Richard Lynch Garner.

The speech of monkeys online

. (page 4 of 11)
Online LibraryRichard Lynch GarnerThe speech of monkeys → online text (page 4 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Possible Origin of Negative and Positive Signs.

IN my intercourse with these little creatures,
I cannot forget how often I have caught the
spirit of their tones when no ray of meaning as
mere words of speech had dawned upon me, and
it is partly through such means that I have been
able to interpret them. As a rule each act of
a monkey is attended by some sound, and each
sound by some act, which to another monkey of
the same species always means a certain thing.
There are many cases perhaps, in which acquired
words or shades of dialect are not quite clear to
them, just as we often find in human speech;
but monkeys appear to meet this difficulty and
overcome it just as men do. They talk with
one another on a limited number of subjects, but
in very few words, which they frequently re-
peat if necessary. Their language is purely
one of sounds, and while those sounds are ac-
companied by signs, generally, I think, they are


quite able to get along better with the sounds
alone than with the signs alone. The rules by
which we may interpret the sounds of simian
speech are the same as those by which we would
interpret human speech. If you should be cast
away upon an island inhabited by some strange
race of people whose speech was so unlike your
own that you could not understand a single
word of it, you would watch the actions of those
people, and see what act they did in connection
with any sound they made ; and in this way you
would gradually learn to associate a certain
sound with a certain act, until at last you would
be able to understand the sound without see-
ing the act at all ; and such is the simple line I
have pursued in the study of the speech of this
little race only I have been compelled to resort
to some very novel means of doing my part of
the talking. Since I have been so long associ-
ated with them, I have learned to know in many
cases what act they will perform in response to
certain sounds; and as I grow more and more
familiar with these sounds, I become better able
to distinguish them, just as we do with human

Until recently I have believed that their sounds


were so limited in number as to preclude any
specific terms in their vocabulary ; but now I am
inclined to modify this opinion somewhat, as I
have reason to believe that they have some spe-
cific terms, such as a word for " monkey," another
word for " fruit," and so on. They do not specify,
perhaps, the various kinds of monkeys, but mon-
keys in general, in contradistinction to birds or
dogs. Their word for fruit does not specify
the kind, but only means fruit in a collective
sense, and only as a kind of food. I am not pos-
itive as yet that their specific terms may even
go so far as this ; but I infer that such may be
the case from one fact which I have observed in
my experiments. When I show a monkey his
image in a mirror, he utters a sound on seeing
it especially if he has been kept away from other
monkeys for a long time ; and all monkeys of the
same species, so far as I have observed, under
like conditions use the same sound and address
it in the same way to the image in the glass. In
a few instances I have seen strange monkeys
brought in contact with each other, and have ob-
served that they use this same sound on their
first meeting. The sound is always uttered in a
low, soft tone, and appears to have the value of


a salutation. When kept in a cage with, other
monkeys they do not appear to salute the image
in the glass, but chatter to it, and show less sur-
prise at seeing it than in cases where they have
been kept alone for some time.

In cases where monkeys have been fed for a
long time on bread and milk or on any one kind
of food, when a banana is shown him he uses a
sound which the phonograph shows to differ
slightly from the ordinary food-sound. I have
recently had reason to suspect that this differ-
ence of inflection somewhat qualifies the sound,
and has a tendency to make it more specific.
The rapidity with which these creatures utter
their speech is so great that only such ears as
theirs can detect these very slight inflections. I
am now directing my observations and experi-
ments to this end, with the hope that I may be able
to determine with certainty in what degree they
qualify their sounds, by inflections or otherwise.
I have observed that in the phonograph the
sounds which formerly appeared to me to be the
same are easily distinguished when treated in
the manner described in the second part of this
work, where I have given at length some of my
experiments with this wonderful machine.


