Herbert S. Terrace


On his book Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can

Cover Interview of October 02, 2019

The wide angle

As a graduate student at Harvard University, I worked with B. F. Skinner, the preeminent behaviorist of the 20th century. Although my dissertation was about discrimination learning by pigeons, Skinner’s book, Verbal Behavior, inspired my interest in language. I was also aware of Chomsky’s criticism of that book and of other behaviorists who challenged Chomsky by starting ape language projects. As mentioned earlier, I eventually began my own project, only to discover that a chimpanzee’s signing was an artifact of its teachers’ prompts.

It took me many years to discover some positive implications of Project Nim. Knowing that chimpanzees couldn’t name things didn’t help me to understand how language evolved. Eventually, I realized that the root of the problem was Chomsky’s insistence that understanding the evolution of language required us to understand the evolution of grammar.

Although Chomsky devoted most of his career to discovering the nature of “universal grammar,” a grammar that could generate sentences in the more than 6000 languages that people speak, he had nothing to say about the origin of words. Without words, people can’t create “an infinite number of meanings from a finite set of words”, a feature that Chomsky emphasized was the essence of language. By focusing on naming, I believe that for the first time we are on fertile ground for finally unraveling the mystery of how language began, both in our ancestors and in human development.