A Year Ago: Chimps speak English sentences

First published: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 10:49:11 GMT
Written by Will Knight, Contributor

Groundbreaking new computer technology developed at Georgia State University in the US is teaching chimpanzees to 'speak' sentences in English.

The custom-designed computer system makes it possible for chimpanzees to generated thousands of words using a touch-sensitive pad connected to a voice synthesiser.

Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, leading the research, is renowned for controversial claims concerning the linguistic capabilities of Bonobo chimpanzees, who are regarded as the most intelligent type of chimpanzee. She says the technology allows chimps to compose sophisticated sentences in spoken English for the first time. The technology took four years to develop.

Professor Andrew Whiten, an expert in primatology at the University of St Andrew in Scotland, believes the work could lead to a significant breakthrough in our understanding of language. "The significance could be that Bonobos already communicate in this way in the wild and we just haven't cracked their simple linguistic code until now. Or it could be that they don't, and then this would show how much language a non-linguistic species can pick up."

The computer is also linked up so that the chimps can contact researchers anywhere within the facility. Dr Savage-Rumbaugh says the chimps often 'call' her using the system to tell her what they are doing.

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