Koko and animal “language”

Can animals have language the way humans have language? From recent news headlines about a famous ape and her passing, one might conclude: yes. Titles such as “Koko: Gorilla who mastered sign language dies in California” and “Koko, the Gorilla Who Knew Sign Language, Dies at 46” imply that non-human primates, at least, can learn and use language as humans do. So once again I’d like to call the media out on their frustrating inaccuracy.[1]

From the BBC (first article linked above):

“Koko the gorilla, who is said to have been able to communicate by using more than 1,000 hand signs, has died in California at the age of 46. Instructors taught her a version of American Sign Language and say she used it to convey thoughts and feelings. […] The gorilla […] could understand 2,000 words of spoken English.”

From NBC (older article linked to second one above):

“In 2001, Williams visited the Gorilla Foundation in Northern California, where he met Koko, a gorilla who is fluent in American sign language”

By choosing words like master and know and fluent, journalists are misinforming readers (whether this is intentional or out of ignorance, I’m not sure). There are many differences between how Koko understood and used language and how humans understand and use it. Two obvious areas jump to mind: (1) vocabulary size; and (2) ease of learning. Regarding point one – adult native English speakers know between 270% – 500% more words than Koko[2]. A 2016 study found that 20-year-olds were able to identify an average of 42,000 lemmas (dictionary headwords, e.g. run for run, runs, ran, and running). The lowest 5% of the population in the study recognized 27,100 lemmas, and the highest 5% understood 51,700.[3] While I couldn’t find numbers for American Sign Language (ASL) speakers, I assume they would not be too far from the numbers for speakers of English. (Most ASL speakers are bilingual anyway, since they have learned English to read and interact with non-signers.)

As for point two, the ease of learning – Koko had to be explicitly instructed over many years. Human children acquire a relatively complete grammar within about 5-8 years of being born, and they do this even in the absence of active teaching.

More generally, major properties of human language which distinguish it from animal communication are:

  1. Arbitrariness – the relationship between sounds/signs and their meanings is random.
    • Ex.: There’s no reason for why the sound sequence cat has to mean those furry purring domesticated felines.
  2. Productivity/Creativity – people can understand and create an unlimited number of new utterances.
    • Ex. 1: Novel sentences. I bet you’ve never heard the following, although you can easily understand its meaning.
      • Her pet squid squirted aquamarine ink all over the plaid sofa.
    • Ex. 2: Endless modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, etc.).
      • I thought he was really, really, really, really, really, very, super, exceedingly funny.
    • Ex. 3: Subordinate clauses (the below is one type, called a relative clause).
      • This is the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
  3. Discreteness – human languages are composed of distinct units that combine according to grammatical rules to create meaning.
    • Ex.: Cat is made up of the phonemes /k/ + /æ/ + /t/; cats is made up of the morphemes cat + -s (pluralizes nouns); and on and on into larger and larger units.
  4. Displacement – we have the capacity to talk or sign about things unrelated to “the here and now” (the present space and time).
    • Ex. 1: When he was little he loved turtles.
    • Ex. 2: If I could do anything, I’d become an astronaut and travel to Mars.

Of course, animal communication has been shown to exhibit one or two of the above properties in specific contexts; you may have heard about such research on bird song, bee dances, and the communicative systems of elephants, bats, dolphins, squids, and apes. But at this point we don’t have evidence to suggest that any non-human form of communication displays all of these aspects simultaneously, or to the extent that human language does. That’s not to say that informational exchanges between other species aren’t complex. And this post is not meant to detract from Koko’s life or death. She and her trainers taught us invaluable things about the depth of gorilla intelligence and emotionality. Certainly, as we learn more about how various species communicate, we may need to update our definition of “language”. We’re just not there yet.


[1] The widely-read Language Log also posted on this topic, taking a similar stance: The (Non-) Evolution of language
[2] I won’t get into how “word” is defined, since that by itself would be a very long post.
[3] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01116/full

Foreign accent syndrome and speech understanding

Maybe you’ve heard about people who, due to a stroke or accident, can no longer speak or understand speech normally. Aphasia is a condition where damage (usually from stroke or head trauma) to particular regions of the brain causes a person to lose specific language production and comprehension abilities. Aphasia studies are remarkable, and have taught us much about how language works inside the brain. Recently, however, I learned of a strange condition kind of similar to, but not as debilitating as aphasia: Foreign accent syndrome.

Here’s the article: The curious case of people who can’t stop speaking in foreign accents.

You should read the full piece, but a few highlights follow.

“Foreign accent syndrome (FAS for short) is a real thing, though it’s very rare — fewer than 200 cases diagnosed since it was first described in 1907. It may sound like it’s just a delusion or fantasy, but fewer than 10 percent of cases have a psychological basis (for example, related to schizophrenia). Nearly all of the rest are of neurological origin: They are caused by damage or impairment to a specific area of the brain.”

