life where they are free to live as the species they are—in an ecosystem unobstructed by our species. Oh, and your beers would almost certainly arrive empty.
GO: See Andrew Halloran read from and discuss his new book, The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees, at the Belmont Library, 1038 SE Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., 988-5382, on Saturday, April 14. 3 pm. Free.
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