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Can A Chimp Write a Poem? Apes, Language, & Chimp-Inspired Writing Exercises

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Can A Chimp Write a Poem?  Apes, Language, & Chimp-Inspired Writing Exercises

*For Chimp-Inspired Writing Exercises, scroll to the bottom.

A few years ago, I went through a serious chimp phase. I read Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human (interesting), I read the overly-long novel Bruno Littlemore about a chimp who learns to talk and has an affair with a human (I had mixed feeling about this one), and I read several books by Jane Goodall (all of which were excellent.) One day, my roommate came home to find me reading a collection of short stories I’d picked up at the library called The Ape’s Wife.

“Oh my god, are you reading about chimps again?” Kristin asked, exasperated.

“I like them.”

She shook her head and sighed. “You’re so weird.”

Well, guess what, Kristin! I’m reading about chimps again! The first was the novel Ape House by Sara Gruen (the author of Water for Elephants.) I was excited about reading this book, and it started off with a good premise (a family of ASL-proficient chimps becoming a reality TV show), but the characters were flat and the story quickly degenerated into silliness. Reading the novel made me hungry for some true-to-life stories about chimps.

Luckily, the universe knows what I like. Recently I popped into a thrift store in which all of the books were free. Lying there, on the top of one of the many messy piles of paperbacks, was the book Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts.

“This is really free?” I asked the girl behind the counter, holding up the book.


And so I’ve been spending a few glorious hours each day, reading about Roger Fouts and his work with Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language.

Washoe’s ability to communicate shattered what people thought they knew about humans, animals, and language itself. After reports of Washoe began coming out in the late sixties and early seventies, many people, scientists included, were frantic to preserve the notion that humans, and humans alone, had the gift of language. They looked for ways to undermine the accomplishments of the signing chimps.

But Washoe, and some of the other chimps who learned ASL, proved they had a true command of a human language when they began to recombine signs to create new meanings. Up until then, it was thought that animal communication was inflexible, and that humans were the only ones to use a finite number of sounds or symbols to create an infinite number of meanings. However, when Lucy, a famously horny and brilliant chimp, only knew a handful of signs, she began combining them to describe other objects in her world. She called watermelon DRINK FRUIT, oranges SMELL FRUIT, and a radish CRY HURT FOOD.

Roger Fouts and Lucy in 1972.  Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images,  and curtesy of Stuff You Should Know

Roger Fouts and Lucy in 1972. Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Courtesy of How Stuff Works

Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, reworked his definition of language so that Washoe and Lucy’s signing would not be included. He claimed that human children (and not chimpanzees) are hard-wired with a “language acquisition device” in the left hemisphere of the brain, and that humans are unique in their genetic ability to learn grammatical structure. He pointed to grammar and syntax as the hallmark of language and, therefore, a clear sign of human superiority.

According to Chomsky, the rules of grammar and syntax are so complex that children can’t learn them by simple imitation – the rules of language are genetically encoded in our brains. Grammar is so complex, he said, because even a grammatically-correct sentences can still be nonsensical. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously was his famous example.

Roger Fouts worked with Washoe and Lucy in the sixties and seventies, but the debate still rages on over what exactly constitutes language, and whether or not chimps can truly use human language. According to Fouts, grammar isn’t genetic, it’s learned, and chimps can learn it, too. Maybe not to the extent that a human can, but Fouts did experiments that showed a chimp distinguishing between various grammatical commands, for example, “put toothbrush on blanket” versus “put blanket on toothbrush.” Maybe grammar isn’t so special to humans. After all, the chimpanzee is our closest ancestor, with 98% of their genes in common with ours. Whatever we have in our brains, chances are, they have it, too.

As a writer and a chimp-lover, I find all of this fascinating. Somewhere in our lineage, our ape ancestors began moving from hand signs, gestures, and noises (the way chimps in the wild communicate today), to a spoken language. Eventually, they found a way to represent this spoken language with visual symbols. And today, I can sit here and press buttons, make black symbols on a white screen , and communicate my thoughts with the world. It’s as amazing as a talking chimp!

From everything I’ve read (and documentaries I’ve seen, podcasts I’ve listen to, etc.) I believe that chimps can communicate symbolically with ASL, and that they can understand and use simple grammar. I suppose my question is, do chimps play with language the way that we do? Would a chimp ever compose a poem? Is literature the last thing that we humans can cling to as proof that we are special? If so, I suggest you sit down and write a poem immediately.

From the blog, "Ha! Tea 'n' Danger

From the blog, “Ha! Tea ‘n’ Danger”   Cartoon by Peter Parkour.


#1  My favorite part of Sara Gruen’s novel Ape House was the introductory quotes:
Give orange give me eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.” – Nim Chimpsky, 1970’s
Gimme gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more.” – Britney Spears, 2007
Using this as inspiration, write a poem that could have been written by a signing chimp.

#2 Using Lucy as inspiration (drink-fruit for watermelon and cry-hurt-food for radish), come up with other novel ways to describe common words. Use these in a poem. See my example, The Girl at the Alcohol Lounge, on Burlesque Press.

#3 Using Noam Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as inspiration, write more nonsensical, but grammatically correct, sentences. (And read Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein for even more inspiration.)

A shining indication of yellow consists in there having been more of the same color than could have been expected when all four were bought. This was the hope which made the six and seven have no use for any more places and this necessarily spread into nothing.” – Gertrude Stein, A Little Bit of a Tumbler


Can Chimpanzees Learn Human Language? from How Stuff Works

Friends of Washoe

The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada

The Chimp That Learned Sign Language from NPR (About Nim)

Lucy from Radiolab

Jane Goodall:  What Separates Us From Chimpanzees (TED talk)


About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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