An interesting news item caught my attention this week. Apparently, an orangutan in the Indianapolis Zoo has learned to repeat and mimic the pitch of open vowel sounds. This shows that great apes have the capacity to learn to control their muscles to deliberately alter pitch and shape of the sounds they make. This would be a necessary precursor to having language ability.
It is already well established that some individual great apes can think and communicate using symbols. Koko the gorilla that uses sign language is the best known example of this. The discovery of an ape that mimics conversational tones is another interesting tidbit in our uncovering the mysteries of our greatest gift that seems to separate us from our more hirsute cousins, the use of language.
There are some excellent observations of sasquatches seemingly talking to one another in what seems to be more of a language than mere animal noises. One witness from the Oregon Coast described to me what seemed to her like a language that mixed phonemes from Southeast Asia and the Native tribes of Southeastern Alaska (she had experience with both the Vietnamese language, as well as the language used by the Haida people from Prince Edward Island). Interestingly, she noted that there were clicks and pops in the vocal chattering that reminded her of the Bushman, or Khoisan, language. These sounds were articulated by two distinct voices in what seemed like a conversation.
It is possible that sasquatches are just muttering to one another with no meaning behind the sounds, but I find this unlikely. The two creatures bouncing their mutterings back and forth strongly suggest some sort of conversation. It makes sense to me that since sasquatches are so human-like, they have some eerily human similarities, such as language, or at least a proto-language.
The orangutan in the Indianapolis zoo is showing us, once again, the amazing abilities of great apes. They are not so different than us, and indeed show us what we once were sort of like millions of years ago. It’s akin to looking at a child and seeing us as individuals in a less-developed state. There is no lack of love or compassion in our view of children, so there should be no less in our view of apes from our species’ perspective.
To understand what Rocky did, imagine if you meowed at your cat and it was able to mimic you completely. You start out in a high-pitch voice and then your cat surprises you by responding with the same high-pitch call. And then when you drop into a Barry White voice, your cat responds with its own seductively deep meow to match.
An Orangutan’s Mimicry Offers Clues to Language’s Origins
Orangutan hear, orangutan do.
Researchers at the Indianapolis Zoo observed an orangutan mimic the pitch and tone of human sounds, for the first time. The finding, which was published Wednesday, provides insight into the evolutionary origin of human speech, the team said.
“It really redefines for us what we know about the capabilities of orangutans,” said Rob Shumaker, director of the zoo and an author on the paper. “What we have to consider now is the possibility that the origins of spoken language are not exclusively human, and that they may have come from great apes.”
Rocky, an 11-year-old orangutan at the zoo, has a special ability. He can make sounds using his vocal folds, or voice box, that resemble the vowel “A,” and sound like “Ah.” The noises, or “wookies” as the researchers called them, are variations of the same vocalization.
Sometimes the great ape would say high-pitched “wookies” and sometimes he would say his “Ahs” in a lower pitch.
The researchers note that the sounds are specific to Rocky and ones that he used everyday. No other orangutan, captive or wild, made these noises. Rocky, who had never lived in the rain forest, apparently learned the skill during his time as an entertainment orangutan before coming to the zoo. He was at one point the most seen orangutan in movies and commercials,according to the zoo.