Koko is a 180-pound, lowland gorilla who has been taught American Sign Language by developmental psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson since July, 1972. Born on the fourth of July, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, the gorilla was named Hanabiko (Japanese for “fireworks child”), but she is best known by her nickname, Koko. With the possible exception of King Kong, Koko is perhaps the world’s most famous Great Ape. She has appeared hundreds of times on national television and the covers of magazines such as National Geographic. As Koko is purported to have a vocabulary of more than a thousand signs, anthropologists and linguists have been intrigued by her apparent capacity for complex, human-like language. Children and her other fans, however, are simply fascinated by her charm: Koko loves to look at pictures in books and magazines; she paints, and she has raised several kittens.
While not every researcher agrees with Penny Patterson that “she’s just as much a person as we are,” Koko is an ambassador and “spokesperson” for wildlife conservation, endangered species, and refuge projects for primates. Koko’s Gorilla Foundation— with its website, newsletters, and other promotions— have kept ape-language research in the public consciousness, even though it has lost much of its earlier momentum in the scholarly community. While Koko’s website says she wants to have a baby and that she will teach her child to talk, her past romantic encounters (such as with her first boyfriend, of sorts, Michael) have not been encouraging. As Koko progresses through her mid-30s (which is long-lived for gorillas in the wild), the possibility of pregnancy is decreasing yearly.
In the 1970s, interest in communicating with primates using sign language, computers, or other artificial devices not only captured the public’s imagination to be able to “talk to the animals,” but also seemed to be a very promising line of scholarly research. Psychologists, biological anthropologists, and those who studied language acquisition believed that these ape sign-language experiments could offer much insight into human evolutionary cognitive and linguistic development. Of all the apes studied, Koko appeared to be the most facile, and even some introductory anthropology textbooks were saying that she knew some 2,000 English words. If this were true, it would put Koko on par linguistically with a 5- or 6-year-old human child.
Patterson now gives a more modest figure for Koko’s accomplishments: a working vocabulary of 500 signs with approximately another 500 signs she has said herself on one or more occasions. Yet, more important than the mere number of different vocabulary items attributed to Koko are the quality and kinds of language she uses. For example, one of the characteristics that is often said to separate human from nonhuman language is productivity: the ability to coin new words for new phenomena. Koko apparently does this quite often, such as making the sign combination eye hat for “mask,” elephant baby for a Pinocchio doll, or white tiger for a toy zebra. While other primates have used signs productively (such as the chimpanzee Washoe’s famous water bird for “duck”) Koko’s neologisms seem more abstract, as the component parts of her new signs are not actually physically present when she creates them. She also has a very colorful and creative vernacular vocabulary of expletives. When Penny playfully put a salt shaker on her head, Koko called her head stupid. When asked what she thinks of her gorilla friend Michael, she has replied, depending on her mood, think stupid devil, rotten devil, or toilet.
Another characteristic of human language is that of displacement: the ability to talk about something beyond the immediate present or geographic locale. Below is an often-quoted discussion with Koko about death. Koko was asked to pick out the gorilla skeleton among four types of animal skeletons. After she picked the gorilla skeleton, the trainer asked her if this was an alive or dead gorilla. (It should be noted that the sign for drapes is polysemous for Koko, referring to security, providing security, or being afraid.) Her answer:
Koko: dead drapes
Trainer: Let’s make sure, is this gorilla alive or dead?
Koko: dead good bye
Trainer: How do gorillas feel when they die— happy, sad, afraid?
Trainer: Where do gorillas go when they die?
Koko: comfortable hole sleep
Trainer: When do gorillas die?
Koko: trouble old
By the 1980s, enthusiasm for the ape-language had drastically waned. This was partly due to dismissals by theoretical autonomous linguists of the Chomksy school (e.g., Joel Wallman, Lyle Jenkins) and many cognitive scientists (e.g., Steven Pinker). Also, increasing funding for AIDS research caused a chimpanzee shortage at animal laboratories, and some universities and primate centers found they could no longer afford to operate as their funds were cut or transferred to medical research. Patterson left Stanford University and established the private nonprofit Gorilla Foundation whose primary purpose was to continue the language project, increase public awareness of gorillas as a threatened species, and provide a home for Koko.
Some of the criticisms leveled against all ape-language experiments can be seen in the following excerpt from a national AOL Live Internet Chat held in 1998 between Koko and Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation, and a moderator and various questioners:
Moderator: Welcome Dr. Patterson and Koko, we’re so happy you’re here.
Patterson: You’re welcome.
Moderator: Is Koko aware that she is chatting with thousands of people now?
Koko: good here
Patterson: Koko is aware.
Questioner 1: Koko, are you going to have a baby in the future?
Koko: listen Koko loves eat
Moderator: Me too.
Patterson: What about a baby? She’s thinking. . .
Patterson: She’s covered her face with her hands.. .which means it’s not happening, basically, or it hasn’t happened yet.
Koko: I don’t see it.
Moderator: That’s sad.
Here we see prompting by Patterson when Koko is silent, an interpretation provided when Koko’s response is inappropriate, and a filling in of details not actually spoken by Koko.
Patterson has made surprising claims about Koko, even claiming that she has an IQ of 80.3 on standardized human intelligence tests. Perhaps because of their popularity in the mass media, Patterson and Koko are more harshly criticized than other ape-language researchers.
But these critics are perhaps being narrow minded. One reason Patterson and Koko’s conversations are so interpretive may be due to the fact that they have never been apart since their language research started. As the science writer Eugene Linden noted, “Their relationship has all the overlays of love, bickering, and resentment.. .between a mother and a daughter who have spent their lives closeted together….Were Koko human, their life together might have been a fitting subject for treatment by Tennessee Williams. Koko and Penny know each other so well that merely to read a transcript of their signing conversations is to glimpse only a very small portion of the interplay between them.”
- Jenkins, L. (2000). Biolinguistics: Exploring the biology of language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Linden, E. (1986). Silent partners: The legacy of the ape language experiments. New York: Times Books.
- Patterson, F., & Gordon, W. (1993). The case for the personhood of gorillas. In P. Cavalieri & P. Singer (Eds.), The great ape project: Equality beyond humanity (pp. 58-77). New York: St. Martin’s.
- Patterson, F., & Linden, E. (1981). The education of Koko. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
- Peterson, D. (1989). The deluge and the ark: A journey into primate worlds. New York: Avon Books.
- Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: William Morrow.
- Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S. (1986). Ape language: From conditioned response to symbol. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Wallman, J. (1992). Aping language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.