Nim Chimpsky

Nim Chimpsky
Nim Chimpsky

Nim Chimpsky (November 19, 1973 – March 10, 2000) was a chimpanzee who was the subject of an extended study of animal language acquisition (codenamed 6.001) at Columbia University, led by Herbert S. Terrace.

The validity of the study is disputed, as Terrace argued that all ape-language studies, including Project Nim, were based on misinformation from the chimps. R. Allen[1] and Beatrix Gardner made a similar earlier study, called Project Washoe, in which another chimpanzee was raised like a human child. Washoe was given affection and participated in everyday social activity with her adoptive family. Her ability to communicate was far more developed than Nim's. Washoe lived 24 hours a day with her human family from birth; Nim at 2 weeks old was raised by a family in a home environment by human surrogate parents to see if he could refute Noam Chomsky's thesis that language is inherent only in humans.[2] Both chimps could use fragments of American Sign Language to make themselves understood.

Chimpsky was given his name as a pun on Noam Chomsky, the foremost theorist of human language structure and generative grammar at the time, who held that humans were "wired" to develop language.[3]


Project Nim

Project Nim was an attempt to go further than Project Washoe. Terrace and his colleagues aimed to use more rigorous experimental techniques, and the intellectual discipline of the experimental analysis of behavior, so that the linguistic abilities of the apes could be put on a more secure footing.

Roger Fouts wrote: "Since 98.7% of the DNA in humans and chimps is identical, some scientists (but not Noam Chomsky) believed that a chimp raised in a human family, and using ASL (American Sign Language), would shed light on the way language is acquired and used by humans. Project Nim, headed by behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace at Columbia University, was conceived in the early 1970s as a challenge to Chomsky's thesis that only humans have language."[4]

Attention was particularly focused on Nim's ability to make different responses to different sequences of signs and to emit different sequences in order to communicate different meanings. However, the results, according to Fouts, were not as impressive as had been reported from the Washoe project. Terrace, however, was skeptical of Project Washoe and, according to the critics, went to great lengths to discredit it.

While Nim did learn 125 signs, Terrace concluded that he hadn't acquired anything the researchers were prepared to designate worthy of the name "language" (as defined by Noam Chomsky) although he had learned to repeat his trainers' signs in appropriate contexts. Language is defined as a "doubly articulated" system, in which signs are formed for objects and states and then combined syntactically, in ways that determine how their meanings will be understood. For example, "man bites dog" and "dog bites man" use the same set of words but because of their ordering will be understood by speakers of English as denoting very different meanings. "For one thing, they say, there's no syntax — a basic requirement of language. Without combining words and then being able to switch combinations to change meaning, goes the argument, what animals use is more like a code than a language."[5] One of Terrace's colleagues, Laura-Ann Petitto, estimated that with more standard criteria Nim's true vocabulary count was closer to 25 than 125. However, other students who cared for Nim longer than Petitto disagreed with her and with the way that Terrace conducted his experiment. Critics assert that Terrace used his analysis to destroy the movement of ape-language research. Terrace argued that none of the chimps were using language, because they could learn signs but could not form them syntactically as language, as described above.

Elizabeth Hess's book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human (Bantam, 2008) seems to argue against Terrace's project. One critic wrote that "Hess has written about animals and their advocates before (Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats, and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter.) She is clearly an animal lover, yet (with a few exceptions) she resists the temptation to demonize the humans in Nim's life."[6]

Terrace and his colleagues concluded that the chimpanzee did not show any meaningful sequential behavior that rivaled human grammar. Nim's use of language was strictly pragmatic, as a means of obtaining an outcome, unlike a human child's, which can serve to generate or express meanings, thoughts, or ideas. There was nothing Nim could be taught that could not equally well be taught to a pigeon using the principles of operant conditioning. The researchers therefore questioned claims made on behalf of Washoe, and argued that the apparently impressive results may have amounted to nothing more than a "Clever Hans" effect, not to mention a relatively informal experimental approach.

