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Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Bow is not always that cooperative, so the word "yes" is not often on his lips. Or on his keyboard. Or one that he spells on the glass. He is usually not a "yes-man". But yesterday the word for the day was "yes".

After lunch, Tracey, our computer consultant, came by with my old Gateway laptop that recently lost its hard drive. He had saved as many of my data files as he could, and had backed them up on the new hard drive. The old operating system with all my installed programs could not be saved, and so we were in the process of trying to replicate it, when Lawrence came back from lunch.

Bow greeted Lawrence very  noisily, with lots of chimp vocalizations, and rattled the door, and tried to display how very big and strong he was. It was quite a bit more of a display than Lawrence would have gotten, if Tracey were not there.

Tracey and I kept working on the computer, while Bow and Lawrence played in the adjoining pen. Then Bow took Lawrence to the glass and spelled out that  he wanted to go outside. Lawrence escorted him  out, but Bow made a big point of rattling the door right behind where Tracey was sitting, working on my  Gateway.

Tracey turned around and asked: "Bow, are you going outside now?" And Bow said "Yes." After which, Lawrence opened the next door, and the two of them went outside to  play.

What do I mean, he said "Yes"? Well, it really was more like "eh", but I just know he meant to say "yes". The consonants weren't there, because he can't make them. All he can make is the vowel, and the intonational contour, and let me tell you, those were perfect! Lawrence and I both thought he was saying yes.

Am I completely deluded? Well, no, I'm not making a scientific claim here. I realize that this would carry no weight with the scientific community. But here are some of the reasons that it makes sense to us:

  • It wasn't a chimpanzee vocalization. Bow's chimp cries express emotions more than specific thoughts, and as such they tend to be repetitions of the same vocal patterns over and over again.
  • This was a single syllable he uttered, very crisp, with the correct vowel, and with no repetition.
  • In the context of the short exchange with Tracey, it sounded as if he said yes.
After that, Tracey and I started talking about how hard it is for humans to express themselves in writing in real time, when their larynx is injured, and how hard it is for Bow to use his touch screen computer to spell out words.

Meanwhile, Bow and Lawrence wrestled outside, and Lawrence told me afterwards that Bow had been working really hard to beat him, probably because he wanted to impress Tracey. Finally, Lawrence gave in. "You win," he told Bow, and Bow, feeling satisfied, decided to go  in  to use the potty.

Afterwards, when Lawrence was emptying out the potty, Bow picked up the chopstick he uses for his touchscreen. Lawrence, who was already in the corridor, said to Bow: "Now don't you  be playing with that. You either put it down or use it to say something." (I can't tell you how many chopsticks we've lost as a result of other uses that Bow has put them to.)

In response to  Lawrence's admonition, Bow picked up the chopstick, poked at the computer about three times, and the computer said: "Yes."

I was stunned. "It sounded like yes! Did it sound like yes to you?"

Lawrence and Tracey both agreed. "It didn't sound like anything else besides yes," Lawrence said.

"That was good, Bow!" I said.

Bow clapped.

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