ABSTRACT

The latent capacity of apes to use language has revived interest in the genesis of language, that is, in how and why language evolved in humans. Yet, paradoxically, many scholars disregard ape research, despite the fact that apes are doing something linguistic. Just what that something is, however, invites controversy, even acrimony among scholars. Part of this controversy results from a lack of an agreed upon definition of what constitutes language, another part from a reluctance by language researchers to consider anything less than a full-blown production system with formal syntax as "real" language, and still another because of a bias toward oral languages. Yet, Darwinian theory would indicate that, like other features of organisms, language (or its components) evolved over time and perhaps, in a stair-step evolutionary process. The linguist, Edward Sapir (1933), certainly pressed this point some time ago when he proposed that language was the "slowly evolved product of a particular technique or tendency," which he called the "symbolic one," and while speech was a "distinctly human achievement . . . its roots probably lie in the power of the higher apes to solve specific problems by abstracting general forms or schemata from the details of a given situation" (p. 13).