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This article is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

The Biology of Literature Peter Goldsworthy


The first literature created by another species was a short poem by the chimpanzee Washoe, most advanced of the apes who were taught to communicate some decades ago using a rudimentary form of American Sign Language.

Annoyed with her teacher, Washoe signed the insult 'shit' at him, using the word, or handshape, in a way which was - at least for chimpanzees - completely new.

Washoe and her friends had previously adapted known Sign words in new, composite ways - labelling a radish a 'cry-hurt-food', citrus fruits 'smell-fruit', a duck a 'waterbird'. Such imaginative naming is extraordinary, but to call something that is not a shit a shit is something else again: a knights' move creation, a jump from one frame into another.

A poem.

Washoe's shit-metaphor came to her during a moment of high emotion, suggesting what is perhaps obvious: that metaphor carries a special emotional charge, whether in the form of crude insults - 'prick' 'cunt' 'piss off' - or in the most powerful and resonant poetry.

Debate continues over the depth of language ability of the signing apes. A concise criticism, from a Chomskyan perspective, is contained in Steven Pinker's excellent book, The Language Instinct (Penguin, 1994). But many native Signers who have watched the apes are convinced that something is being said, even if it lacks grammar.

Koko the gorilla seemed to take the metaphoric capacity a step further. The ...

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