One of the most certain of my discoveries in
the simian speech is the negative sign and the
word "no." The sign is made by shaking the
head from side to side in a fashion almost ex-
actly like that used by man to express the same
idea. I have no longer any doubt of the intent
and meaning of this sign, and the many tests to
which I have subjected it compel me to accept
the result as final.

A little more than a year ago my attention was
called to this sign by the children who own the
little Capuchin, Jack, in Charleston. A number
of' times they said to him, in my presence : " Jack,
you must go to bed." At which he would shake
his little black head, as if he really did not wish to
comply. I watched this with great interest; but
it was my belief at that time that he had been
trained to do this, and that the sign did not
really signify to him anything at all. The chil-
dren, however, declared to me that he really
meant " no. " To believe that he meant this would
presuppose that he understood the combination
of words quoted, and this was beyond the limits
of my faith, although it was certain that a repe-
tition of the sentence always elicited from him
the same sign, which indicated that he recog-


nized it as the same sentence or combination of
sounds, and gave it the same reply each time.
I concluded that he had been taught to associate
this sign with some sound for instance, "bed"
or "go;" but since that time I have found the
sign to be almost universal with this species of
monkey, and they use the sign to express ne-
gation. I have seen them use the sign in re-
sponse to certain things which were wholly new
to them, but where the idea was clear to them
and they desired to express dissent. The fact
that this sign is common to both man and sim-
ian I regard as more than a mere coincidence,
and I believe that in this sign I have found the
psycho-physical basis of expression.

I have made scores of experiments on this
subject, and I find this sign a fixed factor of ex-
pression. In one case where I tried to induce a
monkey to allow me to take him into my hands
from the hand of his master, he would shake his
head each time, and make a peculiar sound some-
what like a suppressed cluck. I would try to
coax him with nuts, in response to which he
would make the same sound and sign each time,
and his actions showed beyond all controversy
his intention. I had taught a monkey to drink



milk from a bottle by sucking it through a rub-
ber nipple, and after he had satisfied his thirst,
when I would try to force the bottle to his lips
he would invariably respond by a shake of the
head in the manner described, and at the same
time utter a clucking sound. I tried many sim-
ilar experiments with three or four other mon-
keys, and secured the same result in each case.
In another instance, where a monkey was con-
fined in a small cage, so that I could easily catch
him in order to tame him by handling, when I
would put my hand into the cage to catch him
he would shake his head in this manner and ac-
company the act by a plaintive sound, which was
so touching that I could not obtain my own con-
sent to persecute the little prisoner by compelling
him to submit to my caresses. I have found that
the little rogue McGinty, in Central Park, does
the same thing at times when I go into the cage
and attempt to put ni} r hands on him, and espe-
cially when he has taken refuge in a corner to
nurse his jealousy. While I remain outside the
cage he is so devoted to me that he will scarcely
leave me to get something to eat ; but when I
enter the cage and reach out my hand toward
him. he will shake his little head and utter that


peculiar clucking sound . Many of these tests
I have repeated over and over with the same re-
sults, and noting the conditions at the time, I am
thoroughly convinced that the sign and sound
mean "no." I have observed that this sign is
always made in the same manner ; but sometimes
it is accompanied by a clucking sound, while at
other times it is a soft, whimpering sound, al-
most like a low, plaintive whistle. The sign is
frequently used without the sound at all ; and I
must impress it upon my reader that these re-
sults do not always present themselves in every
experiment, as much depends upon the mood
and surroundings of the subject. I have found
that one advantage is to have the monkey con-
fined in a very small cage, as otherwise he will
turn away and get out of your reach when you
press anything upon him that he does not want.
I have also found much better results by having
the monkey alone, and where he can neither see
nor hear other monkeys.