“The short explanation is that FAS (possibly excepting the few psychological cases) is a disorder of speech planning and execution.”

“Naturally, when we hear speech tweaked on one or several of those parameters, we associate it with an accent that has a similar feature set. And if we hear an accent that sounds somehow different but we’re not sure, we make our best guess at what it is. The less familiar we are with an accent, the less we’re likely to notice things that aren’t quite right about it: Many Americans can’t tell Australian accents from English ones even though people from England and Australia have no trouble telling the two apart. Researchers studying cases of FAS have sometimes tested samples of the speech with listeners who didn’t know its origin to see if they could identify where it was from, and, unsurprisingly, opinions varied considerably. But when they tested “controls” — samples of native speakers with unimpaired speech from several countries — listeners couldn’t always identify their accents accurately either.”

Videos of people with FAS:

Texan woman with “British English” accent
English woman with “Chinese” accent

What does the author mean by feature set in the quote above? Each language has its own unique set of phonemes or word-distinguishing units of sound (called its phonemic inventory). This set is pulled from a larger set of all possible speech sounds. We recognize different languages and accents by these feature sets. And yet, the FAS article had me thinking about our general ineptitude when it comes to identifying accents. Because the speech of the person with FAS in the first video is close enough to a British English accent from an American English point of view, we lump it in that category…while to a native British English speaker, they’re noticeably dissimilar. Even in our native accent, speech can be hard to disambiguate. The recent viral “Laurel/Yanny” debate is a good example.

“Laurel”/“Yanny” makes you wonder how we understand each other at all. I’d say that pragmatics, i.e. context, plays a vital role. When communication is stripped of context, it’s significantly more difficult to interpret. My current work has made this very clear to me. We’re listening to and transcribing 2-to-4-second audio clips of users’ commands (and other speech) to their smartphone voice assistants. Knowing the contexts of “voice assistant-directed speech” and “things one might want to do on their phone” helps some. But outside of that, because the sound clips are so short and we’re not actually there, interacting with the speaker, a part of the conversation – it’s often a challenge to resolve (i.e. accurately transcribe) certain categories of words. Proper nouns are especially tricky. Contacts’ names, product or app names, names of unfamiliar towns and musicians, et cetera.  If we were face-to-face with the speaker, we’d have the entire conversational, situational, and interpersonal background at our disposal, which helps resolve such unknowns. Successful communication must rely on many factors. And language doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Of Kanji and Kana


The Japanese writing system, like other aspects of Japanese culture, is complicated and fascinating. Its three main character sets are a notorious struggle for second-language learners and young native speakers alike. While many tongues have what is called synchronic digraphia (where two or more writing systems for the same language coexist), Japanese is famous for having three main character sets within one single writing system.[1] Of interest to linguistics-minded folks, these three character sets systematically express different areas of the language’s grammar (word classes, for instance). Below is my attempt at a fun, informative introduction to the system.

The three main character sets of Japanese are kanji, hiragana, and katakana.

漢字 | KANJI

Kanji characters are logographic, meaning they cannot be spelled (sounded) out, but instead must be memorized whole. As many know, they were taken from the Chinese writing system. The term kanji literally means “Chinese characters”. If you’ve ever complained about the obtuse nature of English orthography, or remember the pain of memorizing weird word spellings as a child, consider this: a Japanese person of average education knows (i.e. has memorized) about three thousand kanji. Dictionaries contain about ten thousand kanji.[2]

Kanji are used for content words – nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, adverbs, personal names and place names. They’re composed of radicals, graphical pieces that often have either a semantic or phonetic quality (they indicate part of the meaning or the sound of the character, respectively). There is a particular stroke order for each character, which everyone is expected to follow when writing. And as if all that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there are also two separate pronunciations – on’yomi and kun’yomi – that depend on context or conjugation.

Here are some examples of kanji:

東京 – Tokyo (place name)                                   長谷川 – Hasegawa (surname)

薔薇 – bara (a noun, means “rose”)

違う – chigau (a verb or adjective, means “to be wrong” or “wrong”. Only the first character, the verb stem, is kanji; the second character, or conjugation, is hiragana)

Kana characters include the two sets hiragana and katakana. They’re both phonetic, meaning they can be sounded out. Kana also originally came from Chinese, but the characters are so altered and simplified that their sources are not apparent today. Japan adopted Chinese writing in the third century, and ran into trouble since the two spoken languages were completely unrelated. They began using characters not for their meanings, but for their sound values only. Both modern-day kana sets have an inventory of 46 characters (along with two types of diacritics), and these constitute a syllabary[3] of consonant-vowel pairings.