Critics of primate linguistic studies include Thomas Sebeok, American semiotician and investigator of nonhuman communication systems, who wrote:

In my opinion, the alleged language experiments with apes divide into three groups: one, outright fraud; two, self-deception; three, those conducted by Terrace. The largest class by far is the middle one.[7]

Sebeok also made pointed comparisons of Washoe with Clever Hans. Some evolutionary psychologists, in effect agreeing with Chomsky, argue that the apparent impossibility of teaching language to animals is indicative that the ability to use language is an innately human development.[8]

Project Nim, a documentary by James Marsh about the Nim study, explores the story (and the wealth of archival footage) to consider ethical issues, the emotional experiences of the trainers and the chimpanzee, and the deeper issues the experiment raised. This documentary, (produced by BBC Films, Red Box Films, and Passion Films) opened the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.[9] The film was released in theaters on July 8, 2011 by Roadside Attractions.[10]


Terrace's skeptical approach to the claims that chimpanzees could learn and understand sign language led to heated disputes with Allen and Beatrix Gardner, who initiated the Washoe Project. The Gardners argued that Terrace's approach to training, and the use of many different assistants, did not harness the chimpanzee's full cognitive and linguistic resources. This makes some sense, as it is a common opinion among professional educators that intellectual development does not blossom in an environment bereft of intimate emotional bonds and stability.[citation needed] The hypothetical often cited[citation needed] is to imagine a human child raised in a laboratory with no strong parental bonds being offered snacks as rewards for speaking. It is unlikely, in such an environment, that a child would possess strong communication skills. This is the type of environment Nim was in when the test was conducted.

Roger Fouts, of the Washoe Project, also claims that Project Nim was poorly conducted because it didn't use strong enough methodology to avoid such comparisons and efficiently defend against them[clarification needed]. He also shares the Gardners' view that the process of acquiring language skills through natural social interactions gives substantially better results than behavioral conditioning. Fouts argues, based on his own experiments, that pure conditioning can lead to the use of language as a method mainly of getting rewards rather than of raising communication abilities. Fouts later reported, however, that a community of ASL-speaking chimpanzees (including Washoe herself) was spontaneously using this language as a part of their internal communication system. They have even directly taught ASL signs to their children (Loulis) without human help or intervention. This means that not only can they use the language but that it has become a significant part of their lives.[11]

The controversy is still not fully resolved, in part because the financial and other costs of carrying out language-training experiments with apes make replication studies difficult to mount. The definitions of both "language" and "imitation", and the question of how language-like Nim's performance was, will remain controversial.

Retirement and death

When Terrace ended the experiment, Nim was transferred to a research lab in Oklahoma and then to a pharmaceutical animal testing laboratory managed by NYU. After efforts to free him, Nim was purchased by the Black Beauty Ranch, operated by The Fund for Animals, the group led by Cleveland Amory, in Texas. Nim died at the age of 26 from a heart attack.


All quotations appear in the original article by Terrace and colleagues.[2]

Three-sign quotations

  • Apple me eat
  • Banana Nim eat
  • Banana me eat
  • Drink me Nim
  • Eat Nim eat
  • Eat Nim me
  • Eat me Nim
  • Eat me eat
  • Finish hug Nim
  • Give me eat
  • Grape eat Nim
  • Hug me Nim
  • Me Nim eat
  • Me more eat
  • More eat Nim
  • Nut Nim nut
  • Play me Nim
  • Tickle me Nim
  • Tickle me eat
  • Yogurt Nim eat

Four-sign quotations

  • Banana Nim banana Nim
  • Banana eat me Nim
  • Banana me Nim me
  • Banana me eat banana
  • Drink Nim drink Nim
  • Drink eat drink eat
  • Drink eat me Nim
  • Eat Nim eat Nim
  • Eat drink eat drink
  • Eat grape eat Nim
  • Eat me Nim drink
  • Grape eat Nim eat
  • Grape eat me Nim
  • Me Nim eat me
  • Me eat drink more
  • Me eat me eat
  • Me gum me gum
  • Nim eat Nim eat
  • Play me Nim play
  • Tickle me Nim play

Longest recorded quotation

  • H.S. Terrace, in his article "How Nim Chimpsky Changed My Mind", quotes Nim's longest sentence as the 16-word-long "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you."