Having discovered the sign of negation among
the simians, I began an investigation to ascer-
tain how far it could be found among the races
of mankind. I have carried my search far be-
yond the limits of local inquiry, and up to this


time I have found only a few trifling exceptions
in the use of this sign among all the races of
men, and those few exceptions are found among
the Caucasian race, and appear to be confined to
Southern Europe. I have heard that among
certain island tribes of Polynesia these signs are
reversed ; but I have been assured by two officers
of the English navy and two of the United States
navy, who have visited the islands in question,
that such is not the case. Among the Indians,
Mongolians, and Negroes I have found no note-
worthy exceptions. I have inquired among
mothers who have raised families to ascertain
where they first observed this sign as an expres-
sion among their children; and from the con-
sensus of opinion it appears that this is about
the first sign used by infants to express nega-

I have not found the positive sign, or sign of
affirmation by a nod of the head, to be so general ;
yet it has a wide range within the human family,
and appears to be used to some extent among the
lower primates.

Seeking a source from which these signs may
have originated, I have concluded that they may
arise from two circumstances: The negative


sign, doubtless, comes from an effort to turn the
head away from something which is not desired,
and that, with such an intent, it has gradually
crystallized into an instinctive expression of nega-
tion or refusal ; while the nod of affirmation or
approval may have grown out of the intuitive
lowering of the head as an act of submission or
acquiescence, or from reaching the head forward
to receive something desired, or it may have
come from these two causes conjointly.

This is only one of a great many points in
which the speech of simians coincides with that
of man. It is true we have no letters in our
alphabet with which to represent the sounds of
their speech, nor have we the phonetic equiva-
lence of their speech in our language ; but it is
also true that our alphabet does not fully repre-
sent or correctly express the entire phonetic
range of our own speech ; but the fact that our
speech is not founded upon the same phonetic
basis, or built up into the same phonetic struct-
ures, is no reason that their speech is not as truly
speech as our own. That there are no letters
in any alphabet which represent the phonetic
elements of simian speech is doubtless due to
the fact that there has never been any demand


for such; but the same genius that invented
an alphabet for human speech, actuated by the
same motives and led by the same incentives,
could as easily invent an alphabet for simian
speech. It is not only true that the phonetic ele-
ments of our language are not represented by
the characters of our alphabet, but the same is
true to some extent of our words which do not
quite keep pace with human thought. In the
higher types of human speech there are thou-
sands of words and ideas which cannot be trans-
lated into or expressed by any savage tongue,
because no savage ever had use for them and no
savage tongue contains their equivalence. The
growth of speech is always measured by the
growth of mind. They are not always of the
same extent, but always bear a common ratio.
It is a mental product, and must be equal to the
task of coining thoughts into words. It is essen-
tial to all social order, and no community could
long survive as such without it. It is as much
the product of mind and matter as salt is the
product of chlorine and sodium.


Meeting with Nellie. Nellie was my Guest. Her Speech and
Manners The Little Blind Girl. One of Nellie's
Friends. Her Sight and Hearing. Her Toys and how she
Played with them.

ONE of the most intelligent of all the brown
Capuchins that I have ever seen was Nellie, who
belonged to a dealer in Washington. When she
arrived there I was invited to call and see her.
I introduced myself in my usual way, by giving
her the sound for food, to which she promptly
replied. She was rather informal, and we were
soon engaged in a chat on that subject the one
above all others that would interest a monkey.
On my second visit she was like an old acquaint-
ance, and we had a fine time. On my third visit
she allowed me to put my hands into her cage
and handle her with impunity. On my next
visit I took her out of the cage and we had a real
romp. This continued for some days, during
which time she would answer me on all occasions
when I used the word for food or drink. She
had grown quite fond of me, and always recog-