Hiragana has rounded symbols, smooth curves. The hiragana syllabary is used for native words, and grammatical elements like particles, auxiliary verbs, and inflections (e.g. verb conjugations, noun suffixes). Japanese children’s books are mostly in hiragana since younger kids haven’t yet learned many kanji. When books do include kanji, they have small furigana by the side – hiragana or katakana to help with pronunciation.

Here are some examples of hiragana:

               ありがとう – arigatou (“thank you”)                ください – kudasai (“please”)

               です – desu (auxiliary verb, “is”)                           の, は, を – no, wa, o (particles)


With katakana, you’ll notice similarities to hiragana, but the symbol shapes are clearly more angular. Katakana is used for foreign names and words, loanwords, onomatopoeia, and emphasis.

Here are some examples of katakana:

アメリカ – amerika (foreign name, “America”)

サラリーマン – sararii man (“salary man”, i.e. office worker)

テレビ – terebi (loanword, “television”)

ニャンニャン – nyan nyan (onomatopoeia, sound of cat meowing)

* * * * *

The Japanese system has TWO directions for writing: vertical (tategaki), and horizontal (yokogaki). Vertical is the traditional form, running from top to bottom, right to left on the page. Books written with vertical text open the opposite way from Western language books. Horizontal is the direction Western language readers are used to – left to right on the page. This Western style is used in more modern applications, like websites. To maximize space, newspapers, magazines, and signs frequently use both directions![4] Then, because we still haven’t juggled enough variables, Japanese text doesn’t include spaces between words, so readers must infer based on context where divisions are to be made.

Cool Japanese literature tangent: The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 – Genji Monogatari), written by noblewoman Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, is frequently considered the world’s first novel or first modern novel.

I’ll leave you with some marvelously idiosyncratic Japanese words and concepts, for which there are definitely no concise words/phrases in English. You can observe how the three character sets interact in various ways. (Most of the words come from this site).


Japanese Pronunciation     (in rōmaji) Character set(s) Definition Literal meaning
教育ママ kyouiku mama kanji + katakana A mother who is obsessed with her children’s education
バーコード人 baakoudo jin katakana + kanji Men with ridiculous comb-overs “barcode people”
横飯 yoko meshi kanji Western food “horizontal rice”
侘寂 wabi-sabi kanji An aesthetic that sees beauty in the ephemerality and imperfection of things both natural and manmade
ぽかぽか poka poka hiragana Feeling warm throughout one’s body
口寂しい kuchi sabishii kanji + hiragana When you’re not hungry but you eat anyway “mouth lonely”
猫糞 neko baba kanji To steal/pocket and pretend innocence “cat feces”
ありがた迷惑 arigata meiwaku hiragana + kanji “An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude”[5]


[1] I say three “main” character sets because there are actually more, if you count Arabic numerals, rōmaji (i.e. the Roman alphabet), punctuation, etc. Also, this person argues that the focus on three+ character sets in Japanese is silly and that English and other writing systems have multiple sets as well (capital and lowercase letters in English, for example), but in order to keep things succinct here, I didn’t go into that level of detail. Additionally, I disagree with them that capital vs. lowercase Roman letters possess the same grammatical significance as kanji/hiragana/katakana and so it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

[2] https://nihongoichiban.com/2011/05/24/the-japanese-writing-system/

[3] Where each symbol represents a syllable.

[4] See this nice article with lots of illustrative pictures.

[5] https://sobadsogood.com/2012/04/28/25-words-that-simply-dont-exist-in-english/

Voynich: The manuscript that keeps on giving


The Voynich manuscript is one of those marvels that, even in these times of boundless knowledge and incredible technology, eludes continual efforts to understand it.

Not heard of the thing? Welcome to the show. There has been a vigorous little dance of press coverage over the past couple years. It goes something like this:

Step to your left.  “An eternal mystery.”
Step to your right.  “I’ve cracked the code!” – some dude
Step back.  “Nope, you’re full of shit.”
Step forward.  “We’ve solved it this time for sure.” – some other dudes

The manuscript is a hand-written, illustrated codex that’s been shown through carbon dating to have originated in the early fifteenth century (1404–1438). The writing system used throughout its approximately 240 pages has yet to be identified.[1] Cryptographers, historians, computer scientists and others have proposed numerous hypotheses over the decades, including that it’s a hoax. Based on the illustrations, scholars divide the manuscript into five thematic sections: Herbal, Astrological, Biological, Pharmacological, and Recipes.

Below I list links to the (more recent) rhythmic pulse of “discoveries” and rejections, in chronological order. Under each link I’ve pulled out quotes of the more intriguing tidbits.

