Doctor John Dolittle satisfied a nagging curiosity for young readers: What are animals saying? Even scientists can appreciate the premise behind Hugh Lofting’s children books, though not many likely seek the secret language of squid. For social psychologists, the evolution of language has been a fascination at least since the pragmatists.
The New York Times reports efforts to decipher early traces of language development among non-human primates. The review comes over 30 years after a Times reporter allegedly used sign language to communicate with a chimpanzee. More recently, scientists differentiated alarm calls by vervet monkeys, each one indicating a specific predator. Others suggested that baboons understand social hierarchy based on the order of sounds among their peers. And Campbell’s monkeys seem to add suffixes to alarm calls to signify whether a threat has been directly or indirectly observed.
Given that many non-human primates are physically able to generate human language sounds, the findings beg the question: How do we develop language while our relatives fail? Or in the words of the article author, Nicholas Wade, “What is it that has kept all other primates locked in the prison of their own thoughts?”
George Herbert Mead suggested that language development stems from a child’s ability, through early role-playing games, to take on the role of the other. The development of the self relates to the ability to recognize how others’ actions affect one’s own. Contrary to Wade’s suggestion that non-human primates simply cannot communicate their thoughts, Mead suggests that communication is at the root of, and in some sense precedes, human thought.
While the presence of primitive communication does not necessarily mean that Campbell’s monkeys are able to think like humans, we can still learn about language development by observing, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, how the words are used.