nized me as I entered the door. About this time
there came to Washington a little girl who was
deaf, dumb, and blind. She was accompanied
by her teacher, who acted as her interpreter.
One of the greatest desires of this little girl's life
was to see a live monkey that is, to see it with
her ringers. The dealer who owned the monkey
sent for me to come down and show it to her, as
I could handle the monkey for her. I took Nel-
lie from the cage, and when any one except my-
self would put hands upon her she would growl
and scold and show her temper, and when the
little blind girl first attempted to put her hands
on her, Nellie did not like it at all. I stroked the
child's hair and cheeks with my own hand first,
and then with Nellie's. She looked up at me in
an inquiring manner, and uttered one of those
soft, flute-like sounds a few times, and then be-
gan to pull at the cheeks and ears of the child.
Within a few moments they were like old friends
and playmates, and for nearly an hour they
afforded each other great pleasure, at the end of
which time they separated with reluctance. The
little simian acted as if she was conscious of
the sad affliction of the child, but seemed at per-
fect ease with her, although she would decline


the tenderest approach of others. She would
look at the child's eyes, which were not disfig-
ured, but lacked expression, and then at me,
as if to indicate that she was aware that the
child was blind, and the little girl appeared not
to be aware that monkeys could bite at all. It
was a beautiful and touching scene, and one in
which the lamp of instinct shed its feeble light
on all around.

On the following day, by an accident in which
I really had no part except that of being present,
Nellie escaped from her cage and climbed up on
a shelf occupied by some bird-cages. As she
attempted to climb up, of course the light wicker
cages, with their little yellow occupants, fell to
the floor by the dozen. I tried to induce her to
return or to come to me ; but the falling cages,
the cry of the birds, the talking of parrots, and
the scream of other monkeys frightened poor
Nellie almost out of her wits. Thinking that I
was the cause of her trouble, because I was pres-
ent, she would scream with fright at my ap-
proach. She was not an exception to the gen-
eral rule that governs monkeydom, which is to
suspect every one of doing wrong except itself.

I had her removed to my apartments, where I


supplied her with bells and toys and fed her on
the fat of the land; and by this means we slowly
knitted together the broken bones of our friend-
ship once more. But when once a monkey has
grown suspicious of you they never recover en-
tirely from it, it seems, for in every act there-
after, however slight, you can readily see that
they suspect you of it ; but with great care and
caution you can make them almost forget the

While I kept Nellie at my rooms I made some
good records of her speech on the phonograph,
and studied her with special care ; but as the prov-
ince of this work is the speech of that little race,
I must forego the pleasure of telling some in-
tensely funny things with which she entertained
me, except in so far as they are relevant to speech.

A frequent and welcome visitor to my study
was a bright little boy about six years old, for
whom Nellie entertained a great fondness, as she
also did for my wife. At the sight of the boy
Nellie would go into perfect raptures, and when
he would leave her she would call him so ear-
nestly and whine so pitifully that one could not
refrain from sympathy. On his return she
would laugh audibly and give every sign of ex-


treme joy. She never tired of his company, nor
gave any part of her attention to others when he
was present. Some children living next door
to me found great delight in calling to see Nel-
lie, and she always evinced great pleasure at their
visits. On these occasions Nellie made it a
point to entertain them, and showed herself to
the best advantage. When I wished to make a
good record of her sounds, and especially of her
laughter, I would always bring the little boy to
my aid. The boy would conceal himself in the
room, and after Nellie would call him a few
times he would jump out from his place of con-
cealment and surprise her, whereupon she would
laugh till she could be heard through the whole
house ; and in this manner I secured some of the
best records I have ever made of the laughter of
a monkey. Then when the boy would conceal
himself again, I secured the peculiar sound
with which she would try to attract his attention.
The sound which she used in calling him or my
wife was unlike that which she made for any
other purpose; and while it is difficult to say
whether the grammatical value of this sound is
that of a noun or of a verb, it is evident that it
was used for the special purpose of calling or


attracting attention. If its value is that of a
noun, it has not in my opinion any specific char-
acter, but a term which would be applied alike
to boys, monkeys, horses, birds, or any other
thing which she might desire to call. If in its
nature it is a verb, it is equivalent to the name
of the act and combines the force of the imper-
ative and infinitive moods.