* * * * *

November 30, 2016: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-unsolvable-mysteries-of-the-voynich-manuscript

“The first half of the book is filled with drawings of plants; scholars call this the “herbal” section. None of the plants appear to be real, although they are made from the usual stuff (green leaves, roots, and so on […]). The next section contains circular diagrams of the kind often found in medieval zodiacal texts; scholars call this part “astrological,” which is generous. Next, the so-called “balneological” section shows “nude ladies,” in Clemens’s words, in pools of liquid, which are connected to one another via a strange system of tubular plumbing that often snakes around whole pages of text. […] Then we get what appear to be instructions in the practical use of those plants from the beginning of the book, followed by pages that look roughly like recipes.”

“The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type.   –Friedman.”

* * * * *

September 8, 2017: https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/09/the-mysterious-voynich-manuscript-has-finally-been-decoded/

“Now, history researcher and television writer Nicholas Gibbs appears to have cracked the code, discovering that the book is actually a guide to women’s health that’s mostly plagiarized from other guides of the era.”

“Gibbs realized he was seeing a common form of medieval Latin abbreviations, often used in medical treatises about herbs. ‘From the herbarium incorporated into the Voynich manuscript, a standard pattern of abbreviations and ligatures emerged from each plant entry,’ he wrote. ‘The abbreviations correspond to the standard pattern of words used in the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus – aq = aqua (water), dq = decoque / decoctio (decoction), con = confundo (mix), ris = radacis / radix (root), s aiij = seminis ana iij (3 grains each), etc.’ So this wasn’t a code at all; it was just shorthand. The text would have been very familiar to anyone at the time who was interested in medicine.”

“Gibbs concluded that it’s likely the Voynich Manuscript was a customized book, possibly created for one person, devoted mostly to women’s medicine.”

* * * * *

September 10, 2017: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/09/has-the-voynich-manuscript-really-been-solved/539310/

“This week, the venerable Times Literary Supplement published as its cover story a ‘solution’ for the Voynich manuscript. The article by Nicholas Gibbs suggests the manuscript is a medieval women’s-health manual copied from several older sources. And the cipher is no cipher at all, but simply abbreviations that, once decoded, turn out to be medicinal recipes.”

“’Frankly I’m a little surprised the TLS published it,’ says Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America. When she was a doctoral student at Yale—whose Beinecke Library holds the Voynich manuscript—Davis read dozens of theories as part of her job. ‘If they had simply sent to it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat,’ she says.”

“In the second part—only two paragraphs long—Gibbs gets into the meat of his solution: Each character in the manuscript is an abbreviated word, not a letter. This could be a breakthrough, but the TLS presents only two lines decoded using Gibbs’s method. Davis did not find those two lines convincing either. ‘They’re not grammatically correct. It doesn’t result in Latin that makes sense,’ she says.”

* * * * *

February 1, 2018: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/voynich-manuscript-artificial-intelligence-solved

“There are two problems with this notoriously difficult puzzle—it’s written in code, and no one knows what language that code enciphers.”

“’That was surprising,’ Kondrak said, in a statement. ‘And just saying “this is Hebrew” is the first step. The next step is how do we decipher it.’ The scientists think the code used in the manuscript might have been created using alphagrams. (In standard alphagrams, the letters in a word are placed in alphabetical order—the alphagram of ‘alphagram,’ for example, is ‘aaaghlpmr.’) Vowels also seemed to have been dropped. These assumptions made, they tried to come up with an algorithm to decipher this scrambled Hebrew text, to striking effect. ‘It turned out that over 80 percent of the words were in a Hebrew dictionary,’ said Kondrak.”

“Hebrew-speaking data scientist Shlomo Argamon offered some excoriating feedback. ‘They are saying it looks more like Hebrew than other languages,’ he said. ‘In my opinion, that’s not necessarily saying all that much.’ The use of Google Translate, too, struck him as somewhat unscientific. […] Other scholars have raised doubts about the scientists’ use of modern, rather than medieval, Hebrew.”

* * * * *

Certain researchers have made a compelling case against the “hoax” hypothesis, in any event. In 2013, an interesting paper analyzed the Voynich manuscript from an information theory perspective. They looked at organizational structure resulting from word distribution over the entire text, and concluded that there was “presence of a genuine linguistic structure”.[2] You can read the full paper here.

A couple information theory takeaways:

  1. Highly informative content words occur much more irregularly (and in clusters) throughout a text, while more uninformative function words tend to have a more homogenous or uniform distribution. So it’s the content words that indicate specific text sections.
  2. Words that are semantically related tend to co-occur in the same sections of a text.


Who will claim to have cracked the code next? My personal opinion, of course, is that they should throw some linguists on it.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voynich_manuscript

[2] Montemurro MA, Zanette DH. (2013). Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66344, 5. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0066344