Ape House, a wonderful new over-the-top romp of a novel by Sara Gruen, explores a world of language-enabled bonobos and reality TV. What's even better than imaginary reality TV? Reality. Sara met these grammatical bonobos in person. They exist! So what is the Grammar of the Apes?
I was lucky enough to have heard author Sara Gruen speak about ape language at Book Expo America in May 2010. Gruen, whose Water for Elephants was an enormous bestseller, talked about her upcoming title from Random House. She fascinated the audience with stories about the research she did to prepare for writing the book. After I heard her, I wished I could let everyone know about how Sara actually talked to apes at the Great Ape Trust, engaging in extensive and complex conversations via lexigrams. Frankly, it seemed unbelievable.
To my joy, Barnes & Noble has a 10-minute interview with Sara up (see below), in which she reviews many of the themes and much of the information about her research that she discussed at Book Expo.
For decades, animal communication and cognition experts have been exploring the possible language capabilities of other species. Not just animal-human communication but actual language use. And Sara found out just how far it's come when she visited the Great Ape Trust and encountered its grammatical ape residents.
The bonobos there use boards with lexigrams (pictorial symbols for words) to communicate with humans. These lexigram boards (play with one here) let Sara meet and talk with the bonobos at the Great Ape Trust. She describes the experience as "like French immersion classes—that's how you learn." The apes had been talking among themselves for a week before Sara visited them with presents; they knew who she was and could envision a future in which she arrived—all via language. When Sara returned after the book was done, one ape wanted her makeup done like Sara's for the author's photo shoot and threw her a tea party! She asked Sara, "Would you like milk with your tea?" She told her which cookies to eat and asked, "Are you finished with your cookies?"
To Sara's surprise, the bonobos used tenses, forming full grammatical sentences, expressing a complete concept of time and space. They could ask and answer questions in positive and negative sentences, and their lexigram boards include nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives, and even what appear to be past and present participles!
How many students fall afoul of tenses and participles in their writing and grammar classes! I'm sure the apes do too, plenty, but the idea that they can conceptualize to the point of using grammar and inventing new syntactically coherent sentences is quite mind-boggling.
As far as I've been able to find out, the Grammar of the Apes is expressed with about 400 lexigrams, making their word base extraordinarily poor compared to the extensive vocabulary of modern English.
But according to Gruen, they have tenses: past, present, and future, and perhaps they are not just aping their keepers when they use them correctly. I'd love to know whether or not they can conceptualize the idea of grammar or the concept of what a tense is, but that will have to wait. Wait until one named Cornelius is born, that is. . . .
What do you think about grammatical apes? And can you identify Cornelius?
Check out this video interview of Sara Gruen that I mentioned above:
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.