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.


by on ‎09-22-2010 12:05 PM

Hi Ellen! 


I'm so glad you wrote about this subject!  For one thing, I've always loved the idea of communicating with other species, and when, years ago, I saw communication, using sign language with the ape, Coco, it just enthralled me!  Then, this past year, I saw a program on the bonobos, showing that they are the closest genetic link to us.


I love Sara Gruen's writing, and I've already ordered her book, Ape House.  I am also looking forward to seeing all of the links that you've put in your article for us.  I have to leave the house, right now, but I can't wait to come back and investigate this further!  Thank you, Ellen.



by on ‎09-22-2010 10:58 PM

Ellen, it's always fun to view the B&N interviews, but this one was exceptional, in that you gave us a wonderful background to this one. It's all fascinating, seeing the relationship that this author has with the bonobos, and what she had to do to get to that point.  Sounds like she truly loved her research, and to achieve a life long relationship with these great apes, I'm sure was the ultimate reward!


The lexigrams are unique.  I don't think I've ever seen them used before.  What's interesting is, the symbols don't really look like anything that I would associate with the word, or person.  I wonder why that is?  It's fascinating that the ape knew to ask a question, and used the right tense.


These bonobos are a gentle creature, and they live in a similar environmental structure as the human.  I do believe that the females are also dominant over the male.  The male is giving, and passive in the community.  The female and the children eat first, and what's left over the male gets....as it should be!  Ha!   There is a definite difference between the bonobos and the chimpanzees.  And I think that genetic link makes the difference.


Cornelius?  Are you talking about Planet of the Apes?  Ha!  What a thought!  A thousand years from now, we've taught these apes everything we know.....wouldn't it be a kick if we genetically went back in time?  Inter-species marriages?  The world is an evolutionary place to live....Hmm?  I wonder if we would be gentle, caring, tolerant, with no racial or political discriminatory leanings; no words existing, like greed or hate?  

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎09-23-2010 09:57 AM


Thanks, yes, that's what I wanted to acheive - her research was so exceptional and amazing I was so happy to see her talking about it here, for a wider audience than those of us at BEA. Very very glad you enjoyed it!


The lexigrams are interesting - they remind me of pictograms or Chinese characters in that originally they may have been visual reminders of a thing but now they are just symbols that are not immediately pictorial. Probably expressed that clumsily, but I'll leave the lingo to the linguists - anyway, they don't look like what they represent.


Looking forward to more about bonobos. their social structure is quite interesting and often idealized by those of us who might like a matriarchy - but idealized might be the right word there.



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