See also


  1. ^ Chasing a Namer lost to Time, by Joseph Berger, New York Times, 3 July 211
  2. ^ a b Terrace, Herbet; L.A. Petitto, R.J. Sanders, T.G. Bever (November 23, 1979). "Can an ape create a sentence". Science 206 (4421): 891–902. doi:10.1126/science.504995. PMID 504995. 
  3. ^ Gregory Radick, The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language, University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 320.
  4. ^ Independent Reader: A chimp named Nim
  5. ^ Beasts of banter, The Columbus Dispatch, March 16, 2008
  6. ^ What 'Nim Chimpsky' taught them all, The Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 2008
  7. ^ Wade, 1980
  8. ^ Pinker & Bloom, 1990
  9. ^ Project Nim, Sundance Film Festival page
  10. ^ Roadside Attractions To Release 'Project Nim'
  11. ^ Fouts, Roger. 1991. Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees

Further reading

  • Seidenberg, M.S. and Pettito, L.A. (1979). Signing behavior in apes: A critical review. Cognition 7: 177-215.
  • Terrace, H. S. (1979). Nim. New York: Knopf.
  • Pinker, S., & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13, 707-784.
  • Wade, N. (1980). Does man alone have language? Apes reply in riddles, and a horse says neigh. Science, 208, 1349-1351.
  • Hess, E. (2008). Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. New York: Bantam.

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Игры ⚽ Нужно сделать НИР?

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Nim Chimpsky — est un chimpanzé né le 10 novembre 1973 à qui une équipe de chercheurs de l Institut d Étude des Primates (IPS) de Norman de l Oklahoma a essayé d apprendre la langue des signes américaine. Il est mort le 10 mars 2000. Son nom est un jeu de mots… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Nim (disambiguation) — Nim is a mathematical two player game. Nim or NIM may also refer to: Nim Diori Hamani International Airport (IATA code: NIM), Niamey, Niger Nim Chimpsky, signing chimpanzee NIM Negative index metamaterials, metamaterials which have the capability …   Wikipedia

  • Great ape language — Research into non human great ape language has involved teaching chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans to communicate with human beings and with each other using sign language, physical tokens, and lexigrams; see Yerkish. Some… …   Wikipedia

  • Laura-Ann Petitto — Dr. Laura Ann Petitto is a Cognitive Neuroscientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough [ (UTSC)] , in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Having arrived in July 2007, via Dartmouth College,… …   Wikipedia

  • Washoe (chimpanze) — Washoe (chimpanzé) Washoe, née en septembre 1965 en Afrique de l Ouest et morte le 30 octobre 2007 aux États Unis, était une femelle chimpanzée qui vécut à l’Institut de la communication du chimpanzé et de l’humain (Chimpanzee and Human… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Washoe (chimpanzé) — Washoe, née en septembre 1965 en Afrique de l Ouest et morte le 30 octobre 2007 aux États Unis, était une femelle chimpanzée qui vécut à l’Institut de la communication du chimpanzé et de l’humain (Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute –… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Washoe (la chimpanzé) — Washoe (chimpanzé) Washoe, née en septembre 1965 en Afrique de l Ouest et morte le 30 octobre 2007 aux États Unis, était une femelle chimpanzée qui vécut à l’Institut de la communication du chimpanzé et de l’humain (Chimpanzee and Human… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Animal language — is the modeling of human language in non human animal systems. While the term is widely used, most researchers agree that animal languages are not as complex or expressive as human language.Some researchers argue that there are significant… …   Wikipedia

  • Alex (parrot) — Infobox Person name = Alex image size = 200px caption = birth date = 1976 birth place = death date = death date|2007|9|6|mf=y death place = Brandeis University Waltham, Massachusetts, U.S. death cause = Sudden death secondary to atherosclerosis… …   Wikipedia

  • Alex (loro) — Alex Nacimiento Mayo de 1976; África Fallecimiento …   Wikipedia Español

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”