The uniform expression of the emotions of man
and simian is such as to suggest that if thought
was developed from emotion and speech was
developed from thought, the expressions of emo-
tion were the rudiments from which speech is

A striking point of resemblance between hu-
man speech and that of the simian is found in
a word which Nellie used to warn me of approach-
ing danger. It is not that sound which I have
elsewhere described as the alarm-sound, and
which is used only in case of imminent and
awful danger, but a sound used in case of re-
mote danger or in announcing something un-
usual. As nearly as I can represent the sound
by letters it would be u e-c-g-k," and with this
word I have been warned by these little friends
many times since I first heard it from Nellie.


In the following experiment this sound was
used with great effect. Nellie's cage occupied
a place in my study near my desk. She would
stay awake at night as long as the light was kept
burning, r,nd as I have always kept late hours,
I did not violate the rule of my life in order to
give her a good night's rest. About two o'clock
one morning, when I was about to retire, I found
Nellie wide awake. I drew my chair up to her
cage, and sat watching her pranks as she .tried
to entertain me with bells and toys. I tied a .
long thread to a glove, which I placed in the
corner of the room at a distance of several feet,
from me, but without letting her see it. I held
one end of the string in my hand and drew the
glove obliquely across the floor toward the cage.
When I first tightened the string, which I had
drawn across one knee and under the other, the
glove moved very slightly, and this her quick
eye caught at the first motion. Standing almost \
on tip-toe, her mouth half-open, she would peep
cautiously at the glove, and then in a low whis-
per would say "e-c-g-k!" and every second or
so would repeat it, at the same time watching
me to see whether I was aware of the approach
of this goblin. Her actions were almost human,


while her movements were as stealthy as those
of a cat. As the glove came closer and closer
she became more and more demonstrative, and
when at last she saw the monster climbing up
the leg of my trousers she uttered the. sound
aloud and very rapidly, and tried to get to the
object, which she evidently thought was some
living thing. She detected the thread with
which I drew the glove across the floor, but
seemed in doubt as to what part it played in this
act. I saw her eyes several times follow the
thread from my knee to the glove, but I do not
think she discovered what caused the glove to
move. Having done this for a few times, how-
ever, with about the same result each time, I re-
lieved her anxiety and fright by allowing her
to examine the glove, which she did with marked
interest for a moment, and then turned away. I
tried the same thing over again, but failed to
elicit from her the slightest interest after she had
examined the glove.

It will be observed that when Nellie first
discovered the glove moving on the floor she
attempted to call my attention in a low whis-
per; that as the object approached me she be-
came more earnest, uttered the sound somewhat


louder, and when she discovered the monster, as
she regarded it, climbing up my leg she uttered
her warning in a loud voice not a scream or a
yell, but in a tone sufficiently loud for the dis-
tance over which the warning was conveyed.
The fact of her whispering indicates that her
idea of sound was well defined. Her purpose
was to warn me of the approaching danger with-
out alarming the object against which her warn-
ing was intended to prepare me, and as the dan-
ger approached me her warning became more
urgent, and when she saw the danger was at
hand, her warning was no longer concealed or

Another sound which these little creatures use
in a somewhat similar manner is a word which
may be represented by the letters "c-h-i." The
" ch" is guttural, like the final "ch" in German,
and " i" short, like the sound of i in " hit. " This
sound is used to give warning of the approach of
something which the monkey does not fear,
such as approaching footsteps or the sound of
voices, and Nellie always used this sound to
warn my wife of my approach when I was com-
ing up the stairway. The rooms which I occu-
pied while I kept Nellie were located on the sec-


ond floor, and the dining-room was on the ground-
floor, and hence there were two flights of stairs
between, both of which were carpeted. So acute
was her sense of hearing that she would detect
my footsteps on the lower stairway and warn my
wife of my approach. She manifested no inter-
est, as a rule, in the sounds made by other per-
sons passing up and down the stairway, which

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryRichard Lynch GarnerThe speech of monkeys → online text (page 4 of 11)