, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 1-14

Elements of syntax in the systems of three language-trained animals


Which properties of syntax are uniquely human, and which can be acquired by other animals? Relevant evidence is provided by work with three language-trained animals: the African gray parrot Alex, who can produce and comprehend a small fragment of English; the bottle-nosed dolphins Ake and Phoenix, who can comprehend a gestural and an acoustic language, respectively; and the bonobo Kanzi, who can produce combinations of lexigrams and comprehend a significant fragment of English. The systems of these animals are examined for evidence of four core properties of syntax: discrete combinatorics, category-based rules, argument structure, and closed-class items. Additional studies that explore further what these animals can learn about these core properties are suggested.

A portion of this paper was presented at the Second International Conference on the Evolution of Language, London, April 1998. I thank Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney for reading several drafts of this paper and for talking often and enthusiastically about these issues. Thanks also to Toby Mintz, Letty Naigles, Bill Timberlake, Laura Wagner, and three anonymous reviewers for their many helpful suggestions at different stages of writing.