Noam Chomsky on Nim Chimpsky and the emergence of language

I first learned about Nim Chimpsky while reading Karen Joy Fowler's brilliant novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I'd heard the name before, but I just thought it was a joke about Noam Chomsky. Which it is. But also, he was a real chimp, who was raised like a human child and acquired over 100 words through sign language.

This makes for both some fascinating science, and for a pretty depressing life. In hindsight, it may not have been the great research breakthrough that the scientists thought it was. But there are things to learn from that as well.

I recently stumbled across the video above, where Noam Chomsky talks about chimps and the emergence of language, from words to grammar. I'm not sure where the audio source is from, but it's a fascinating exploration of linguistics and consciousness. Chomsky had a similar but different conversation on chimps and language with Matt Aames Cucchiaro in 2007:

We would learn nothing about apes from the fact that grad students can be trained to more or less mimic them — try to get an NSF contract to study that — just as we learn nothing about humans from the facts that apes can be trained to mimic humans in some respects. Language is a notorious failure, exactly as any biologist and paleo-anthropologist would have expected. But if, say, Nim had succeeded, we would still have learned nothing about language acquisition, gaining neither more nor less wonderment, though we would have a biological problem. Namely, if apes have this fantastic capacity, surely a major component of humans extraordinary biological success (in the technical sense), then how come they haven't used it? It's as if humans can really fly, but won't know it until some trainer comes along to teach them. Not inconceivable, but a biological problem, and about the only conceivable scientific consequence of the ape-language experiments, except what they might teach us about ape intelligence by training apes to deal with problems that are outside their normal cognitive range. This is all sentimentality of the worst sort.

Herbert Terrace, one of the scientists who studied Nim, also put out a new book in 2019 titled Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can. He explained where he differs from Chomsky in an article for Psychology Today:

This blog will describe a new approach to the evolution of language. It differs from that of Noam Chomsky, the world's most prominent linguist, whose focus is on grammar. Instead of grammar, I will focus on words. Why words? From an evolutionary point of view, words are as different from any form of animal communication as they are from any grammar. They are therefore the first inevitable step towards language.

Most linguists, including Chomsky, agree that words evolved before grammar. Chomsky has nevertheless spent most of his career trying to discover a "universal grammar" that can generate any of the more than 6000 languages people speak. That is an admirable goal, but he appears to have minimized the fact that words are necessary to produce what he regarded as the quintessential feature of language: the ability to create an innumerably large number of meanings from a finite number of words. Without words, those meanings can't be created.

Later in his article, Terrace also recognizes that, "Ironically, the discovery that chimpanzees can't name things resulted from attempts by various psychologists to challenge Chomsky by showing that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, could create sentences."

Nim Chimpsky and Noam Chomsky [Herbert S. Terrace Ph.D. / Psychology Today]

The Chimp That Learned Sign Language [Margot Adler / NPR]

'Project Nim': A Chimp's Very Human, Very Sad Life [NPR]

Image via Wikimedia Commons and Andrew Rusk / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)