Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Monkeys & language

After watching the first episode of "Frys planet word" where results of experiments on monkeys and primates (our closest relatives) showed that though they are able to communicate (Almost every creature communicates) they are unable to grasp speech.

Monkeys can learn sign language and are able to communicate needs and emotional states (In fact, they're pretty much hardwired to only communicate emotional states) but cannot seem to grasp the concept of grammar.

This got me thinking. A lot of philosophy is centered on the point of language. How language moulds our thoughts (As the cookie experiment by Alfred Korzybski shows with humor)
and how it influences how we perceive the world around us.
“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” (- Benjamin Lee Whorf)

When looking at monkeys however, it becomes clear that they lack specific brain hardware to properly develop and learn language. The hardware of your mind would merit an entire new post, but briefly said: Humans have better hardware for handling language than monkeys do, just as dolphins have better hardware for 3d-navigation than humans do.

Considering this, isn't mr Whorf mistaking cause and effect? Could it be that it isn't language that shapes thought, but that thought is a result of language? Being able to learn a language and being intelligent* are two of the things that set humans apart from animals. It would make sense that both are connected.

*Well, some of us at any rate.

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